How One Professor was Worth the Price of College
“Last night I went to bed with a good book. Me!”
When you think of people who have made a significant impact on your life, who comes to mind? I’m not speaking of friends and family — I mean, it goes without saying that Mom has always been my biggest advocate, but don’t we come to expect that from such close ones?
What comes to my mind are people who helped me in some way. It may not be in-your-face helping me today (that would be called a live-in therapist), but someone from whom you learned a lesson that helped you later in life.
January 9, 1978. The winter cold sets upon a new semester at the University of Nebraska. As a junior, the focus of my classes now become journalism and advertising, having already finished up with the prerequisites. Math was my nemesis. That alone would never let me have a 4.0 — ever! Taking Algebra 1 in grade school twice was painful enough.
Introducing Professor Albert C. Book. At the time he was “just” a professor, but soon became chair of the advertising department in the school of journalism.
Coming to the corn fields of Nebraska, Book was a “Mad Man” from one of New York’s premier advertising agencies, BBDO. They were the people who brought you “Us Tareyton Smokers Would Rather Fight than Switch” (Tareyton Cigarettes), “Have it your Way” (Burger King), and “Ring Around the Collar” (WISK). Personally, he worked on and won CLIO awards for his work on the General Electric and DuPont accounts.
“Come Alive! You’re in the Pepsi Generation.” (Pepsi Cola)
Our advertising copywriting class met Mondays from 1–5 pm. These were excruciating hours, and “Book” (we were okayed to call him that), spoke unabated about the English language, and how we didn’t know anything. If he said a word during his discourse that he figured no one would know, he would call on someone, anyone, and ask them to define the word. If that person did not know, it was to be reported back to the class the next week.
My vocabulary still needs work, but I do remember he was really into “P” words, Particularly Pedantic, Pedestrian, and Plebian, which all equaled mediocrity to him.
Before death by PowerPoint, we had intriguing professors. What I liked about Book was, advertising and copywriting and life were all rolled up into one big bundle of experiences. We longed to be in the lives of the best home situations. Slice-of-Life commercials showed us how much better our lives might be by using certain products. (Got “Houseatosis? Get Glade!)
Book would, in all honesty, tell us why most of our work was shit, how it wasn’t memorable, or showed no benefit for using the product we would be working on. One week the product to sell was Dannon Yogurt. Book’s prized student came up with the masterful, “This cup of Dannon Yogurt has 126 calories — only 2 of them are from fat”, by just reading the nutrition label. Brilliant.
Ninety-five percent of the student body at that time was from Nebraska. I was exotic in being from California. One day when, for some reason, the conversation turned to “people are friendlier in Nebraska and the Midwest than other places”, I was tapped into because I was so “cosmopolitan”. Book was from New York, so he wanted to know what I thought about that statement, having some perspective beyond the Platte River. I said that I thought that people were pretty much the same everywhere, it just depended on how you treated them. He agreed, and then…
I wasn’t Book’s favorite student, and I was only just left of mediocre in my assignments. But as time went on, I could feel the mutual respect grow. Book sponsored an annual “International Advertising Seminar” in London every winter break, and I went on the 1979–1980 trip. While this further cemented our relationship, Book would obviously appear at any event or dinner that was scheduled, but he wouldn’t associate with us students otherwise.
Years later, in a rare moment of gratitude in my late 20s, I decided to write Book a letter. In retrospect, he is the ONE who taught me to appreciate words, and how to choose them wisely. I simply told him that he was the most important professor that I‘d had in my years at Nebraska. Even though I was still far from even “good”, I learned the process of putting words together to form a coherent message or idea, and to mine the thousands of words I did not know.
Book made an appearance at a UNL School of Journalism alumni weekend around 1985. At a reception, he came up to me and began a conversation that wasn’t a lecture. Notably, he mentioned the letter that I had sent him, and said that he read it aloud to his new students every semester on day one.
I love writing. I’m terrified of writing. I’m horrified at the some of the things I say, but I have to say them because they’re part of the story. What’s important are the words you choose with which to express them, and I can thank Book for making me use the thesaurus to find an alternative word to “pedestrian”.