My Continuing Education

Continuing education is, or at least should be, an essential element in every journalist’s tool box.

I don’t mean the continuing “education” of credentialism, of merely following bureaucratic procedures to satisfy the demands of a trade or profession.

I mean learning about new topics and ideas and people and history.

This blog topic sprang to mind after a recent chat with a Florida Gulf Coast University journalism student. I told her being a journalist provides lifelong education. Or maybe I should say the opportunity for lifelong education.

Relentless inquisitiveness is a requirement for the job. Without curiosity one is doomed in the business. 

I like to think I’m curious. That’s why I read a great deal and continue learning about new topics ranging from from cigars to automatic weapons to bourbon.

Cigars?

Automatic weapons?

Bourbon?

I don’t smoke, drink bourbon or own a gun, let alone an AR-15.

But in the past year I’ve interviewed a cigar company executive who regaled me with details of how cigars are made and the camaraderie of cigar lovers. I found the chat fascinating.

I recently interviewed a Hurricane Ian survivor in his Sanibel Island home. When we chatted in his second flood living room he had a 9 mm Kimber semi-automatic tucked into the waistband of his shorts and an AR-15 in a nearby bookcase. A few steps away on a kitchen counter were bottles of pricy bourbon brands such as WhistlePig and Blanton’s.

My “education” now includes cigars, automatic weapons and bourbon. And much more acquired over nearly half a century as a professional writer.

It suits me, learning about seemingly useless things such as the 1940 big-league baseball team known as the Cleveland Crybabies or the time legendary female athlete Babe Didrikson suited up in a spring training game at Terry Park in Fort Myers in 1934.

I love such arcana. Many if not most people don’t care but I do. I’ve never been interested in practical or useful things.

None of my on-the-job education translates into a certificate or plaque or diploma but I believe nonetheless it is education. 

Over the years I’ve interviewed a limnologist and meteorologists and history professors and political science professors and linebackers and at least one homeless person who played quarterback in the NFL.

Hold on!

Limnologist?

That is someone who studies in-land river systems.

And what’s this about a homeless former NFL quarterback?

His name was Randy Johnson and at the time we talked long ago he was living in a double-wide trailer in a Punta Gorda homeless shelter. Part of his diet was something called potted meat, which I learned meant products such as Spam.

Anyhow, I’ve clearly forgotten a great deal of what I “learned” but at the time it was fun exploring new topics.

Although much of my career was spent covering sports, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about much more.

I recall writing a piece about author Randy Wayne White’s use of sense of place in his Doc Ford novels. For the story and to prepare for the interview, I read through a pile of those novels for examples of how the author used sense of Southwest Florida place to create another character and context.

I recall writing a story about the time author James Jones spent in the mid-20th century on Fort Myers Beach working on his epic novel “From Here to Eternity.” Part of my preparation for that story was reading “From Here to Eternity.”

One of my favorite stories was published in 2010, the 100th anniversary of the shooting death of the notorious Edgar Watson in Chokoloskee, near Smallwood’s store. As preparation for that I re-read Peter Mathiessen’s “Killing Mr. Watson” and then interviewed the author on the phone.

Reading and learning has always been part of the job.

Many years ago I wrote a story about Roberto Clemente and the time he spent in Fort Myers for spring training (1955 to 1968, in case you’re wondering) with the Pittsburgh Pirates. My research for that story including reading David Maraniss’s biography of Clemente. That reading prepared me for a telephone interview with the author.

Always learning.

I learned from the biography.

I learned from the interview with the author.

My education continued and still continues but in ways that can’t be quantified.

I don’t have a diploma or certificate or medal to show for all the on-job education I’ve acquired over nearly half a century.

The list goes on and on. …

I once wrote a feature about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and a 1936 Sanibel fire that destroyed the only copy of a long poem she was crafting. I know virtually nothing (OK, nothing) about poetry.

But I read some of her poems and a biography of Millay, “Savage Beauty,” and interviewed the author, Nancy Milford.

I don’t have sheepskin to show for the story or reading or interview but I loved diving into the life and work of Millay.

And I learned something.

And my education was enhanced.

But in an indefinable way.

I reveled in learning about a poet and her work and a fire that happened long ago.

What do I have to show for it?

Not money.

Not anything tangible.

Not any proof that means anything to most people.

But it was education, nonetheless.

I could go on and on and on. …

Heck, I’ve written literally thousands of stories for newspapers and magazines and websites and newsletters and programs.
Work has taken me from the Dominican Republic to the Bahamas, Boston to San Francisco, the Ten Thousand Islands to Green Bay, from Bokeelia to San Diego.

Each assignment and each story and trip taught me something.

But the lessons can’t be measured or weighed or calculated.

They are as intangible as curiosity.

I should have told the student curiosity is essential for a journalist. Maybe I will next time we talk.