Column: Thank You, Mr. Wallace

Legendary journalist changed lives, including those in UM program
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Everybody knows Mike Wallace was one of the best journalists of his time – and his time spanned nearly a century.

But he also had a great love for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where he wrote for the Michigan Daily, and got his first taste of broadcasting. Back then, that meant working for the student radio station.

Sadly, Michigan cut its department of journalism in 1979. But it was survived by something called the Michigan Journalism Fellows – a program that brings a dozen mid-career journalists to Michigan’s campus for a year to give them a fresh start. Basically, you’re a glorified grad student, but they pay you, and you have no tests, no papers and no grades – and you share the year with a fraternity of people in your field.  Yeah, it’s that cool.

It’s a great idea – one shared by Harvard and Stanford – but Michigan’s program seemed to be entering its death rattle when Charles Eisendrath took it over in 1986. The program was down to a mere $30,000, with no place to call home. The fellows met twice a week in a campus classroom. The future wasn’t bright.

Eisendrath had a vision for the program, but he knew he needed help – and he knew where to go, too. Mike Wallace didn’t hesitate. He gave his money – one million dollars, for starters – but he also gave his time, his energy, and his unequaled influence. When Mike Wallace told you Michigan had a first-class journalism fellowship worthy of your support, you probably were not inclined to argue.

A friend of mine graduated from the Wharton School in 1989. Twenty-three years later, he still remembers Wallace’s commencement address, in which he reminded the graduates – many of them on their way to becoming millionaires – to “Do good while doing well.”

Wallace did both.

After getting the program off its death bed, Eisendrath wanted to give it a permanent home of its own. Mike Wallace and his wife Mary agreed, and bought the Fellows a beautiful house near campus. Ask any former Fellow about the Wallace House, and you’ll hear the kind of stories people usually tell about their family cottages.

Charles and company have since built a $50 million endowment for 18 journalists every year. The program – now called the Knight-Wallace Fellows at Michigan – will outlive us all.

I wanted to get in so badly, I applied twice. Both times, Charles asked his signature question: What is your dream?

I didn’t dream of wealth or fame. My dream was simple: I wanted the creative freedom to tell the stories I want to tell, and to tell them the way I want to tell them. In my business, it’s a rare luxury.

Well, my second time was the charm – and I didn’t waste a minute getting started on my dream. I wrote a pitch to teach a course at Michigan on the uniquely American phenomenon of college athletics, which I’ve been teaching now for six years.

I also started interviewing former UM football coach Bo Schembechler every Tuesday for a book on leadership. We didn’t have a publisher. We didn’t have an advance. The fellowship was my advance. A year later, we had a book contract – just two months before Bo died. I’ll always be grateful for that.

At one of the many meals the Knight-Wallace staff hosted, I happened to chat with Steve Schram, who had just been named the director of Michigan Media. A year later, when Schembechler died, Schram remembered our lunch and called me to come down to Michigan Radio and talk about Bo’s legacy – and that’s how Schram got the idea to run my sports commentary every Friday morning.

The Knight-Wallace program made all these dreams possible.

Every year, Wallace came back to speak at his eponymous house, and he captivating, even in his nineties. Unlike most donors, he made his millions doing what we do – and doing it better than anyone.

It’s usually a mistake to meet your heroes – they too often disappoint – but some men, as they say, are like mountains: The closer you get to them, the bigger they are.

Wallace was like that. He loved chatting up the Fellows by the fireplace, and he would never leave without saying goodbye to the staff, his friends.

When I asked him to endorse the Bo book he helped make possible, he not only read the manuscript – and agreed to help – he called me up to leave a long, enthusiastic message on my machine. “John Bacon,” he started, in his famously dramatic manner. “Mike Wallace.”

Yeah, I saved it.

When most people saw Mike Wallace on TV, they saw a hard-hitting investigative journalist. Others saw a loyal alumnus. I saw someone who helped change many lives forever – including mine.

So, one more time: Thank you, Mr. Wallace.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

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