What it meant for one young Kansan to be ‘in the room’ with Gale Sayers

A detail of a photo in the June 25, 1976, edition of The Kamper Kansan. The caption read: "Gale Sayers in a news conference with high school Midwestern Journalism Camp and Urban Workshop students reaches out to express himself. (Photo by Dawn Price)."

I will never forget Gale Sayers sitting for an interview with us high school journalists in 1976 during summer camp at the University of Kansas. I don’t recall his exact words, what current event we talked about, but I am sure we sat there with starry eyes as he discussed his storied Kansas and NFL careers. He was in the room.

That summer, there were a lot of people in the room at the Midwestern Music and Art Camp and the Urban Journalism Workshop. There was Lt. Gov. George Brown of Colorado (J’ 52, second black KU journalism graduate); Emory Greene, manager of Technological Operations with the Public Broadcasting System (PBS); Paul Brock, vice president of the Mutual Black Network; Owen T. Wilkerson, news executive of Scouting, USA; David Nimmer, managing editor of the Minneapolis Star; Jim Richardson, staff photographer for the Topeka Capital Journal.

A page of stories produced by the high school journalism staff of the Kamper Kansan in June 1976.

“The Urban Journalism Workshop is intended to make minority students aware of career opportunities in journalism communication. It provides them with abilities to write that will help them in whatever career area they will go,” associate professor Samuel L. Adams told The Kamper Kansan at the time.

Sayers’s death last week reminded me of that heady June day, but it also reminded me that access is key whatever age in school you are. Without it our eyes are closed to the beauty and possibilities that the world has for each of us.

As a 16-year-old, my eyes to another world were opened by Adams, and before him my high school journalism teacher, Maryanne Lyons. I got a chance to roam the Lawrence campus for two weeks, live in a dorm, make new friends (some of whom I am still friends with today), report on events, sit in hot, stuffy Flint Hall classrooms and get tips and tools from academics and see that there was a place in journalism for me.

I knew I was going to college and I always knew it would be KU. I come from a long line of thinkers, teachers, musicians, doctors and nurses. My aunt, Christine Weems Northern, was the first black graduate of KU’s School of Nursing in 1952. My great uncle, Bertram Caruthers Sr., studied zoology in the 1930s on Mount Oread.

But the journalism space was foreign turf. In my house, we got every newspaper and magazine available. And my parents, Charles and Camille Weems, were very familiar with the Lucile Bluford-run Kansas City Call and Helen Gray’s articles on religion in the Kansas City Star. But they didn’t see their little girl in the profession.

It was through my hard work and from the encouragement of Lyons, Adams, and associate dean Susanne Shaw that my parents saw that I could make journalism mine and would be able to take care of myself. Shaw led me through the matriculation process and I got a copy editing job in Rochester, New York, the August after I graduated in 1981. Again, these people welcomed me into the room. And it was left up to me what I did with it. It was as simple as that.

In recent years, I learned of things they did to help me further my career: Putting in a good word for me at The Washington Post, helping me sort out work-family balance, providing a listening ear when things got tough in the newsroom, and now giving me encouraging words and ideas as I am still new in the classroom. Before Adams died in 2019 at age 93, we chatted about my new role as the Lacy C. Haynes professor, how I could mentor students as he had done for me and countless others and more importantly, what I would mean to the students because I was in the room.

One of my students upon her graduation in May wrote that when she got to KU she had so wished she had a Black female professor to work with, that her dream came true and she was so grateful. She got a job and is now working as a reporter.

The day Sayers died, I sent students (past and present) announcements about internship and election fellowship opportunities. And I began mentoring a new faculty member who can teach me as much about teaching as I can about the journalism profession.

Every day is a good day because I am in the room and can bestow on my students what others have given me.