By Linda Shoemaker

Sometimes schools make inexplicable decisions. That’s what I thought 12 years ago when the best professor I’d ever had was denied tenure at the University of Colorado Boulder. I had a few great teachers when I was an undergraduate student at CU Boulder’s Journalism School during the late 1960s. None could match Pulitzer Prize-winner Jim Sheeler, whose class I took years later as a senior auditor. Sheeler died recently in Ohio at the young age of 53.

I want to thank Sheeler’s former student Jessica Barraco, who wrote a glowing tribute to Professor Sheeler Oct. 31: “Jim Sheeler showed me how to honor people in life and in death.”

Linda Shoemaker

This column will be different. It’s about Sheeler’s earliest days as a journalist and how it came to be that years later CU Boulder rejected him.

My first experience with Sheeler was in 1998 when he was in his first writing job at the now-defunct Boulder Planet. Sheeler reached out to me, seeking to write an obituary of my mother, Patricia Ford Shoemaker.

Sheeler interviewed the family at my parent’s home in Boulder and wrote a sensitive and compassionate obituary titled “Creating works of art worth feeling.” Even then, in his early writing days, he was an incredibly thoughtful and curious reporter. I remember him asking to see some of the three-dimensional art pieces my mother made for her monthly hospital “poster.” I took him down to the basement where he peered into various boxes, asking probing, yet respectful questions.

Sheeler’s full-page obituary of my mom was a lovely portrait of her as a passionate volunteer “Pink Lady” at Boulder Community Hospital. My mom was a homemaker; she was a simple ordinary person given dignity by Sheeler’s portrayal.

In the years that followed, Jim Sheeler’s skill at obituary and feature writing only improved. In 2006, Sheeler won journalism’s top national award, the Pulitzer Prize, for “Final Salute,” his story of a marine major whose job was to notify families that their loved one had died.

Because CU was unable to offer him the security of tenure, Sheeler moved his family to Cleveland to take a prestigious endowed professorship, with tenure, at the private Case Western Reserve University. At the time, Sheeler said he would have preferred to stay in Colorado. Boulder’s loss was Cleveland’s gain. Sheeler thrived at the highly ranked Case Western and twice won that university’s top award for teaching excellence.

Jim Sheeler author of Final Salute on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder on May 23, 2008.Photo by Paul Aiken

At the time CU declined to grant him tenure, the media studies portion of the faculty complained that his research and writing was not the kind of academic work produced by someone with a PhD. So true. Even though he’d written two popular journalism books, Sheeler had only a master’s degree.

Most professors in the journalism part of the school supported Sheeler. They were angry, as were the professional journalists on the Journalism School Advisory Board. That Board soon urged the Regents to discontinue the J-School so that it could be reinvented. I know that Sheeler’s treatment was a big factor in that vote because I was at that meeting and immediately joined the Advisory Board.

The Regents voted to discontinue the J-School; however, they wanted the programs to survive. Eventually, journalism merged into the new College of Media, Communications, and Information (CMCI) in a separate department from media studies. Both programs are now thriving.

Recently, I reached out to Lori Bergen, the current and founding dean of CMCI. I asked her to help me understand why Sheeler was rejected. She said budget constraints at the time prevented CU from being able to offer Sheeler tenure.

The truth is that CU-Boulder has learned a lot in the years since Sheeler left. More and more non-PhDs are advancing into tenured positions when they have a relevant record of accomplishment in such areas as business, law and journalism. In fact, CMCI, to its credit, now has three tenured professors without PhDs.

I believe the Journalism School should have fought harder to gain the tenure line it needed to hire Sheeler. Nevertheless, the resource issues at CU-Boulder are undeniable. CU lost the Pulitzer Prize winner because CU, as a public school with few endowed professorships, was unable to match Case Western’s offer.

The truth is that Boulder has lots of attractions that other university towns can’t match. Sometimes those attractions make up for low security and low pay. Sometimes they don’t. The truth is that CU loses too many brilliant young professors because it simply can’t compete financially. The people who really suffer are the students who lose those irreplaceable faculty stars.

Linda Shoemaker is a community activist who served on the CU Journalism School Advisory Board and the CU Foundation Board of Trustees before being elected to the Board of Regents where she served from 2016-2021. You can reach her at linda.shoemaker@cu.edu

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By Linda Shoemaker

Sometimes schools make inexplicable decisions. That’s what I thought 12 years ago when the best professor I’d ever had was denied tenure at the University of Colorado Boulder. I had a few great teachers when I was an undergraduate student at CU Boulder’s Journalism School during the late 1960s. None could match Pulitzer Prize-winner Jim Sheeler, whose class I took years later as a senior auditor. Sheeler died recently in Ohio at the young age of 53.

I want to thank Sheeler’s former student Jessica Barraco, who wrote a glowing tribute to Professor Sheeler Oct. 31: “Jim Sheeler showed me how to honor people in life and in death.”

Linda Shoemaker

This column will be different. It’s about Sheeler’s earliest days as a journalist and how it came to be that years later CU Boulder rejected him.

My first experience with Sheeler was in 1998 when he was in his first writing job at the now-defunct Boulder Planet. Sheeler reached out to me, seeking to write an obituary of my mother, Patricia Ford Shoemaker.

Sheeler interviewed the family at my parent’s home in Boulder and wrote a sensitive and compassionate obituary titled “Creating works of art worth feeling.” Even then, in his early writing days, he was an incredibly thoughtful and curious reporter. I remember him asking to see some of the three-dimensional art pieces my mother made for her monthly hospital “poster.” I took him down to the basement where he peered into various boxes, asking probing, yet respectful questions.

Sheeler’s full-page obituary of my mom was a lovely portrait of her as a passionate volunteer “Pink Lady” at Boulder Community Hospital. My mom was a homemaker; she was a simple ordinary person given dignity by Sheeler’s portrayal.

In the years that followed, Jim Sheeler’s skill at obituary and feature writing only improved. In 2006, Sheeler won journalism’s top national award, the Pulitzer Prize, for “Final Salute,” his story of a marine major whose job was to notify families that their loved one had died.

Because CU was unable to offer him the security of tenure, Sheeler moved his family to Cleveland to take a prestigious endowed professorship, with tenure, at the private Case Western Reserve University. At the time, Sheeler said he would have preferred to stay in Colorado. Boulder’s loss was Cleveland’s gain. Sheeler thrived at the highly ranked Case Western and twice won that university’s top award for teaching excellence.

Jim Sheeler author of Final Salute on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder on May 23, 2008.Photo by Paul Aiken

At the time CU declined to grant him tenure, the media studies portion of the faculty complained that his research and writing was not the kind of academic work produced by someone with a PhD. So true. Even though he’d written two popular journalism books, Sheeler had only a master’s degree.

Most professors in the journalism part of the school supported Sheeler. They were angry, as were the professional journalists on the Journalism School Advisory Board. That Board soon urged the Regents to discontinue the J-School so that it could be reinvented. I know that Sheeler’s treatment was a big factor in that vote because I was at that meeting and immediately joined the Advisory Board.

The Regents voted to discontinue the J-School; however, they wanted the programs to survive. Eventually, journalism merged into the new College of Media, Communications, and Information (CMCI) in a separate department from media studies. Both programs are now thriving.

Recently, I reached out to Lori Bergen, the current and founding dean of CMCI. I asked her to help me understand why Sheeler was rejected. She said budget constraints at the time prevented CU from being able to offer Sheeler tenure.

The truth is that CU-Boulder has learned a lot in the years since Sheeler left. More and more non-PhDs are advancing into tenured positions when they have a relevant record of accomplishment in such areas as business, law and journalism. In fact, CMCI, to its credit, now has three tenured professors without PhDs.

I believe the Journalism School should have fought harder to gain the tenure line it needed to hire Sheeler. Nevertheless, the resource issues at CU-Boulder are undeniable. CU lost the Pulitzer Prize winner because CU, as a public school with few endowed professorships, was unable to match Case Western’s offer.

The truth is that Boulder has lots of attractions that other university towns can’t match. Sometimes those attractions make up for low security and low pay. Sometimes they don’t. The truth is that CU loses too many brilliant young professors because it simply can’t compete financially. The people who really suffer are the students who lose those irreplaceable faculty stars.

Linda Shoemaker is a community activist who served on the CU Journalism School Advisory Board and the CU Foundation Board of Trustees before being elected to the Board of Regents where she served from 2016-2021. You can reach her at linda.shoemaker@cu.edu

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