Tony Frank: On talent

Jim Sheeler graduated from Colorado State University in 1990.

Our paths didn’t cross. I arrived on campus as an assistant professor in 1993, and I was on the faculty in Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, while he was a graduate in journalism. But he was one of those alumni whose achievements and character become part of university history – he won the Pulitzer Prize for his feature writing in 2006 and was inducted into the CSU Media Hall of Fame in 2011. One of his books, “Final Salute,” drawn from his Pulitzer-winning series honoring fallen veterans, was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction in 2008. He became an endowed professor of journalism and media writing at Case Western Reserve University.

By all accounts, Jim’s greatness was as much in his humanity as in his writing. The ability to tell a good story is a gift to the world. The power to use language to move and inspire others is a rare thing, but the strength to listen and observe to get at the heart of the story is even rarer still. I suspect it is that quality, even more than his gifts as a writer, that made him so well-loved and respected by his colleagues and peers. Their deep sense of loss could be felt in tributes nationwide last week, when he died at home at age 53.

I wish I had had the honor of knowing him. But this isn’t really about Jim.

It’s about talent.

In 1990, when he graduated, no one knew Jim Sheeler would achieve all that he did. He was a student, and he wanted to write.

We all think we know what talent looks like, but those of us who have spent time in the classroom know that it’s not always as obvious as you might assume. A student can coast through classes for a couple of years before suddenly, they find the spark that lights them. A student enrolls determined to major in business and then finds a passion for forestry. A student who’s planned all their life to be a music teacher may get to college and find it’s not the right fit after all, but international relations is.

But oh, when that spark is lit, it’s a beautiful thing. When humans find what moves them, what speaks to their heart, they come fully into their own – not just through the work but through what their work can mean to others. It is one of the true gifts of working in education to see how an education gets put to use throughout a lifetime by people with deep love for what they’ve learned and its power.

I don’t know when Jim felt that spark in his own life, or when he determined he’d make his living with words. But I can say with confidence that his experience at the college newspaper, and the education he undertook at CSU and later at University of Colorado for graduate school, undoubtedly helped him transform his natural talent into something more polished and remarkable – the foundation of a meaningful life and career.

I’ve written in this space about higher education equity in the past, and I will again. It’s part of our mission as a land grant university system to provide access to education and do all we can to ensure that our students graduate.

But no data can tell the story of why that matters as well as one life can. Jim Sheeler came to CSU. He worked on the student newspaper. He made friends. He earned a degree and put it to work. And he went on not just to inspire others with his writing, but to teach them. I’m sure, looking out at his students, he couldn’t tell which ones would eventually emerge as stars, who might go onto greatness. So he invested in all of them, because that’s what a great teacher does. You never know who’s sitting in the back of the room, waiting for the spark to ignite. You never know who’s hanging on every word you say. So you welcome as many as you can, and give them the best you can, and see what comes back.

And universities themselves must do the same – welcome any students we can who seem to have the talent and drive to succeed and support them as well as we can, with excellent faculty, financial aid, and the advising and success tools that can help them overcome obstacles. Provide broad access, student support, and your best teaching, and let students see where it takes them. An investment in education is an investment in the richness and opportunity of a human life, and at a state university like CSU, with a commitment to access, that investment is still widely affordable to anyone who wants to pursue it.

It is not a perfect system. But it’s a democratic one – and students continuously astound us with how far they can go and all they can discover along the way.

Those alumni become part of the stories we tell about the life of a university, and its people. We’re grateful that Jim Sheeler is part of the CSU story, and grateful there are so many other great stories yet to be told.

– tony

This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s October newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.

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