Jon Franklin doesn't need any journalism job offers, thank you very much. At 59, he's achieved more in his nearly 40-year career than most journalists dare to dream about. He claims two Pulitzer Prizes, five nonfiction books and more J-school teaching offers than former Vice President Al Gore.
Until recently, Franklin thought his next prize was retirement in the temperate North Carolina piedmont country. He and his wife, Lynn, planned to spend their days outdoors in the garden watching Carolina wrens flit through the pines. Their nights would be dedicated to WriterL, an Internet forum they run for 400 nonfiction writers and editors.
But something happened on the way to Jon Franklin's golden sunset. It came by way of a telephone call from Tom Kunkel, dean of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Kunkel told Franklin that the college was assembling the best journalism faculty in the nation. He wanted to know if Franklin wanted in.
Before long, Franklin, who had been working as a reporter and editor for the Raleigh News & Observer, was trading his Carolina piedmont for a patch of Maryland woods.
"In three months, we went from 'We're going to retire here [in Raleigh]' to 'Which mover are we going to use?' " Franklin says during a interview last April at his new Calvert County home, a timbered deck house set back from the road under a tall canopy of trees. "In the end, I guess you do all these things with passion. I can say that for every other place I've been to, I didn't plan to stay forever. But I think this is different."
Indeed, the University of Maryland seems to have a hold on Franklin that even he, a self-described wandering "Okie," can't shake. "It's an incredibly rich place in just about every meaning of the word," he says. "Once they expressed interest, it just very quickly became a no-brainer. The fire for writing burns at only a few places, and Maryland is one of them."
For 12 years, Franklin has been lighting fires for narrative nonfiction writing at colleges and newspapers around the country. His writing-teaching-lecturing circuit has carried him from College Park, across the country and back again. When he departed the last time, in 1989, to head the journalism department at Oregon State University in Corvallis, he thought he'd taken his last leave of Maryland, having accomplished all that he could at one school, or for that matter, in one state.
After graduating with honors from the College of Journalism in 1970, Franklin worked his way onto The Evening Sun newspaper in Baltimore, where patience, hard work and an antipathy for conventional journalism netted him two Pulitzer Prizes, in 1979 and 1985.
Some say Franklin changed the newspaper business forever when in 1978 he wrote a story for The Evening Sun about a University of Maryland brain surgeon's struggle to remove a tumor from deep within a suffering patient's lobe. The story, titled "Mrs. Kelly's Monster," received the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, a distinction that established Franklin as the pre-eminent figure in a new sub-field of American journalism (though he points to a score of great writers who preceded him in the same vein, including Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Tom Wolfe and others). "Mrs. Kelly's Monster" has since been published in a half-dozen languages and is taught in journalism schools across the country. The story is Franklin's proudest achievement, yet its success is even more remarkable given that it might never have passed before the Pulitzer judge's eyes.
David Garlock, a Pulitzer scholar and journalism lecturer at the University of Texas, notes that "Mrs. Kelly's Monster" initially flew under the radar screens of Franklin's editors at The Evening Sun. They ran the story as a two-day series, in the middle of the week, on the bottom of the metro section without a word of front-page promotion. Even so, Garlock says the story emerged as a hallmark of journalistic writing, in that Franklin brought his subjects to life with a clarity rarely seen outside of fiction. "I can't think of another Pulitzer Prize winner who put as much care into the words of the story as Franklin," says Garlock, who is also a Maryland journalism alumnus, class of '73. "The story is so active. Some of the stuff that Jon did was truly revolutionary."
But 1978 was just the beginning of Franklin's rebellion against journalistic convention. Six years later, against considerable odds, he penned his second Pulitzer winner--again in a new category, explanatory journalism--about the use of neurochemistry to treat mental disorders. "The Mind Fixers" was later published as a book under the title The Molecules of the Mind, where it became a New York Times "Book of the Year" for 1987.
With two Pulitzers in hand, Franklin began earning a reputation as the most innovative American print journalist of his day. Calls started coming from ambitious newspaper editors in other cities with promises of larger readership and greater influence. But instead of striking out for the big dailies of New York, Washington, Los Angeles or Chicago, Franklin set his sights on the classroom, where he hoped to teach some of his craft to others who would follow him.
He landed teaching positions at then Towson State and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before finding his way back to College Park, where he became a full professor in 1986. Turns out, Franklin was as good at teaching journalism as he was at practicing it. In 1989, he left Maryland to head the journalism program at Oregon State, then moved on to the University of Oregon in Eugene where he taught journalism and later became director of creative writing until 1998. Franklin's last stop, North Carolina, was supposed to be a late-career return to his twin passions, reporting and writing.
Yet for all his acclaim as a journalist and teacher, Franklin insists there is no magic to good nonfiction writing, only hard work and a dedication to the storytelling craft. In his widely acclaimed 1986 book, Writing for Story, Franklin argues that successful feature writing, including the stuff of Pulitzer fame, adheres to a set of basic principles that has served all great writers, fiction and nonfiction, throughout the ages. He says that the great storytellers--from Homer to Hemingway to Hurston--built their works around a "complication-resolution" structure, where a sympathetic character confronts a problem of considerable stature and then overcomes it, thus changing himself and the world around him. The best journalism is no different, Franklin argues. "All this stuff has patterns, and there's not an infinite number of ways to do it."
While some writers have rejected Franklin's blueprint approach to storytelling as overly simplistic and neglectful of artistic value, thousands have found the book not only useful, but life-changing. "I've had a few students who have had the light turn on because of his book," says Walt Harrington, an author and faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who spent 15 years as a writer for The Washington Post Magazine. "His book redefined the possibilities for feature writing."
Philip Merrill, publisher of Washingtonian magazine and the man for whom the college and Franklin's faculty chair is named, says he puts Writing for Story in the same category as William Strunk and E. B. White's 1918 classic, The Elements of Style, a veritable bible of the writing and editing profession.
Franklin's own nonfiction stories are probing masterpieces that dissect complex, often multi-faceted subjects ranging from weather forecasting to genetic engineering. Like the surgeons and scientists he's so drawn to write about, Franklin studies his subjects with such precision that he often reveals qualities in them that they fail to see in themselves. Franklin achieves such insight by relying heavily on what he calls "the language of metaphor" to carry his readers beyond the realm of what people do, to who they are. "What I'm essentially doing is writing the 'reality story,' " he says.
Take, for example, a 1998 newspaper series Franklin wrote about the bonds formed between primate researchers and their subjects, as told through the experience of a team of Duke University scientists whose research subject, an African lemur named Messalina, dies unexpectedly:
Stephanie stood in front of a shelving unit, staring at the stacks of stainless steel feeding bowls. Her face was expressionless. Both of the other keepers turned away, busying themselves with small chores.
"She seemed just fine," Stephanie said finally in a low voice, the words aimed as much at the feeding bowls as to anyone in the room. "Then in the afternoon she was leaning against the side of the cage, with her arms crossed in front of her and her head down on them. I thought she looked fine, until she raised her head. And then, I saw her eye, and oh my God, oh my God ... !"
The lemur story, which Lynn Franklin says is her husband's best work to date, evolved in much the same way that other Franklin stories do, from a deep curiosity about how people respond to adverse situations, and more important, how they live through and learn from such adversity. If that sounds like the template of the classic fiction novel, Franklin makes no apology for it. In fact, he traces his writer's roots as much to novelists John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway as he does to noted journalists of the 1960s and '70s, when he came of age as a writer.
Franklin remembers his mother, Wilma, a Dust Bowl-era Oklahoman of modest means and education, who upon learning that her teenage son liked to read stories, recommended that he trade his dime-store novels for Steinbeck, whose books resonated with important social themes. "She said, 'If you want to read something really good, read Grapes of Wrath, but don't tell anybody I told you to.' You see, the Okies hated that [book]," Franklin says. "They never saw the sympathetic voice in it."
If The Grapes of Wrath inspired Franklin as a young writer, it also helped him understand the converging lines between real stories and fiction stories. Born in Enid, Okla., on the heels of the Great Depression, Franklin couldn't help but draw parallels between his experience growing up and those of Steinbeck's wandering "Okies." His father, Benjamin, an electrician who moved from state to state seeking jobs on construction projects, never provided the family a stable home or income. Franklin describes him as "one of the first of the traveling technical people" who moved the family around the interior West "in Okie fashion, with trailers and things stacked on top of the car."
Franklin rarely stayed in the same school for more than six weeks, making it difficult to excel in academics or extracurricular activities. Like many boys of the '50s, he was fascinated by science and especially space exploration. He remembers staring into the heavens above Lebanon, Mo., in October 1957 to confirm that the Soviets really had launched the first satellite into earth's orbit. Meanwhile, his physics teacher, who also coached the football team, insisted Sputnik was nothing more than another lie churned out by the Red Menace in Moscow.
Franklin even dreamed of becoming a scientist himself, but his lack of grounding and lackluster grades derailed him from the college track. He credits his high school English teachers in Oklahoma for impressing upon him the fundamentals of story structure, however. "That's partly because they were so far behind the times that all they knew how to teach was the good old stuff," he says, only half-joking.
Ben Franklin, too, encouraged his son's writing pursuits, though he probably never knew how much. He died in 1962 when Jon was just 20. Franklin recalls in Writing for Story a bullying episode from middle school, after which his father--who was notorious for picking fistfights in dusty roadside honkytonks--encouraged 14-year-old Jon to seek his revenge against the world not with his fists, but with words on paper.
"I was, as you might imagine, dubious," Franklin writes. "But all night we talked, and talked, and talked, and talked, and somehow he worked his magic on me. By dawn I had become a real grown-up revolutionary, and later we went out together and he bought me a beat-up Underwood."
The power of words had little calming influence on the young man, however. Frustrated by his lack of opportunities and bored with life in Enid, Franklin quit high school after his junior year and joined the Navy.
It was in the service during the early 1960s that Franklin landed his first writing job, for All Hands magazine, the Navy's glossy journal of news, profiles and photographs of fighter jocks roaring off the decks of U.S. aircraft carriers in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets. Stationed in Washington, Franklin came under the tutelage of the magazine's seasoned editor,
G. Vern Blasdell, who taught the fundamentals of journalism as only the military could, harshly and with a minimum of patience.
"I'd put my copy into his basket and watch out of the corner of my eye until he picked it up," Franklin recalls in Writing for Story. "He'd sometimes get to the second page before he blanched. Sometimes he'd cover his face with his hands and seem about to cry. Other times he'd turn around in his swivel chair to stare disgustedly out of his picture window at the Pentagon below. Sometimes he'd just go to sleep. I, of course, would die a thousand deaths."
Franklin persevered and remained an active duty Navy journalist for the better part of eight years, from the height of the Cold War in the Pacific to the Tonkin Gulf incident and the escalation of violence in both Southeast Asia and at home. His ticket out of the war came with the Cold War G.I. bill, passed in the mid-1960s for veterans making the transition into civilian life.
While Maryland journalism was already considered among the nation's top programs in 1967, such labels didn't mean much to the 25-year-old serviceman who would be the first in his family to attend college. "I just asked the guy which one was the cheapest," Franklin recalls. "He said Maryland, so I went to Maryland."
Franklin spent his student years in College Park quietly. He read a lot of books, sharpened his journalism skills and dutifully performed for his journalism teachers, among them Earl Newsom, Ray Hiebert and J. Carter Bryan. As a military veteran, he was older and more seasoned than many of his college peers, and as the hippie culture of the 1960s gave way to the politically turbulent Nixon years, Franklin hunkered down to chronicle the events of the time, first for the Prince George's Post and later for The Evening Sun.
Franklin's big break came in the spring of 1970, when Maryland students ransacked Main Administration Building following the shooting deaths of four demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio. The Evening Sun's city editor, suspecting that Franklin's military background would keep him level-headed throughout the riots, called Franklin and asked for a morning-after story. Franklin cajoled his way into the cordoned-off building and wrote a story about flustered administrators and the simmering tension of students outside on
McKeldin Mall. "It was on the front page of that day's Evening Sun," Franklin recalls. "It was three years before I made the front page again."
Thirty years later, Franklin finds himself disdainful about the state of American journalism. He says that while newspapers and television reporters make heroes of sports figures and pop stars, thousands of stories like "Mrs. Kelly's Monster" and "The Mind Fixers" never see the printed page. "It's a hard road for people who are trying to write the true literature of what's happening in society right now," he says. "Are rock stars really our heroes? I don't think so. They have their place, but they shouldn't be the big story. The main event is life, and that's the principle I want to make sure students are exposed to."
Franklin is also passionate, and angry, about Americans' scientific illiteracy, which he has characterized as "nothing less than the deconstruction of the Enlightenment and its principle institution, which is science." He attributes much blame to his own colleagues in the newspaper business, whom he says routinely mishandle scientific subjects, focusing on political debates rather than the pursuit of knowledge.
Kunkel, the journalism dean, says Franklin's return to Maryland comes at an ideal time, as the college seeks to broaden its focus and cultivate new niches, including writing about science. Franklin will also help to round out a growing and distinguished faculty, which now includes five Pulitzer holders and a stable of other journalism award-winners. "If you have a great faculty, you can hold your meetings in a tent and the
lessons will get through," Kunkel says. "I think Jon brings all these facets to the program that will make it a much richer experience for our students."
Franklin says he expects Maryland to enrich his writing life, as well. He will wander the university's libraries and laboratories, rooting out stories about new discoveries and the people behind them. He might even invite his students along, springing them from their classroom lessons for an immersion into the wonders of science. "That's the great frontier," Franklin says emphatically, with an almost boyish gleam. "And for me, that's the only story there is. Everything else is just footnotes." --cp
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