Jerry Huffman: Goodbye, Henry

Jerry Huffman (left) with Judy and Henry Lippold, circa 2016. Photo by Carol Larson.

The column below reflects the views of the author, and these opinions are neither endorsed nor supported by WisOpinion.com.

It was my first paycheck as a journalist. $13.80 from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram for a story on a retired major league baseball player living nearby. Not enough to quite fill my 1974 purple Gremlin but I was finally a working reporter.

First I called my parents. Then I called Henry. There would be a lot of calls like that over the next four decades. Successes, failures, job losses, awards, and sometimes to just talk about life. I could always call Henry.

But no longer. Henry Lippold, my mentor and friend, died last month at 89. Henry built UW-Eau Claire’s broadcast journalism department from the ground up in the early ’70s and I was in those early classes in the program’s second year.

It hurts to even write the word “died” in connection with H.L. Everyone was known by their initials then. There are thousands of us, all former Henry students, who cannot imagine a world without him. Not only did he get me through college but for the next forty years the man was a touchstone in my life. Constant, caring, and still teaching.

Henry’s classes were like a scripted drama. He would step into a classroom with a video camera and yell, “This is a wide shot!” A camera gets jammed in your face. “Close up!” Nothing was any funnier than watching him jump on top of a desk and tell you about changing angles to get better shots before he dove on the floor. It was the first of the many Henry-isms that would stay with you forever if you were serious about journalism.

H.L. taught us that journalism is a serious business. Richard Nixon had resigned my freshman year and the media was taking a lot of heat for it. In the fall of 1974 Henry understood that time was short for him to instill in us the ethical barometers he knew we would someday need.

When the infamous Nixon-Frost interviews aired, Henry invited several of us to his home to watch. H.L.’s beloved wife, Judy, fussed over all of us, but Henry was in full teaching mode. “Was that the right question?” “What’s the follow-up, J.H.?”

It rang of a scene from The Paper Chase. Even if we didn’t have the right answers, Henry considered it his job to make sure we were always thinking. H.L. knew that even if we were only there for Judy’s amazing food, we needed to be ready to make equally critical decisions someday.

A meaningful part of Henry’s death has been reconnecting with classmates and long lost friends. Pat Hastings, a Faculty Associate in the School of Journalism at UW Madison, described both Henry and Judy as her second parents. “His sage advice, inside and outside the classroom guided me. What a marvelous gift he had that touched so many students.”

I asked Hastings about what H.L. would tell us if we had the chance to interview this President. “He would say,” Hastings said, “to look him in the eye and ask, ‘don’t you think the media has a duty to be a government watchdog? And I am referring to coverage of your administration, sir.”

Pure Henry Lippold journalism. Fair. Balanced. On point. In 1974, Richard Nixon lied to hide a burglary. Today Donald Trump lies every day and blames fake news. Forty-four years later, H.L.’s gold standard – fair, balanced, and on point – still holds. Now, it is up to teachers like Hastings to carry that message forward, just like Henry did for all of us.

About twenty years ago I tried to hire Henry. I was leading journalism seminars across Russia and we desperately needed a substitute teacher who could jump on a plane at a moment’s notice. “Oh, J.H.,” the words crackled across the horrible phone line. “I would love to come but I fear this reporter better take a pass.”

Too bad, because I kept imagining how a class full of young Soviet journalists would react the first time HL dove to the floor yelling, “You have to go low to get good angles.”

This weekend a lot of us will gather in Eau Claire, eventually, I suspect, ending up on Water Street to say goodbye to Henry. There will be tears, and if we’re lucky we’ll find strength in our shared history. I hope Judy, and their daughters, LuAnne and Laurie, know how much all of us loved Henry.

No matter how bad the day was, Henry was always “tip top.” A show could have crashed, an interview flopped, but to H.L. everything was always tip top.

Right now, the world is anything but tip top. Tomorrow we’ll go back at it and do our damndest to ask the right questions, get the best shot, and make sure everything is tip top. Henry would expect nothing less.

–Jerry Huffman is an Emmy award-winning journalist and 1978 graduate of UWEC.

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