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A Hundred (And Two) Years of the SJMC: Past and Present Faculty Reflect

Graphic by Courtney Jackson | Staff Photographer

2022 marks the 102nd year of Drake’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Centennial celebrations were originally planned for April 2020 to mark the school’s achievement.

         The COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas. After two years of postponing the centennial, this year finally gives alumni and current and former faculty and staff a chance to come back to Des Moines to celebrate, reconnect and reflect on the past century of journalism at Drake University.

    Retiring SJMC dean Kathleen Richardson said mentoring and personal relationships between faculty and students is vital to the success of the SJMC.

“[The centennial] is a celebration of the fact that we have survived and thrived over more than 100 years,” Richardson said. “The true heart of the program is the relation of the personal relationships between the faculty and the students. That has also been a through line in the history of the school. And this is an opportunity for us to celebrate that and to also champion that going forward.”

The SJMC did not exist as its own school until the 1960’s, though students have been studying journalism at Drake long before then, according to former SJMC dean and electronic media professor Herb Strentz.

         “A journalism curriculum had its starting point around 1919 but a relatively autonomous school was not established until around 1964 in concert with Meredith funding the construction of Meredith Hall,” Strentz said. “Drake University with its combination of arts and sciences with the mix of so-called ‘professional schools’ is a rarity. Here we are with college enrollments of a few hundred or so, or a thousand in a university of about 3,000 or so full-time undergrads, and we have academic programs such as journalism that compete well with programs at universities with enrollments of 20,000 to 40,000.”

         According to the faculty interviewed, it is a significant achievement for the SJMC to have stayed as strong as it has for so long.

         “The interesting thing, the asterisk here, is that it’s in a private school setting. There are a lot of bigger journalism schools in the country. To do it in a private school setting is truly unique because with private schools, it’s hard to get enough students coming in,” David Wright said. Wright taught full-time in the SJMC for over three decades, primarily in production, web design and photography as an associate dean and professor. 

Drake University’s SJMC is the only accredited journalism program at a private school in the Midwest, according to the SJMC website. Drake SJMC students win a plethora of awards every year for their work, which can be found under the “Student Awards” section on the SJMC website.

Drake’s home city is primed for learning the skills needed to become a journalist, according to Wright, including opportunities like working for Meredith Corporation, the Des Moines Register or advertising and public relations firms.

“And the other thing that I really think allowed us to survive and do so well for over 100 years now is that we start the students right away,” Wright said. “There’s none of this waiting around until you’re a junior.”

        The hundreds of students who have come through Meredith Hall to become journalists are the highlight, according to Pat Prijatel. Prijatel was the director of the SJMC from 2004-2007 and a longtime faculty member. Prijatel also built the magazine media program and the E. T. Meredith Center.

“They come extremely well prepared. They’re smart. And they work hard. They’re competitive in a good way. They’re just supportive of one another,” Prijatel said of SJMC students.

A website outlining the history, people and places of the SJMC, maintained by SJMC Professor Chris Snider, can be found at www.drakesjmc100.com. An alumni reunion and centennial celebration will be held on April 30 from 5-8 pm in Meredith Hall. A list of who will be attending the celebration can be found at the website above, and a registration link can be found at https://alumni.drake.edu/sjmc-relays-reunion

Tickets cost $20 and include alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, heavy hors d’oeuvres, music and fun. A short program at 6 p.m. will include toasts to current and former SJMC faculty and staff.  If current students would like to volunteer to help with registration and logistics, they can contact Dean Kathleen Richardson.

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