GW journalism professor Charles W. Puffenbarger, known to colleagues and friends as “Puff,” died June 28 of cancer.
A mentor, not just a teacher, a friend, not just an editor, Puff took himself, his work and his interactions with others to a higher level.
“It is what you put into (life),” he told a classroom of young journalists in March.
The conviction to add to life served Puff well in his five-decade career as journalist, and in his capacity as a teacher and academic adviser. Puff’s ability to notice and point out talent in students became one of his signature traits as a professor at GW.
“He saw things in the young that other people didn’t,” said Elissa Leibowitz, a former student and former editor in chief of The GW Hatchet.
“He never said that a student is hopeless,” said Maria George, a secretary in the School of Media and Public Affairs. “He always saw some talent.”
“I thought he was one of the most caring, dedicated and loyal professors,” former Hatchet Editor in Chief Jared Sher added.
“He was the type of person that took the time to ask you how your life was going,” Michelle Battleline, a former student, said. “I felt honored just to have known him.”
“A lot of professors could learn a lot about his relationships with his students,” Leibowitz said. “He was the one who put his neck out for students.”
When he came aboard the staff of The Washington Post in 1969, Puff was told, “We don’t know what we want to do with you yet, but we just want to hire you.”
But despite his initial ambiguity, Puff made his mark at the paper.
As the business editor at The Post until 1985, Puffenbarger built the section to its present status. Starting with a staff of seven, he left the newspaper with a solid business section of 42 reporters.
Puff headed a Post staff of about 40 reporters during the anti-Vietnam war protests and the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s.
Puffenbarger had as his prot?g?s some of the best known names in journalism. Early in Post reporter Carl Bernstein’s career, Puff announced that someday Bernstein would win a Pulitzer Prize, a prediction that came true when Bernstein and Bob Woodward won the award for their coverage of Watergate.
Though he began his teaching career as a part-time professor, he soon realized that he loved teaching more than working as a journalist.
Puff began applying his “put something into life” attitude to his teaching style. He never tired of endless questions from aspiring journalists. His door was never closed to anyone who wanted to wander in and chat. And he never tired of telling stories about his experiences in life.
Some stories were about his unsuccessful campaign to become president of the student body during his undergraduate years at the University of Maryland, with Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, as his campaign manager. Others were about the events he had covered – murders and political events.
“He was very engaging,” Sher said. “You always felt like you had gotten something out of the conversation.”
Sher also noted that Puffenbarger’s guidance was critical to the student journalists on The Hatchet staff. Sher recalls that at meetings of The Hatchet’s Board of Directors all eyes would turn to Puff to answer questions.
In May, he earned The Hatchet’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.
Sher pointed out that Puffenbarger’s teaching provided the perfect combination of real-world experience and normal classroom fare. Leibowitz said Puff’s immense network of connections played an essential role in students like herself finding internships and postgraduate employment.
Professor Jean Folkerts, director of the School of Public and Media Affairs, said the fact that Puff knew so many people in journalism added to his effectiveness as an educator.
Though he guided others in their careers, his own career was never steered by a mentor.
“I was always more of a mentor to other people rather than having a mentor for myself,” Puff said in March.
Puff had a wide range of jobs in the field of journalism, from heading the business section at The Post, covering the District as city editor at the old Washington Evening Star, writing about everything from jailbreaks to court hearings as a general assignment reporter for the Associated Press and The Virginian-Pilot or writing press releases in the Philippines for the Army during World War II.
“I am one of those people that believes in giving to the organization that you work for rather than the taking from it,” he said. “I have never had a job that I did not like.”
His positive attitude towards his career exemplified his general outlook on life.
“You have to have a curiosity about people,” he said. “If you get that too-hard edge you don’t get a feeling for the story.”
He emphasized that you need to be a “nice” person to be a good journalist.
Leibowitz remembered that, even after she graduated, her former professor kept teaching her, not necessarily about how to be a journalist, but how to treat people she encountered.
George remembers her third day working at SMPA, when she was thinking about quitting after a bad experience with a colleague.
“He told me `hang in there Maria’ . he was there for me,” George said. “He was like a breath of fresh air every time he walked into a room.”
George also recalls how he would bring bouquets and bunches of roses and black-eyed Susans from his personal garden to brighten up the SMPA office.
Puff’s positive attitude carried him through personal crisis as well. Despite being diagnosed with brain cancer, he maintained his positive outlook.
“I have had a great life,” he said. “I have been married three times, have five children and twelve grandchildren . I am not going to let it get me down and I am going to keep doing what I love doing.”
Folkerts recalled that during a recent visit with Puff, they munched on cookies and sipped iced tea on his patio and he acted like everything was great. But he did not have the strength to walk her to the door.
“I remember that Puff was not a person who would wallow in pity,” she said.George remembers the last time she saw him sitting on his patio. He said to her, “Next spring, I think I’ll add some more black-eyed Susans to my garden.”