Remembering Puff

Hatchet

In the spring of 1993 I visited George Washington in the midst of a heat wave and the Gay and Lesbian March on Washington.

Coming from my small, mountain home of Durango, Colorado, I was, needless to say, a bit overwhelmed and disoriented. I staggered into the journalism department sweating under the load of my pack. I had no appointment or specific contacts, but a gentleman who insisted I call him, simply, “Puff,” took the time to sit down with me and chat away the sweltering afternoon.

When I emerged, I knew I had a friend and a mentor who just happened to be an important figure in the high-powered world of journalism in Washington, D.C.

I was fortunate enough to be taken under his wing during my four years at GW, and I feel sorry for future students who will not get to hear Puff’s sage advice and hilarious stories of his long and exciting life.

I’m having difficulty reconciling myself with the fact that I will not become part of the extensive “Puff Network” of alumni who have kept in touch with Puff and with each other through Puff for years.

I guess my favorite memory of Puff is that he was more concerned with his students and their future than anything. He was interested in students’ lives – even if they weren’t going to be the next Woodward or Bernstein.

Kynan Kelly, managing editorThe GW Hatchet, 1995-1997

What I’ll miss most is sitting in Puff’s GW office talking with him about the news of the day. Inevitably, he’d throw into the conversation an apt anecdote, often hilarious, from his newspaper days. Only after his death did it come to me that these chats in his office are at the heart of his legacy.

Students, past and present professional journalists and academics who visited Puff’s office were guests in a living journalism museum. All around were exhibits of the last 40 years of the profession: front pages, pithy quotations, famous and infamous headlines, bloopers and other gee-gaws. Many gee-gaws. You knew it was a serious endeavor when a T-shirt bearing the image of a particularly noteworthy front page had permanent occupancy of one of two guest chairs.

Folks who were lucky enough to hang out with Puff in his office – me and the old timers from The Washington Star and students just beginning their journalism education – would seem to have only the smallest thread in common. We’re from different generations and we came to journalism when the craft represented starkly different things. But we were all connected in Puff’s world view. We were part of a continuum. He was the facilitator and his office was common ground.

This was a blast for him. What he didn’t say in so many words was that it was good for us too. I hope students learned a few things from me during my talks to Puff’s classes. I know I learned from them. Their well-crafted questions forced me to stop and think about what I do and why.

All of this raises the obvious, troubling question: is there anyone who can fill Puff’s shoes and – with wisdom and good humor – tend to our journalism family tree? Not that I can see.

-Susan Feeney, reporterThe Dallas Morning News

Charles W. Puffenbarger, known to all as “Puff,” was our colleague, our adviser, and our friend. One person, speaking at the funeral service, noted that we will all remember Puff with great affection. A student remembered that Puff said it was alright when she decided she didn’t want to be a journalist. A journalism alumnus came by the other day and recalled that he was kind of worried when he went to tell Puff that he was going to leave journalism and go to law school. He said, “But that was O.K. with him, and I should have known ahead of time that it would be okay.” Puff had the unusual ability to disagree with a faculty colleague on a “hot” issue and not make it personal. That is why we all remember Puff with great affection.We all miss him. Every now and then I look up from my desk at my office door and expect him to be standing there, ready to tell me a story – a joke – to laugh about a bizarre headline or to relate an e-mail message from a recent alum. The sadness comes when I realize he is not there. One alumna told me last week that she felt sorry for the current students who’d had Puff with them for only a few years. “He’s been at my side for 17 years,” she said. He was there, ready to help her with her career, answer her questions, calm her down, tell her things would be okay.

Puff was the only faculty member who knew which student had broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, had just argued with their parents, felt like the one-person-out group at The Hatchet, or had been rejected for two jobs in a row. Students told him their troubles and came to celebrate their successes. He could commiserate and encourage or he could congratulate and cheer.

Yesterday Maria George, executive aide at the School, Suzanne Clarke, the coordinator for external affairs, and I were cleaning his office and we came across some old pictures of Puff in the Navy. We were laughing at his youthful grin and Maria commented that Puff must be watching us and laughing too. So we will not lose him. He will be with countless students, faculty and family members, laughing with us, cheering us on, and commiserating with us in our troubles. Because once you’re a friend of Puff’s, you’re his friend always.

-Jean Folkerts, directorSchool of Media and Public Affairs

Responding to a request for a short memoir of Puff a few days after his death and six months into a dreadful year for him, his family and friends is tough duty.

So rather than trying to come up with a single incident that could sum up the 50-year career of Charles W. Puffenbarger, let me tell about him and his students.

No one since he was known as Bill in his youthful days in Cumberland, Md., has called him Bill, and few knew him as Charlie. Everyone including the dozens of students and former students who rallied around him since his wife Susan died tragically in January knew him as Puff and called him that. The obit writer at the Post who wrote straight and well about his death had known him for 28 years and did not know that “Puff” actually had other given names. Is it good for an authoritarian figure like a college professor to have that kind of easy relationship with students? For his students and for Puff himself, regardless of the norm, this was wonderful and is largely what distinguished him and endeared him to colleagues and students alike.

Puff worked up until near the end, alternating his classes with radiation and chemotherapy, finishing his Spring semester duties and then a few weeks after getting his grades in, rapidly grew weaker and succumbed. Student after student, many among those who took him to breakfast almost every Sunday since his travail began months ago, spoke movingly at his service of his caring and devotion to them above all his other duties at the University.

I knew him for 35 years starting at the old Evening Star here. He was a great professional. A colleague who co-authored a massive, 12-part, 40,000 word series about American newspapering at The Post said Puff was about the best editor with whom he had ever worked.

But what I will remember best and what best eases the pain of his loss is my memories of Puff in his office at GW. As a student said at his memorial, his office was always open. ALWAYS. He was there not the couple of hours a week that often pass for office hours for today’s teachers, but almost literally, always. Except for his strolls home the three blocks to have lunch with Susan.

I delighted in being with him in that office. His gentle humor in remembering the fun and funny parts of our careers, often joint careers, was a great pleasure in my life. But when a student peeked in or softly knocked on the open door, Puff would go on hold with our conversation while he beckoned the youngster in and dealt with the question or the problem.

Not that he dealt condescendingly or too softly, as one might suspect of a professor known tto students openly by his nickname. H
e was demanding, and expecting the best of his students, very often got it.

He was about as proud as a parent when a student did exceptional work, got an internship, won an honor, went on to make a great place for him/herself in the journalistic world. Many did.

Puff was always self-effacing, speaking of his colleagues’ accomplishments on the newspaper or his students’ progress and success as if this was being done without Puff’s gifted and highly professional assistance.

But in his last months in banquets at the National Press Club, he did begin to get some of the recognition long overdue. The Hatchet, where he was an original member of the board of directors, named him a winner of the lifetime alumni achievement award (he held an M.A. in history from GW.) The Washington Society of Professional Journalists some weeks later honored him with its Distinguished Service Award.

Among brief true stories told at that time: when Carl Bernstein whom Puff had mentored at the old Star applied at The Post, Puff told the editors, “Hire him. He will win you a Pulitzer Prize someday.” When Puff himself later went to The Post, the curmudgeon for whom he first worked pulled him aside one day, in The Post’s fabled period of creative tension, and suggested he switch to another desk. “You’ll never make it on this desk. You are too nice a guy!” And when a student one day went to Prof. Bob Willson then heading the Journalism Department to request a switch in classes – “I just don’t get along with Prof. Puffenbarger”-Bob suggested that anyone who could not get along with Puff should probably switch not just classes but schools.

When Puff was nominated for the SPJ award, some two dozen colleagues and former students wrote supporting letters. One of them nailed it: “He was the Mr. Chips of journalism education.”

Lord, how he will be missed.

-Phil Robbins, journalistFormer GW professor

The GW community suffered a great loss last week with the passing of Charles “Puff” Puffenbarger, who to many people was a best friend and colleague in journalism and beyond.

For a man who had suffered so many hardships during the past year, one can only hope now that he is resting comfortably, reunited with his wife in a good place. But his presence there robs us of one of journalism’s – and The GW Hatchet’s – greatest allies and confidantes.

Future journalism students will never get to hear Puff’s entertaining and insightful stories of a life in journalism. They won’t get to hear what an instrumental role he indirectly had in The Washington Post’s Watergate scandal coverage, for example (when he was an editor there, Puff hired Carl Bernstein as a copy aide). Nor will they have him there to remind them daily of all the internships and scholarships they should be applying for.

Most importantly, though, they won’t find him in his office with the door open, ready to counsel and advise any student who needs direction.

That is a shame, but for the thousands of students who did have the privilege of interacting with him over the years, those memories will stay with us forever. It was no surprise that at the memorial service shortly after he died, the room was bursting at the seams with Puff’s friends – both former colleagues in the newspaper business and current ones from the faculty, as well as swarms of current and former students. The crowd intermingled, each group of people marveling at all of the other groups, realizing not for the first time how fully Puff influenced so many different people.

Puffenbarger will forever be remembered as the man who embodied the ideal mix of teacher and practitioner. His journalism career spanned the decades, and when he came to GW to teach, there was no doubt about his professional credentials. But what made Puff so amazing was how well he made the transition to the classroom. He clearly knew his industry, and he clearly knew how to teach it to others as well.

Puff’s teaching had a special impact on The Hatchet, to which he was without a doubt a father-figure for so many. He embraced this newspaper and tried whenever possible to make it better through both his teaching in the classroom and his service on The Hatchet’s Board of Directors. Puff was a board member from the first day The Hatchet became an independent student newspaper, and his commitment and dedication earned him the paper’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award in May.

Everyone who has served as an editor with The Hatchet since Puff arrived at GW can call themselves better from the experience of having Puff both in the classroom and at the paper. His contributions to The Hatchet will be impossible to fully replace.

Also, Puff was a tireless defender of his profession – claiming whenever someone would challenge him that journalism is a good industry, filled with good, dedicated people. He was a man of unquestionable character, and his ethics distinguish him. That is what he tried to impart on others, whether it was young journalists he nurtured as an editor or young students he coddled as a mentor. He knew that if he continued to tell it like it is, young journalists would carry on the tradition and the values he espoused. Even as the industry changed around him, Puff adapted and learned, whether in new technologies or new styles.

But he never abandoned the basics of what made him successful. And in passing that on, he ensured that an ever-widening web of his prot?g?s will continue passing that tradition on to those they interact with. That will be his legacy, and that is why he will be so sorely missed.

-Jared Sher, editor in chiefThe GW Hatchet 1995-1997

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