Students remember journalism mentor

The United States was facing the fight of its life at the height of the Vietnam War when GW alumnus Berl Brechner was drafted.

But Brechner honed his writing skills, not his military deftness, at GW. That is why former Professor Robert Willson called a friend at the Pentagon. Willson assisted Brechner in getting a two-year writing career in the army, which kept Brechner off the front lines in Vietnam.

As the first anniversary of Willson’s death approaches, his students and family are continuing to remember Willson – the teacher, the father and the journalist.

Willson died Feb. 8, 1999 of congenital heart failure. He was 73 years old. He is most remembered at GW for 39 years of service to the journalism program and as the adviser to The GW Hatchet and the Cherry Tree. He also obtained his undergraduate degree at GW.

His students say he was a treasure from the old school of journalism. They credit him with bringing real-world journalists to GW and said the University’s current program is partially a result of his efforts.

He knew professionals in Washington and tapped into them, 1969 alumna Hazel Becker said.

She later said the type of education Willson offered gave her tools she still uses in her work today.

Becker said she learned to think like a reporter under Willson’s tutelage.

Willson was known for his disciplined approach to the business.

He was gruff, and you didn’t want to cross him, Becker said. But she said because of the gruffness, Willson did not always get the credit he deserved.

Becker remembers a time when a fellow student needed scholarship money to remain in school. The student’s father had passed away and without the money, she would have to leave GW. The young woman tried to get a scholarship by running for editor in chief of the Cherry Tree, but she failed.

Willson stepped in and insured the young woman got a different scholarship after the elections, said Becker, who worked for The Hatchet.

In addition to caring for students, Willson cared for his family. His daughter, Penelope Arnett, wrote that she was lucky to have Willson in her life because he exposed her to a large cross-section of the things life has to offer.

She remembers the little things that made her father unique.

He was a gourmet cook who enjoyed all of the arts, as well as outdoor sports, Arnett wrote in an e-mail. He enjoyed tying his own flies for fishing.

But the accomplishments outside of his career became more apparent only after he was gone.

He was never acknowledged for his kindness, Becker said. I don’t know how often he showed his human side.

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