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Passing the torch

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Tamaqua native R. Thomas Berner, retired PSU journalism professor, shares early career memories and provides advice to budding journalists of the Tamaqua Area High School Blue and White magazine.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Tamaqua native R. Thomas Berner, retired PSU journalism professor, shares early career memories and provides advice to budding journalists of the Tamaqua Area High School Blue and White magazine.
Published November 09. 2012 05:02PM

Retired journalism professor R. Thomas Berner returned to his alma mater last Friday after an absence of 51 years and offered youngsters sage advice about a secret to success.

"Fall in love," he said. "Love your work. It's a labor of love," explained the former Pennsylvania State University instructor to fifteen staffers of the up-and-coming Tamaqua Area High School Blue and White magazine.

Berner's presentation represented the inaugural program of a unique partnership between the school and Penn State University's Hazleton Campus, often called Highacres. A university spokesman said it's a natural fit.

"We've been meeting with administrators to be more involved in the Tamaqua area. We're trying to increase our presence," said Gary Lawler, chancellor of the local PSU satellite.

Lawler was on hand with Liz Wright, PSU director of academic affairs, to acknowledge the special relationship between the schools. The linkage was demonstrated last year when PSU Hazleton officials served as judges at the Tamaqua Science Fair. In turn, Carol Makuta, Tamaqua district superintendent, serves on the university's advisory board.

The collaboration is the result of work by the Blue Raider Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit entity organized in November, 2009, and launched the following year.

The foundation's objective is to assist the Tamaqua Area School District in funding projects that fall outside of the district budget. The ultimate goal is to support students in achieving maximum potential. The foundation acted as a catalyst in establishing the TAHS-PSU bond.

"We facilitated the first meeting," explained Walt Kruczek, vice president, adding that the linkage has many tangible benefits, for example, "There are scholarships specific to Tamaqua Area graduates," Kruczek explained.

On this day, the focus was on tips by Berner, a Bellefonte resident and 1961 graduate of what was then Tamaqua Area Joint Senior High School. Berner took his time and provided a myriad of advice to young minds that share a passion for writing: "Take good notes ... record your interviews ... carry a camera ... don't interrupt, learn to listen and use your time wisely ... be enterprising ... keep a journal ... read a lot, read newspapers, obituaries, advertising." It's all part of the learning process, said Berner, a U. S. Navy veteran and world traveler.

"Don't go into any interview with any questions you don't already know the answer to. I know that's impossible," he said, emphasizing the importance of becoming very familiar with one's subject matter. Berner also reflected on his start in the field. To help bridge a chronogical cultural gap, he asked the teens if they know what a typewriter is. They said yes.

Berner's support comes at a critical time for the young journalists. The young authors are attempting to revive a time-honored school publication that disappeared for some reason after about 80 years of tradition.

Tamaqua Area School District has a long history of student journalism. For years, TAHS students produced a Blue and White school newspaper, plus a semi-monthly Blue Raider sports update, along with Pactolian Sands literary magazine, The Sphinx, an ever-popular yearbook, and many other publications. For a time, sixth-grade students produced a mimeographed newspaper called Tuscarora Times. Some of the school's periodicals were recognized for excellence at local, state and national levels.

However, in the 1990s, the main newspaper vanished.

"There was no school newspaper when I was here," noted club advisor Krystal Schmauch, a 2000 Tamaqua Area graduate.

Schmauch wants to see student journalism resurrected in Tamaqua. She believes students deserve an outlet for creativity and expression, and an opportunity to demonstrate their own love and passion for the art of writing. So Schmauch stepped up to the plate by becoming adviser "even though I don't have journalism background," she explained.

Schmauch's main job is to serve as the school's itinerant learning and emotional support instructor, her role over the past six years. Being a journalism tutor has been her newest challenge. Under Schmauch's guidance, student staffers launched the all-new Blue and White last January, debuting a glitzy, 24-page, full-color magazine with an ambitious monthly production schedule and a budget of $550 per month. The production is headed by Kyle Weaver, president; Jacob Gursky, vice president; and Gregg Gehman, secretary, plus a roster of enthusiastic contributors.

"I want to bring it back to what it used to be," said Weaver.

Another mentioned the publication's fast growth.

"I liked seeing it go from a website to what it is now," expressed Gursky.

"I like informing the school," said Josh Ambrose-Manness. "If I'm not doing that, I don't feel right."

Internally, the staff is considered a club, a subgroup of Leadership Council. Staffers struggle to fund the publication from typical revenue sources like advertising, but also via grants, such as one from the Blue Raider Foundation. They hope to establish a paid subscription base.

The funding and editorial realities, plus other challenges, were discussed when Berner opened the session to questions, which ran the gamut.

"What's the best way to approach a negative topic, such as the closing of a library," asked Gursky.

Berner cautioned against formulating preconceived ideas. "Don't speculate. You could interview students and ask what it's like to go without a library for 30 days or whatever."

Berner also touched on a common misconception about objectivity.

"Nobody is objective," he affirmed. He explained that humans naturally have feelings and thoughts that come into play. "Be fair and balanced. There aren't just two sides to a story, there are many sides."

The students received encouraging words from Steve Toth, principal, for devotion to student journalism.

"You have alumni coming back here and giving advice. You really did a good job," Toth lauded.

The special day showcased a network of unique partnerships formed in the interest of excellence and achievement.

The Blue Raider Foundation supplements existing efforts and does not replace other fundraising organizations, such as athletic and band boosters. It is also not an affiliate of the school board or the district's administration. Instead, it operates independently. No tax dollars are involved with the foundation.

"This is the start of what will be many programs like this," said Kruczek, a PSU alumnus and former Hazleton campus student.

PSU Hazleton's 100-acre campus is home to 1,200 students and has long been a popular higher-education destiny at Tamaqua Area. It is located in nearby Sugarloaf Township, Luzerne County. The school recently received a $1 million scholarship endowment to benefit students. That endowment was made possible by the Tamaqua-based John E. Morgan Foundation.

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