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Saying goodbye to a mentor

It’s not easy to say goodbye to someone. When someone meaningful to you dies, it’s hard to put into words how important he or she was to you and still are after that person is gone.

I’ve struggled with that a lot recently. Last week, my former journalism professor at Indiana University, Terry “Hutch” Hutchens, died from health complications after suffering a stroke while driving, which resulted in a car crash.

The paramedics restarted his heart and he was in critical condition for a few days before passing away on on Dec. 21. I’ve thought about him every day since then.

I met Hutch my first semester as a Master’s of Sports Journalism student at IU. The program was in its first year and run out of the IUPUI campus in Indianapolis instead of Bloomington.

Hutch was the Indiana Hoosiers football and men’s basketball beat writer for the Indianapolis Star and taught the Introduction to Sports Writing class in Bloomington. The year I took his class, he taught the class in Bloomington and in Indianapolis in a feat I’m still impressed with today.

Most of us in the class were new journalism students and had never covered sporting events. I was the exception as I wrote several articles at North Dakota and Minnesota State-Moorhead, but I didn’t earn a degree in that as I was aiming to be a teacher. So because of my lack of a degree, the leaders of the program had me enroll in Hutch’s class.

The first day, I wasn’t sure what to make of the guy. He was blunt and matter-of-fact and wasn’t the friendliest of guys, but that changed fairly quickly. By the third class, he was showing off his sarcastic wit and wasn’t afraid to take little jabs at his students.

I later learned that he only did that if he liked you. Considering he made a joke at my expense by the fifth class, I took it as a good sign. I can’t remember what he said, but it was a good one. Still though, he was an old-school beat writer, a guy who worked hard to be great at his job and he had the awards to prove it.

One night, Indiana’s football team was playing a night game in Bloomington and he invited all the students to come along to experience what it was like covering a Big Ten game. It came at a price, though. You had to write a game story on deadline, just like he had to do (ours wasn’t as strict as his, of course).

Hutch was a tough grader, too. Forgetting a comma was forgivable, getting a statistic wrong was not. Seriously, if you made a factual error, your grade automatically dropped to a B. Two errors, you’re down to a C.

I never got dealt this punishment, but it always stuck in my head. So if you see me at a high school game with a notebook, I’m constantly writing stuff down so I make sure I don’t make any mistakes. Thanks for stressing me out, Hutch.

It wasn’t just on facts, though. Because Hutch worked hard as a writer, his students had to as well. He was lenient at times because we were still just beginners, but he wasn’t afraid to tell you what he really thought.

One time, I had just finished writing a lengthy paper for one of my other classes and I forgot I needed to write a story for Hutch. The assignment was to talk about an upcoming game and to write an opinion column about it on whether it was going to be something to watch or not.

I didn’t completely slough off, but by that time, my brain was fried so I was just trying to finish it. All my facts were right, I made sure of that, but I’ll admit that the story didn’t flow well, and because I couldn’t come up with a quality ending at 2 a.m., I threw in a Terrell Owens quote to finish it off.

Hutch let me know fast that he wasn’t happy with it. Within 20 minutes, he emailed me back with his assessment. For the most part, he wasn’t too harsh, probably because he knew that things were a tad hectic for his students at that time, but at the end, he highlighted my final line and bluntly said, “What’s this crap Ryan? You’re better than this.”

To re-emphasize his point, he had me read my column in class later that week. Whenever an assignment is completed, Hutch gave you an opportunity to read it to the class and get feedback from both him and the fellow students.

He’d insisted I read mine on two previous occasions because he liked them, but this one was different. This time, Hutch used my column to make a point, telling us that we shouldn’t put stuff into a column just to fill space. I knew he was right and I was upset with myself. I left that class wondering if he lost faith in me as a writer, but I was wrong.

The final exam for Hutch’s class was to cover a game on deadline, but it was a strict one. You had until midnight to get it in. If you were one minute over, you failed, and God help you if you made a factual error by that point in the semester.

Before the women’s basketball game started, Hutch gathered us together and handed out assignments. Most of the students had to write a game recap, a handful had to write a sidebar on a specific event during the game, and then one of us would have to write an opinion column, the most difficult assignment.

I’m thinking to myself that there’s no way he’s going to give me the column after the last one I wrote, but that’s what he gave me with a sly grin on his face. I worked hard on it, probably the most of any assignment I’d done over the course of my degree because I didn’t want him to think he made a mistake by giving that assignment to me.

After beating the deadline, I slumped in my chair wondering what Hutch would say. Ten minutes later, I got my answer. “100 percent. Nice work.”

With graduation approaching, I was worrying if I’d land a job on a daily basis. One day, I got an email from a sports editor in the Indy metro area saying that he’d like to take me on as a stringer (a part-time writer). I’d never met the guy before and after agreeing to take the gig, I asked him how he knew about me.

He said, “Hutch said you were good.” I worked as a stringer for six months and I really enjoyed it because Indy is a great city and not just for sports. However, being a stringer wasn’t paying the bills and I needed to find a full-time gig.

I eventually found one and one of the first people to congratulate me was Hutch. He probably would’ve been the first if IU hadn’t been playing basketball that night. He even gave me advice for the gig and how to handle different situations that might happen during a game, and as an author, he encouraged me to write a book someday.

I’ve never forgotten any of that advice. The sad thing is I was planning to ask him for extra writing tips after the holiday season was over and it kills me that I’ll never get that chance again.

When Hutch died, I decided to write a tribute to him and was going to write it that night so it could run last Sunday’s. My wife talked me out of it, though, and I decided to wait until I could figure out what I really wanted to say.

I’ve agonized over it because there have been a lot of great tributes to Hutch from people who knew him far better than I did and I wanted to do him justice. He wasn’t just a beat writer or a professor. He was a mentor to many of his students and he definitely was to me.

One of the last things Hutch wrote was a story about how the Hoosiers basketball team has had six former players die in the last 30 years before the age of 52. Hutch died nine days later at 60. He died far too young, but as a sports writer and a person, he’d accomplished more than many of his students hoped to do.

So goodbye, Hutch. I may not be in your league as a writer, but I’ll keep trying until I get there. Until then, I just hope I made you proud.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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