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A Tribute to Peter P. Jacobi

Posted on Tuesday, April 28, 2020 at 10:41 PM

Contributing over 275 articles and 25 years, Peter Jacobi offered a plenitude of lessons for EO readers.

By Denise Gable

Editors Only lost one of our own on December 24, 2019. Peter Jacobi, a monthly contributor since July 1994, passed away at the age of 89.

William Dunkerley recalls: "I first met Peter when I was a relatively young managing editor of a national association monthly. He presented a workshop on editing during a conference of the American Society of Association Executives that I attended. His presentation was outstanding and I learned quite a lot. First he introduced some principles and techniques and then had us write copy that hopefully reflected our new skills. I was very impressed with his authoritative style and use of humor. Decades later when I was looking for a regular contributor to Editors Only on the subject of writing, Peter was the first person I turned to. I continued to learn much from him as I read his EO articles over the years. His passing is a great loss to us all."

Peter was a valued member of the team, contributing 277 articles (he kept count) on topics ranging from story structure to using your voice to the element of surprise -- all with the goal of keeping readers engaged and happy. "Every consideration must take me back to the reader, what his or her wants and needs are likely to be," he wrote.

"If you are a regular reader of my monthly contributions, you know I quote a lot. That’s because, when I come across a morsel or two of advice or a sample of something I benefited from reading, I want to share it, having recognized that you’ll get information from someone I think is smarter than I am. Or from someone with a different and useful perspective. Or someone or some place that I never would have thought of as source and I believe you also my might not." You’ll find tidbits from his inspiring writing throughout this article.

In his last submission to Editors Only, he wrote about rhythm. "As I write this column during the last days of May, I am still thinking about the death, just a few weeks ago, of Mary Oliver. The news made me sad. She was and remains a poet who moved me."

Peter found inspiration in poetry and his beloved music, but also managed to find journalistic lessons in fundraising letters and, as he put it, not-so-important mail. "Somehow, life got in my path, and -- being a month short of 89 as I write -- I’m increasingly doubtful that trekking and dogsledding and kayaking through the wilderness are for me to accomplish. How I love the article’s details and sense of purpose, though. It got my mind to Alaska, if not the physical rest of me," he wrote when citing an AARP newsletter article.

After this article he requested a leave of absence to close down his longtime home and move with his wife, Hattie, into an adult living community. Sadly, he was unable to return to Editors Only: Hattie passed away on September 30, and he followed three months later.

Peter was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1930. He came with his family to the United States at age eight where he became a naturalized citizen six years later. He earned two degrees focused on journalism from Northwestern University in the early 1950s. He then served in the US Army from 1953 to 1955. Later in 1955 he joined the faculty at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism as a lecturer. Before leaving Medill he attained the rank of professor and associate dean.

In 1985 he began teaching journalism classes at Indiana University. He reluctantly retired in 2017 as professor emeritus. Two years ago he wrote, "I no longer teach my classes, since I dropped out two years ago when I was 85. By then, I had been officially retired for 16 years but was still teaching part time. It was long enough, I decided."

Peter was a member of the Association for Education in Journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Association of University Professors, and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He also wrote a weekly arts column for his local newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana; was a member of the Indiana Arts Commission, serving as chairman from 1990 to 1993; and is author of The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It and Writing with Style: The News Story and the Feature, both available on Amazon. In 2019 he was cited by Marquis Who's Who Top Educators for "dedication, achievements, and leadership in the field of journalism."

Peter and I corresponded through monthly emails for almost 20 years. Technology was not always his friend, and once Editors Only went digital, he politely requested that I print and send hard copies for his review and records. Between teaching, traveling, and writing, he was a busy man but would do his best to honor our deadlines: "The day is rain-soaked and gloomy. But getting another column done is like sunshine."

In our March 2017 issue, he wrote: "I convinced myself many years ago that I don’t believe in writer’s block. And when it comes to making deadlines when I used to meet (and still do) deadlines with news and feature stories for newspapers, with program material for radio and television, with putting together and out magazine issues, I always ended up following my belief that deadlines must be met.... Almost all I write is done so under the self-imposed pressure brought on by delay. The column you’re here reading is being written on the 29th of the month, and it probably wouldn’t have been started until tomorrow or the day after, if I weren’t scheduled for cataract surgery tomorrow, which has led me to the realization I better get this column done pronto."

In later years, the emails tended to concentrate on the challenges of aging and declining health. The last time he wrote, he said, "Such things happen when you’re 89! They show up unannounced and unwelcome."

In the coming months, we will be republishing a few of his classic articles as a tribute to his long association with Editors Only.

"Yes, writing is difficult, but think of other professions and think what your accomplishment can mean for those you reach with your words. Long years ago, between jobs, between being forced to put a magazine to sleep and being offered a short-term university teaching position, I spent a couple of weeks selling Christmas trees in bitter Chicago cold; with two young children, my wife and I needed the money. Now, whenever I get unhappy with my writing, I think about that experience; suddenly my discontent about writing alters into gratitude for what I’ve ended up doing most of my life: working with words rather than Christmas trees. Writing is not so bad, after all. I’ve come to love it."

Thank you, Peter, for all your words and lessons!

Denise Gable is managing editor of Editors Only.

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"RIP, Peter. I learned something from every single one of his articles. He will be missed." --Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, www.WriterRuth.com

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