Professor Jake Highton – A Remembrance

Professor Jake Highton – A Remembrance

The Reynolds School community is mourning the loss of Professor Emeritus Jake Highton, who died yesterday at age 86.

Jake taught in the School for 30 years before retiring as professor emeritus in 2011. Beloved by former students as a challenging but caring professor, Jake remained active as a journalist until his final days, publishing a column in the Sparks Tribune just this week.

Here are some memories from former students upon hearing of Jake’s passing.

Annie Flanzraich, freelance writer and editor

The worst grades on my college transcript are D’s for two, 300-level writing and editing classes. Jake Highton taught both.

When I earned the first D, I blamed Jake. When I earned the second, I blamed myself. Jake taught me responsibility. He taught me to accept the consequences of my actions. He taught me being smart, talented and driven isn’t enough to earn success. You must show up. You must do the work.

When I look back, I’m proud of what those D’s taught me. I’m grateful for every red line and question mark. As a teacher at the Reynolds School of Journalism, I try to impart Jake’s lessons to my students. Write tight. Use active verbs. Check your facts. Eliminate excuses. Skip the euphemisms.

Thank you, Jake. May your memory be for a blessing.

Jessica Estepa, politics writer at USA Today

Jake Highton, the journalism professor who petrified and shaped many a J-school student, died this week. He was 86. I’d like to tell you a story about me and Jake. (And I’d like to point out that he’d probably hate that transition.)

Back in 2008, I was the managing editor of the Sagebrush, our school paper. His advanced reporting class was the morning after our weekly production night. I was never on time. That was a sticking point with Jake. He’d go on about the importance of meeting deadlines, and I’d refute that this was a class, not a deadline.

And then I slept through the final.

I wandered into his office sometime after the final ended, ashamed. He heard my explanation out and then told me, in the most Jake way, “Jessica, you are the best goddamned reporter in the class, but you are a terrible student.”

I passed. I chose to take two classes more classes with this man because I knew that there was still so much more to learn from him. And I eventually learned the importance of showing up on time. I wish I’d kept in better touch in his final years. Rest in peace, Jake. You’ll be missed so very much.

Brian Duggan, journalist at the Reno Gazette Journal

Jake Highton, a professor emeritus at the University of Nevada, Reno who inspired and terrified a generation of journalism students, died this week. He was 86. There will never be another one like him. He taught me how to hone my writing, the importance of accuracy and why journalism must not shy from the hard truths in life. Will never forget it. Rest in peace, Jake. I’ll miss our talks about journalism and your endless literary knowledge. Will thumb through my copy of “The Elements of Style” tonight in your honor.

Guy Clifton, public relations specialist at the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs

Jake hammered and hammered and hammered the fundamentals of journalism, emphasizing that every word should matter. Every time I write, I can hear his booming voice. “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!” “Tight, bright sentences.” He regarded the profession of journalism as noble and he made those of us who practiced it proud to be journalists.

Only rarely did his students live up to his expectations of them, but he loved all of them the same.

I know Jake was an avowed atheist, but I can’t help but think that when he arrived at the Pearly Gates, grumbled to St. Peter “I don’t like it,” that he smiled when Mike Land and Travis Linn were there to welcome him to the big newsroom in the sky.

Jacob Sanders, software engineer and journalist

For someone so devoted to full and granular accuracy, Jake Highton didn’t allow too many people to know his real name: Robert Donald. When he was a kid, he followed around a bigger kid in his neighborhood: Jake. He was omnipresent at Big Jake’s side. And so he became first “Little Jake.” And then just “Jake.” Anyone who knew the man knows Jake never stopped being Jake.
He told me that story after I saw his real name on a check. I was home in Portland and I’d missed a flight back to Reno — which meant I was going to miss an exam. I couldn’t afford another ticket right away and to eat. I called Jake to apologize.
He told me to make whatever arrangements I needed and to come and see him when I got in. He’d cut me a check for the airfare.
He barely let me thank him.
“You going to do it again?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“You learn something from all this?”
“Yes,” I said.
And that was that.
As coolly lethal with words as he could be, Jake could pound and Jake could roar. He knew more than one way to kill. I still hear his voice, ramming into us the rules of clean, clear writing. One foot up on the conference table in the second-floor classroom, he thundered again and again, his punctuating fist banging on the lectern with every word, determined that we learn deeply, intuitively when to hyphenate: “Compound adjective modifying a noun!”
It’s been 19 years since I was in that class.
He intentionally worked to destroy you as a writer so he could build you back up, clause by clause, sentence by sentence, breathlessly short paragraph by short paragraph.
But that’s the thing. It wasn’t all about him. It was about the students.
He’s one of the few instructors I’ve ever had who encouraged me to skip class. When I was in his advanced class as a senior, I also did some freelance work, mostly for the Sacramento Bee. Paid journalism. The major point of that class was to build up a portfolio. So he decided I didn’t always need to be there.
“If you have an assignment for a paper, just give me a call or send me an email and then bring me the clip afterward,” he said.
If you wanted that kind of attention from him, it was there. You just had to make it worth his time. He needed to know you were learning. He needed to know you were trying to improve. He needed to know you weren’t ever skimping on something that might benefit your readers.
If it was in your power to make something better and you didn’t — he was never going to understand you.
He was old-school since before old-school. In the late 1990s he still used his textbook from 1976. All President Ford and cathode-ray terminals. And advances in newsroom technology surprised him.
During one class, he talked about his love for the raucous clatter of Teletype machines streaming in wire copy and how it was important to learn how to ignore them to focus on deadline.
I’d done an internship the summer before where, wonder of wonders, the AP wires came in silently on computers. He thought I was kidding. And then he stopped a minute simply to marvel. He was relentlessly curious. Always reading, always exploring. Always teaching. He was good like that.

Alex Newman, senior data journalist at Public Radio International (PRI)

This is actually not the first time I’ve read a Jake Highton obituary

When I was in college, the Society of Professional Journalists set up a high school journalism day that included a writing contest. We kicked it off during the welcome session. Jake stormed in to yell at me while I was talking to the students, feigned a heart attack and died dramatically in the lecture hall.

The students then were set free to interview people about him. Jake put on an excellent show and then retreated to his office, where he was supposed to stay out of sight. Later, as we judged entries, we got one about the ghost of Jake Highton haunting the hallways of the RSJ.

I still tell stories about Jake Highton in my newsroom today because the lessons he taught me are ones I now turn around and teach to the younger reporters around me. The worst paper I ever got back from Jake didn’t have a letter grade, just seven red slashes covering the page.

I actually got an A in his reporting class, but we should not talk about how I did in his editing class.

There are two lessons of his I’ll never forget. On the day he taught us about “verb heads” — headlines that have an active verb, that simply instruct, which you should basically never write — he flipped through his folders of frayed papers and pulled out a front page that said “Kill Kennedy.” I don’t remember the publication, but Jake had been hanging onto that page for 40 years.

The other comes from his First Amendment class when he read George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” in class. Thank you for so many lessons. You will be missed.

Jesse Pacheco, marriage and family therapist

The first day of Jake’s reporting class, I got lost and was consequently late. When I wandered in, nervous and wide-eyed, he immediately scolded me and said if I wanted to be here then I could come back Thursday ON. TIME. Mortified, I slammed my chair down, yelled FINE and stormed out. After a reality check from my colleagues, I walked in 10 minutes early on Thursdays class. I shook his hand, offering a solid apology.

“We’re good now, Jesse” He nodded. And from then on we really were. 

Well, sorta. Jake was by far the hardest professor of my academic career. Of anyone’s academic career at Reynolds School of Journalism. I’m not sure why he specifically motivated me, but I was determined to prove him wrong on just about everything. For the first several weeks of class, his work was the bane of my existence. All of my assignments came back completely scribbled over with large, frustrated comments about my grammatical and content errors. My favorite one though was: ‘JESSE YOU SIMPLY REFUSE TO LEARN!!!’ After a while, I started to pin them allllll up in front of my desk when I typed up my assignments. I thought it came across as dedicated, but to most I probably just looked like some sleep, deprived conspiracy theorist or something. I wanted to be better and became better at the work. I learned a lot about myself and my field. 

This should be the part where I turn my life around or soar up to the top of the class. But I hate grammar & apparently refuse to conform, so of course I accidentally slept through his midterm and ended up with a measly C+! When I realized that I’d slept through it, I freaked out on a level I don’t quite think I’ve ever freaked out on before, and then I parked myself in front of his office door (much to Jake’s chagrin) and wouldn’t leave until he heard me out. What resulted was a very, very long talk (and a re-take) He told me I’m a good person, but that doesn’t make me a good journalist. He told me I should either commit fully or leave the field. What I think a part of me learned then was that I would always be a writer in my heart, but not a “Journalist” – and that was okay (I am now happily a therapist and still a writer!) That day, Jake and I became friends. That’s what happens when you bawl your eyes out in front of someone for an hour. 

Over the next couple of years, I took more of his classes. I got my act together. During class, he would stand at his lectern and demand to know if we all woke up ANGRY, ready to FIGHT. What book are you reading? Tell me think about NWA’s Fuck The Police. And he was endlessly curious, albeit very grouchily, to hear our responses and thoughts to just about everything. He wanted us to believe in ourselves. In between classes, we began to discuss books and poetry. Despite his hard as nails demeanor during class, he was absolutely delightful to talk to.  And we would in his office or walking around campus. We even started an email chain sending back and fourth our favorite Walt Whitman excerpts. He always sent the best ones! Jake started telling me stories about his life, traveling to Paris, and his experiences in the war. These long talks are some of my favorite memories of my undergraduate career. 

It was around then I decided just to get some footage of him for the campus magazine. Honestly, I’m almost embarrassed by this footage, as it’s very sloppily put together. However, I think at the time I just wanted a memory of Jake. When I graduated, Jake was there. He embraced me and told me how proud he was to see this. By then, we weren’t just colleagues, but dear friends. He named it. And it was incredibly touching for me. I was lucky enough to keep in contact for a long time, even after moving across the country, I could still come back home and find him at Archies across the street. 

This is how relationships with our educators should be. Deep. Challenging. Transformative…. I was truly blessed to know Jake as my teacher and as a dear friend. He taught me that brutal honesty is the spark of fire the world needs. And he was the spark sometimes! He taught me that we should live passionately and examine the beautiful intricacies of life. Despite my grief, I feel at peace knowing that Jake lived life upon his terms. Keep fighting. Keeping saying No! He saw the world through the lens of beautiful poetry and words, and we were all better for having read along with him. 

I love you, Jake.


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