This morning I do not have any marketing tips, personal development techniques nor branding strategies. I do not have any snarky or pithy comments nor industry trends to share. What I do have is a story about a man who fundamentally changed the course of my life.
He did not put a camera into my hands, but without him I would not be a photographer.
He did not teach me how to work in marketing, but without him I would not have spent the better part of a decade doing so.
He did not show me how to be a professional public speaker, but without him I probably never would have presented to any audience.
I first met Bill Greer while he was the professor of one of the capstone courses at the University of Arizona Journalism Department (which later became the School of Journalism). Everything about him was unorthodox – commonly wearing Hawaiian shirts, khakis and oversized orthopedic shoes. His movement around the department were never fast, but a slow shuffling of one foot in front of the other always keeping his gaze straight ahead. His hair, often looking uncombed, had a personality and life of its own.
His lectures were anything but lectures. They were more an informal stream of consciousness, stringing together thoughts, ideas, memories and inspirations. Students of his classes may not have received every bullet point that was on the lesson plan (something I’m certain he created only because he was required to) but if they really listened – there was some fascinating insights from these casual and often undirected conversations.
Greer was never the type of person who talked much about himself or his past – but with 12 years working for the Associated Press and another few decades as a teacher there was an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and experiences – but only if you paid attention and knew how to listen. I tried to do both.
One of his jobs was as an adviser to a student-run newspaper distributed throughout Tombstone, Arizona. After all, what better way to teach aspiring journalists how to interview and report than by sending them 70 miles southeast to a tourist trap town with a never-ended supply of drama.
He placed me into the role of Photo Editor for the publication – although thinking back I am unsure why as I truthfully had zero experience in such a position. My first issue working for the newspaper I took an image of a mock gunfight (something which happened daily in Tombstone) and we ran it on the cover.
Once the issue was out he gathered the staff around in a postmortem – what went well in the issue, what needs to be improved upon in the next issue and so on. He started with my image and held up the paper. “Excellent photo James… excellent.”
That moment, right there, was the first moment I ever considered actually working professionally as a photographer.
However Greer did not solely give praise. Two months later I did another photo which was anything but quality. Truthfully it was trash – figuratively and literally the photo was of trash. A local restaurant was going under renovations and out of lack of understanding of the assignment mixed with laziness, I photographed all the trash they were dumping on the side of the restaurant from the renovation. Had the story been about a restaurant owner making a mess – I could have had a great review. However in that issue’s postmortem he once again held up the paper in front of the staff. “Terrible photo James… terrible. This is sloppy photojournalism.” He held onto that photo for quite sometime and continued to use it as an example to students of what not to do.
Yet I stuck around as there were plenty more issues to come. Some I created work he loved, others not as much – but I never again made a photo he hated.
What did shift however was the way in which we worked together. Back then… how could I be aware that my life was being changed? Little by little it was… until it was entirely different.
He first started asking me to give “guest lectures” to his classes on various topics related to what I had been doing with photography. A position opened up as a photo editor for a small magazine, which he helped me get with my experience working for him. I then began to teach lab portions of his classes. If you were to ask me then (or now for that matter), why I got involved – I honestly couldn’t tell you a real reason other than it just felt like it was the right thing to do.
My priorities in life shifted. On weekend I became less interested in rounds at the bar – and more interested in pushing my work in photography.
It was 10 months before my college graduation when he asked for my resume to be on his desk the next morning. I asked why and the response, in true Greer-style “because I want your resume on my desk tomorrow morning is why.”
In a few days I received a phone call from a company looking to hire someone in marketing. Another former student of his was doing the hiring and came to him for the recommendation. A few weeks later I began my career in marketing, still going to school, still working as a photo editor for both the newspaper and the magazine and still lecturing to his classes.
Upon graduation I stuck around the Journalism Department and, along with another friend who graduated near the same time, continued to help him in teaching classes in photography, photo editing and now how to market yourself as a photographer. But our first duty was to wake him up from his afternoon nap he liked to take on the couch of one of the other professor’s offices.
He continued to have this unique method of challenging his students. One afternoon I was assisting him going through his student’s recent photo work. I would show him a photo and he would tell me the grade to give. With one image he said “this is a great photo, A+, who took this?” I told him the student’s name to which he replied “Make it a B-”
You must understand, he did not view the project as a stand-alone piece. He instead viewed the student as an opportunity that he personally had to change and mold into the best person possible over the course of a semester. It was not about this one photo – it was about the arc and journey of this student and the role he played to constantly push all of his students beyond what any of them thought was ever possible. My mind went back to “Terrible photo James… terrible” and I smiled.
There is this common expression used to describe selfless people. “They will give you the shirt off their back and the shoes off their feet.” That is how Greer was – literally. One year he gifted me one of his Hawaiian shifts and told me that I had two choices, I could shrink the shirt in the wash or gain a bit of weight and it would fit me. On several occasions he tried giving me an extra pair of his bulky orthopedic shoes which he said were truly amazing and far more comfortable than the dress shoes I was wearing. Those I had to graciously decline.
But his selflessness never tired. I would see, year after year, him go out of way to help a student with a referral, get a job or navigate a challenge. Often times he would do it without the student ever knowing he was involved. He did not need thanks or appreciation for what he did. He truly wanted to see his students succeed.
As part of his nature of giving – Greer headed up the annual High School Diversity Workshop. Arizona high school students from diverse backgrounds were invited to spend several days at the University learning about journalism and being able to put together their own newspaper. Of course I signed on to work at it every year teaching about photography, photojournalism and photo editing.
Even after his retirement – he remained curious about his former students. Over dinners at his favorite Italian restaurant on 4th Avenue he would ask about people. Hearing about their success brought a true smile to his face and although he would never accept credit for it – I’m certain he played a role in their path.
Six days ago he passed away in San Diego. News of his death reached me by Sunday morning and I’ve spent the last week attempting to sort through my own feelings and emotions. I truly question how I am supposed to be able to say goodby.
How can I say goodbye to the man who taught me how to order a real man’s drink, who showed me the importance of persistence, who gave me the opportunity to succeed or fail, who never took “no” for an answer and who never lost faith in me?
Six months ago, eight months ago, a year ago, I wanted to write him and tell him how much he impacted and changed my life – but I didn’t. I wanted to arrange another get together for dinner at that Italian place – but I didn’t. Life always came up and I always thought there would be another opportunity – that our time is not as finite as it was. I struggle saying goodbye because I don’t know if I was ever able to truly come up with the words to say “thank you.”
The last time I saw him – it was at his last birthday party this past summer at a small Irish bar in east Tucson. As the celebration came to a conclusion we hugged and he shook my hand and said, “Keep shooting James… I’m always seeing your work, I love it.” Then after a brief sentimental pause he said, “especially all those beautiful young women.”
I laughed and said to myself next time you need to tell him. He needs to hear how much he was responsible for where I’ve gone and where I will go in my career and life. But there never would be that next time.
He remains this iconic figure in my mind – a representation of a species of man that has nearly become extinct. He had survived this fantastic life of adventure which was later limited by the bandwidth of his health. He then selflessly devoted all of his energy to his students. He despised lethargic and wasted talent so when he saw potential he latched on, he challenged and he pushed people.
What he really did was he gave people the opportunity to succeed or fail.
Thank you for that opportunity Professor Greer.