Commentary: A man who made others better


By John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS – The call came on a Thanksgiving Day.

Harvey Jacobs had died.

Harvey made my career. He taught me much of what I know about writing, about editing and about teaching. He plucked me out of a small town and a small college and, for nearly 20 years, pushed me to keep getting better.

He became my mentor by accident. As the editor of The Indianapolis News, he Column by John Krullcreated the Pulliam Fellowships – then a newspaper fellowship that brought young journalists to work at The News and The Star for the summer after college graduation.

I applied, but didn’t make it into the winners’ circle. I was an alternate.

Three days before the fellowship was to start, Harvey called me. Someone had dropped out. Would I step in?

To this day, I suspect the reason Harvey called me rather than any other alternate was that I lived close to Indianapolis. He never acknowledged that was the case, but he also never denied it.

He took me on as a Pulliam Fellow and, before long, hired me as an editorial writer and columnist.

Thus began my instruction. Harvey, a graceful writer who knew how much sweat goes into making prose look effortless, coached me on the importance of cadence, of understanding that people read as much by sound as they do by sight. He also taught me the value of economy.

“Spend words as if they were money,” he said, “because for a writer they are.”

We were an odd pair.

He was nearly 45 years older, a courtly man of the old school. In all the years I worked closely with him, I saw him not wearing a jacket and tie fewer than five times.

When he hired me, I was a young guy with long hair who rode a motorcycle. (As the years passed, first the motorcycle departed and then, alas, so did the hair.)

Harvey could be a taskmaster. I lost track of the number of editorials and columns he tossed back at me, telling me to give it another go.

He also could be a man of surpassing kindness.

One day, after Harvey and I had worked together a decade, the phone rang in my office. It was my sister, devastated. Her three-month-old son had died hours earlier of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Shell-shocked, I wandered down to Harvey’s office to tell him I needed to fly to California for my nephew’s funeral.

Harvey said, “Of course,” and I headed to my office to lock up.

There was a knock on the door. Harvey stood there, a wad of cash in hand. He wanted to loan me the money for my flight.

I didn’t need the money. He knew that. I thanked him, but declined.

“I really want to help you,” Harvey said. “Please tell me how I can do that.”

Harvey left newspaper work not long after that to become writer in residence at Franklin College, the school from which he had graduated and had served, many years before, as the chair of the journalism department. It also was the small school from which he plucked me many years before.

He died, still working, at 82. I was one of his pallbearers.

Some years later, I became the director of Franklin’s journalism school – in large part because Harvey’s widow, Charlene, took me to lunch and said, “You know, John, Harvey would want you to do this.”

Even in death, Harvey didn’t steer me wrong. In a career filled with fun and fulfilling jobs, this has been the best.

Every year, at the journalism school’s awards dinner, we hand out a Harvey Jacobs Award. Students covet it – and not just because it carries with it a cash prize courtesy of Harvey’s many friends, admirers and protégés. They know winning it means that they’ve not only done good work themselves, but found ways to make others better.

Winning it means they’ve followed Harvey’s example.

Gone for years, the man’s still teaching.

The call telling me Harvey had died came on a Thanksgiving Day.

That’s fitting, I suppose, because, on this and every Thanksgiving Day, having known Harvey Jacobs is and always will be one of the things for which I am the most thankful.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.