McGuire on Media

Lou Hodges, whimsy and all, made journalism better.

The best way I can think of to reignite my Media blog, after a long absence, is with a mighty tip of my panama to Lou Hodges, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Professor of Journalism Ethics Emeritus at Washington and Lee University.

I knew Lou Hodges before he assumed that lofty chair and title. Poynter Institute recognized Lou Hodges long before that appointment. When I first met Lou I was a little skeptical as I was in those days of any non-journalist who dispensed ethical advice.

Yet, it was Lou who first catalyzed a wiser, older Tim who now deeply appreciates commentators from outside the journalism profession. And, it was Lou who prompted me to think more seriously about how faith connected with journalism ethics. By the time I retired as editor of the Star Tribune that nexus was so clear in my mind I wrote a syndicated column on ethics values and spirituality.

Lou inspired my belief that ethics is really only about doing the right thing and that right thing is usually connected to our basic values system.

Lou was really smart but I thought his key to success was his understanding that we imperfect beings have jobs which can be made easier with an ethical base.

This excellent obituary on the Washington and Lee website captures the essence of the academic and ethical Lou. However, I am afraid it fails to capture two vital traits that made Lou so memorable for me. I learned those two traits in 2004 or so after Lou had retired and I had retired as editor,. I taught for a term at Washington and Lee as a Reynolds visiting professor. That allowed me to spend considerably more time with Lou.

For my money, the obit fails to highlight the amazing twinkle in Lou’s eye. At formal conferences and important ethics discussions the tall, formal, ordained Methodist minister cut a sober and formidable figure. But when you sat with Lou you found his delightful sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye that made you feel as if the two of you were in on the secret that life is incredibly delightful.

The obituary captures Lou’s interest in guns, beekeeping and hunting but to my astonishment Lou’s passion that most impressed me was missing.

When you went anywhere with Lou he mysteriously carried his briefcase, even to lunch. When he ordered his cheeseburger with fries, Lou would ceremoniously open the weathered brown case, and with that trademark twinkle in his eye almost magically produce a jar of peanut butter.

Lou loved peanut butter. He, with great flourish, called it the “nectar of the Gods” He freely spread it on his cheeseburger and put some on the fries for good measure. Lou offered that he put peanut butter on absolutely everything because “it makes everything better.”

I will always remember Lou as a man who pushed journalistic ethics in the right direction, showed me that my faith and my ethical base were inextricably linked and showed me that a little whimsy and peanut butter can fix just about anything.

Rest in Peace my friend.