Last week, after a particularly good day here at the Prairie Village Post, I ripped a piece of paper off a notepad on my desk and wrote the name Bob Dillon in large, capital letters. I underlined it.
The time had finally come, I decided, to reach out and reconnect with the man who inspired me to get into journalism in the first place, SM East’s journalism adviser for 30 years.
I spent a few moments thinking about what I wanted to tell Mr. Dillon. How 15 years after I last had class with him I still consider him the best teacher I ever had. How he’d accomplished what great teachers do: He’d inspired me, made me fall in love with the subject matter — and then prodded me to work hard, to try to improve my craft with every new opportunity. How I didn’t think I would be who I was or doing what I was doing if he hadn’t been part of my life.
He should hear these things, I thought.
Two nights later, I saw my mother at a family dinner.
“You heard about Mr. Dillion, haven’t you?” she asked.
My heart sank.
“He died last month.”
* * *
Robert Dillon was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1937, and graduated from Central High School in Kansas City. He got degrees from Central Missouri State and the University of Iowa before he began his teaching career. He spent a few years in the Raytown district and then moved to SM East, where he taught until retiring in 1997.
As the the adviser of the Harbinger, he drilled students in the fundamentals of good writing and reporting — and opened our eyes to some classics of American culture along the way. For an assignment on writing movie reviews, Mr. Dillon had students watch “Citizen Kane.” I remember groaning at the thought of enduring something in black and white. And then we watched the movie. I loved it.
He also led by example. Journalism is a lot of fun, but someone still had to do the grunt work. On the day boxes of unstuffed copies of the Harbinger came back from the printer, Mr. Dillon sat at the front of the classroom sliding inside pages into the cover page, just like all of the students. It was monotonous work that he easily could have skipped. He never did. To this day my strongest memory of Mr. Dillon is him leaning back in a student desk with his legs crossed, humming while stuffing the Harbinger.
He was genteel. He was an unassuming. He was kind.
And, most of all, he was great.
* * *
At the end of my junior year at SM East, I got a phone call on a Saturday from Mr. Dillon letting me know that he’d selected me as the editor-in-chief of The Harbinger for the next year. I’d never wanted anything more. The only downside was that Mr. Dillon was retiring, so, for the first time in 30 years, someone else would be the newspaper adviser when the 1997-1998 school year began.
“It is one of the things I’ll regret most about not being here next year, because I really look forward to seeing what you will do,” Mr. Dillon told me.
I was smiling and on the verge of tears at the same time.
To this day it remains one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
And one of the things I’ll regret most is this: Never telling Mr. Dillon in person how much that conversation — and his mentorship — meant.