The Billings Outpost

Nathaniel Blumberg: tough but compassionate

EDITOR’S NOTE: Nathaniel Blumberg, former dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism, died Feb. 14 at age 89. This recollection was written by James Oset, retired copy desk chief for The Billlings Gazette.

Story and photo - By JAMES OSET - For The Outpost

No one could ever walk away with a feeling of indifference after a conversation with Nathaniel Blumberg. Knowledgeable and sagacious, Nathaniel always made a deep impression on those who met him and those who knew him.

A masterful teacher of journalism, he deeply delved into history, current events and political issues. He was, in my mind, a scholar’s scholar, insisting on accuracy in speech, writing and thought. Forever curious about everything, Nathaniel also possessed an almost childlike sense of wonder.

He developed deep and lasting bonds with most of his students. If you were a friend when you were in school, you remained a friend for life.

Nathaniel was a tough teacher, always insisting on academic excellence. He approached his work much like an Army drill sergeant training new recruits. He would give you holy hell for a dumb mistake but then offer a big pat on the back and great praise when you corrected yourself.

Nathaniel, a Rhodes scholar, received a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University in England. After leaving Oxford in the early 1950s, he worked for a short time for the Washington Post, among other newspapers.

He told me on several occasions that the Post sought to hire him in the early 1960s to be an understudy for the editor there. Nathaniel, who fell in love with Montana, said he just couldn’t bring himself to move his family to D.C. The man who eventually got the job was Ben Bradlee. And the rest is history.

“I could have been the guy directing Watergate coverage,” Nathaniel told me without a hint of regret.

When I worked as a copy editor for The Milwaukee Journal, I talked to the medical reporter, who was a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Illinois. I knew that he was at Northwestern at about the same time Nathaniel was a visiting professor there. When I mentioned Nathaniel’s name, the reporter’s face lit up with a broad smile. Yes, he said, Nathaniel was the only journalism prof at Northwestern who would go out and have a few beers with his students.

About a decade ago, the School of Journalism at the University of Montana invited former students and faculty to a reunion. I recall John Frook, a former student who was the managing editor of Life magazine before it folded, asking Nathaniel if he had any famous historians as dons at Oxford. Nathaniel named about four, but the name that stuck with me was Arnold Toynbee, a major 20th century historian.

Nathaniel also could be personally influential. In the early 1980s, my teenage daughter Becky and I had problems getting along. She and I quarreled constantly about relatively small matters, and I was reaching my wits’ end.

We took a family vacation and decided to visit Nathaniel, who was living several miles south of Big Fork and just above Flathead Lake. By that time, Nathaniel had retired as dean and professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism, and he and his wife, Barbara, a poet, were spending much of their time writing.

When I told Nathaniel how difficult it was raising a teenage daughter, he put his arm around Becky’s shoulder, and they walked down to the lake where they had a three-hour conversation. When they returned, Nathaniel said something like: You have a beautiful and bright daughter, but the schools in Billings are not teaching her much. I could tell that their long talk had gone very well.

It was a transformational moment. I look back on that late afternoon as the time my daughter and I began a much closer and healthier relationship. When Becky attended the University of Montana, she became close friends with Nathaniel and Barbara, frequently taking the bus to Flathead Lake to stay with them over long weekends or holidays.

Beginning in the mid-1980s my family and I would drive to Missoula to meet Nathaniel and sometimes Barbara for Grizzly homecoming football games. We often visited them in summer at their place near Big Fork. Nathaniel always offered his insights on state and national events and often told us amazing and amusing stories. But he also talked about daily events in his life and asked about ours. His warmth radiated through those conversations, and he never hesitated to tell us that he loved us.

With Nathaniel alive, I looked to northwestern Montana and, in my mind, I saw a bright beacon. Now that light has been extinguished. But Nathaniel leaves us his daughters and their children and hundreds of students, colleagues and friends who honor his life. The beacon is becoming many points of light emanating from many different places. I am sure of that.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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