Barbara Mack Memorial remembers legacy


Photo: Adam Ring/Iowa State Dail

A portrait of Barbara Mack sits on display during a memorial service celebrating Mack’s life on Friday, Sept. 7, on Central Campus. Mack, who died Aug. 23, graduated from Iowa State and worked for the university for 26 years.

Elizabeth Polsdofer

When Buddy Holly died, people called it “the Day the Music Died,” but when Barbara Mack, associate professor of journalism and communication, died Aug. 23, the news did not die.

Current and former students of Mack hunched over computer screens alternating between typing the story of her loss and grabbing tissues to dry their eyes, showing that the lessons she passed onto her students meant the life of news would continue despite the devastation throughout the ISU community caused by her death.

“People use the word ‘mentor’ because that’s the closest word you can think to describe her,” said Christine Romans, a reporter and correspondent for CNN. “But a mentor doesn’t cover it all.”

Romans spoke in honor of Mack at the Barbara Mack Memorial on Friday, Sept. 7. Before she hit it big with CNN, Romans said Mack was an inspiration in the classroom.

“To other people, you say she was a mentor, but she was bigger than a mentor,” Romans said. “To us, she was a life force, and we all wanted to be like her, and we would walk over hot coals for her. To call her a mentor is sort of… It doesn’t cover it all.”

“Mentor” is one the words that is most commonly used to describe Mack. Another is “iconic.”

“They’ve all been using that word ‘iconic,’ and I guess there’s such a legacy of talents in generations of communicators and reporters and media professionals that have come out of Greenlee,” said John Arends, a 1977 graduate of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Barbara is such a distinctive personality that if you put all of them in a room, you still put those people in the chairs and you put Barbara up at the front teaching.”

Mack is remembered for her larger than life personality in addition to her legacy as a teacher. The loss of Mack is felt deeply throughout the community of journalists and mass media communicators who knew her well.

“She was the things people have said: So bigger than life, so renascent, so compassionate. Just all these combinations of wonderful traits that you just don’t run across in one person and you did in Barbara,” said Mark Hamilton, publisher of the Iowa Falls Times-Citizen. “I can see everybody, all my friends and people I don’t know, feel that same way. It’s really quite inspiring.”

Mack had a distinctivly blunt personality. Throughout the memorial there were bursts of knowing laughter when discussing the types of profane things Mack would say even when in polite company.

“She was brash, bold, brash, driven and determined,” said Tom Emmerson, former professor and department chairman of Greenlee in a story he wrote regarding Mack as an undergraduate at Iowa State.

“I remember one occasion when she announced, while perched on [her adviser’s] desk, that her goal in life was to have [his] job: teaching law at Iowa State,” Emmerson said. “Of course, she prefaced this by saying, ‘sweetie,’ and ended her pronouncement by kissing him smack on top of his very bald head.”

Despite her larger than life personality, Mack is remembered as being the giver of good advice. Current and former students all regarded Mack as source of wisdom and took her advice with strong reverence.

When asked what future generations of students would be missing out with the death of Mack, Jessie Opoien, a reporter at Oshkosh Northwestern and a former editor-in-chief of the Daily, started with “good grammar.”

“Confidence, not cockiness, but just a strong sense of self-worth and balance. It’s so hard to balance work, personal lives and school; these are things that everyone is struggling with, but she’s so phenomenal at doing to a superhuman strength to where I don’t know how she did it,” Opoien said. “She taught me and so many other people that it is important to take time and relax and to spend time with people that you love, but it’s important to do what’s best for yourself and your career.”

The shock of Mack’s death is still felt strongly. Several people still seem in shock, saying they expect Mack to keep appearing to them.

“I think of the fact I keep waiting for her to be here, orchestrating this whole event and making sure that it goes off without a hitch. I can’t believe that this is happening without her pulling the strings and directing the group,” Opoien said. “It was great to see all these people, to see all of these lives from so many ends of the spectrum and so many years that she’s taught, to get a chance to be a part of that.”

The sense of community felt by those mourning Mack was a commanding presence at the Barbara Mack Memorial

“[The memorial] was really very nice and her loss just leaves a big, unusual hole,” Hamilton said. “I feel that way, and I think a lot of people do to. … It’s still hard to get your arms around this, but listening to her students and listening to how eloquently these people talk about her is really soothing.”

Mack’s office door is filled with a few letters and a white rose that was taped to her door the day she died. The loss of Mack is overwhelming to those who knew her, as seen with the turnout at the memorial.

“The force of her personality and her expertise and her generosity,” Arends said. “You can’t image her anywhere except in front of the classroom or at your side giving good advice.”

For all her years at Iowa State, Mack is remembered as a person who gave generously and loved unconditionally. It is clear that although Mack is gone from the Hamilton Hall, her memory and spirit will continue to live on in her current students at Iowa State and her former students who are now working as professionals.

“I want to know how she does it all. How does she have that capacity? How does she have that capacity to give to everybody?” Romans said. “It’s amazing.”