Penny Bender Fuchs was a true believer in the power of words and the need for storytellers. She taught her students, hundreds and hundreds of students, that even the hard words — the words no one wants to read — were always worth writing.
So, here goes: Penny died Friday.
These are hard words to write.
Penny defined the journalism college. She was teacher, mentor, role model, friend.
Penny was the hug in the hallway for hard times, the high five in celebration and the kick in the rear many would later credit with our careers.
She was uncompromising. One factual error would earn you a big fat “F.” More than one would warrant a sit-down in her office.
Penny expected the best. And she brought it out in her students, often without us even realizing.
I was 17 years old the first time I met Penny.
On a tour of the journalism facilities, Penny led a discussion among prospective students interested in print reporting. The written word. The kind of journalism everyone told us was dead.
This didn’t seem to faze her. In fact, she made her position clear: If this is what you want to do, there is no excuse not to do it.
Distressed that I appeared to be the only high school student in my tour group who had never worked at a newspaper or taken a journalism course, I approached her after the presentation. I asked, was I in the right place? Could I do this?
Her response will stay with me: “How bad do you want it?”
I have since learned I am not the first — and certainly not the last — student to whom she posed this question.
Those of us who responded with honesty and passion were forever changed. Penny was in our corner, and she never let us forget it.
As the career placement and professional development director for the journalism school, Penny maintained relationships with publications around the world. She emailed students almost weekly to remind them to take advantage of opportunities.
She sat down with students to go over resumes, critique writing samples and quell insecurities. Her schedule was always booked. A student was always in her office, picking a piece of chocolate from the basket atop her desk.
A classmate of mine recalled: “She always wanted to give more to students, even those she wasn’t obligated to help.”
And give she did.
Years after our first encounter, I sought Penny out. Much had changed. Penny was no longer the career placement and professional development director. The journalism school had moved into a shiny new building. I was far from unsure.
One thing hadn’t changed: Penny was the only person whose advice I trusted. Her word was gospel. Her wisdom unparalleled.
She greeted me as she always did: a hug, a piece of candy.
We discussed my options. I had offers from some of the most reputable newspapers in the country. I was panicked.
Penny smiled that half smile we all knew so well, and said, “This is a good problem to have.”
I remember these words as I consider the loss we feel.
We hurt because we loved her. We hurt because she touched our lives and made us better for it. We hurt because the world lost someone remarkable.
This is a good problem to have.
Penny will be missed, but not forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers are with Penny’s husband and children, the lights of her life. We thank you profusely for sharing her with all of us. We hope to honor her memory in the best way we know how — by never giving up.
Marissa Lang is a 2011 journalism alumna and former editor in chief of The Diamondback. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re reading this, you probably didn’t know Penny Bender Fuchs. Statistically, I mean, you probably didn’t — the journalism college is small fry compared to other colleges. But within the confines of Knight Hall, she was it. She died Friday, and I can’t think of one journalism student she didn’t affect.
Penny was a true educator who combined tough love with actual love, letting students past her gruffness only when they proved they were worthy of seeing the incredibly sweet person underneath. She was the face of the school, one of the few people who cast a wide enough net to affect everyone she worked with.
The nervous freshmen all knew the stories of her no-crap approach to JOUR 201, or That Class In Which People Realize Journalism Is Stupid Anyway And Quit. The upperclassmen who survived her knew, even if she really liked them, she wouldn’t put up with their screwing around.
I had her twice: Once as my internship supervisor, and once as the teacher of my capstone class. The latter is where we developed an actual friendship — of all of my professors, she was the only one who spent time getting to know me and my interests, and then helped me take advantage of them.
It wasn’t just for me. I’m reminded of my friends who didn’t fit snugly in the inverted-pyramid mold the Merrill faculty clings to so strongly. Like the guy who was a great journalist, but a better snarky blogger (she set him up at the Village Voice). Or me, a writer-turned-journalist who wanted to focus on long features (she found me one of the only newspapers that still has enough physical space to handle long-form pieces).
When I learned Penny died Friday afternoon, I was sitting at my desk at the job she encouraged me to apply to, fielding and making calls, typing notes, fiddling with my small Testudo key chain.
After I heard, I stopped, choked back tears and continued to make calls. One of them netted me two great sources: a husband and a wife who had eluded me for days. I inserted their thoughts into a story I had been working on. The quotes turned the article from merely serviceable to something much, much stronger.
I held in the gut-punch of the news until my story was filed and I had left for the day, as Penny would have wanted.
You can’t teach doggedness, ambition or the primal desire to push forward. But Penny nudged those traits, dormant as they might have been, out of all of us. She zeroed in on our strengths, our desires and our fears, and she positioned us in a way that we could use our strengths to overcome our weaknesses. She knew who to put us in touch with; she saw beyond our ephemeral ideals and made us realize what we really wanted. I’m done with school forever, and I can safely say Penny was the best teacher I ever had.
My last ever memory as an undergraduate was dizzily walking across a stage in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, applause all around, heading stage right to accept my diploma from the dean.
Penny was handing the diplomas to him. He gave me an envelope, shook my hand and congratulated me, but I was stuck staring at Penny, who was absolutely beaming.
And, despite our closeness, I knew there was no way she was only smiling for me. There were scores of graduates that day, and she was proud of every single one.
Jon Wolper is a 2012 journalism alumnus and former diversions editor of The Diamondback. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Sometimes, you're only as good as your teachers. Yes, I don't think I'd have a job as a reporter without Penny Fuchs. Nor would many of my journalism school alumni friends. But she did more than place graduating students in paid positions in their field of choice.To teach so many people what good journalism is — transparent, ethical, fair — has a lasting impact on not only those individuals but the field as a whole. She helped us instinctively know how to handle the toughest of positions. She challenged us, and we learned that perfection is reporting the news in an unbiased format to the very best of your ability. Penny, you didn't just help my friends and I start our careers. You mined a generation of reporters, who will in turn mine another generation of reporters. Thanks for keeping journalism the way it should be.
Rachel Roubein is a 2012 journalism alumna and former news editor of The Diamondback. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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