By Chelsea LoCascio
Robert Carlton Cole: “father of journalism,” “fearless,” “one of the great ones.”
A stream of positive comments poured in on the College’s Facebook post announcing the death of the 78-year-old English professor emeritus on Tuesday, Aug. 4. According to the College’s website, he died from pneumonia and complications from Parkinson’s — a disease that made the once outgoing and enthusiastic professor grow quieter over the years.
“That was the cruelest of all, to see someone whose career was based on dissemination and communication slowly go inside a shell that robbed him of both joys,” Ray Hennessey, editorial director at Entrepreneur, wrote in his tribute to Cole entitled, “What the Death of My Teacher and Friend Taught Me About Mentorship.” Like Hennessey, many students can fondly recall the outspoken man that Cole was before his descent into silence.
“He looked like he was something from the backwoods … a combo of a hippie and Abraham Lincoln,” said Charles Stile, a political columnist for The Record and ’82 English alumnus, in a phone interview. “He was plain spoken. He spoke very directly, sometimes colorfully, sometimes coarsely. He did not speak with the smooth polish of an academic, but he was intelligent. We never felt he was a professor talking down at you.”
Prior to teaching at the College, Cole obtained his bachelor’s degree from Marshall University, master’s degree from Wake Forest University and Ph.D. from Lehigh University. His Wife, Nancy Cole, four children, two stepchildren, six grandchildren and three siblings survive him.
Cole, who was born June 2, 1937, in Beaver, W.Va., to mother Naomi Cole and father Carlton Cole, attributed much of his success to his parents’ nurturing upbringing.
“I can’t talk about my career without mentioning my parents,” Cole said in a 2006 interview with The Signal. “My father was a coal mine foreman and my mother was a registered nurse in West Virginia. They raised four kids up to believe they could do what they wanted to do. They encouraged me and helped me get through hard times, and for the same purpose, my four kids have been a real inspiration to me and I am terrifically proud of all they have done.”
Cole’s pride carried over to his students, as well, according to Chris D’Amico, USA Today NFL editor and former English major at the College in the late ’70s.
“He kept tabs on you long after you left. He kept up on everyone,” D’Amico said in a phone interview. “He knew what everyone was doing and it reminded you of the passion he had for the people he taught. The first time I saw him long after I left (the College), he knew every stop I had made, where I was, and he was proud of what I did. It confirmed my feelings about him.”
Cole’s interest in his students ran deeper than merely checking up on them. During his 33 years of teaching, and after he retired, Cole helped over 400 students find jobs post-graduation, according to tcnj.edu.
The transition from college to the real world was easier, said Tim Quinn, marketing and communications director for the Princeton Public Library and ’81 English alumnus, in a phone interview. Not only did he have plenty of connections in the field, but Cole forced his students to get off campus by covering town meetings, investigating crimes made up by the Hamilton Police specifically for his class and writing for the Trenton Times and Trentonian.
“He gave me a recommendation for my first job at The Sentinel-Ledger in Ocean City. He was instrumental in helping me with that job,” Stile said. “I feel like I grew up in a family who venerated newspapers. I had a vague admiration for newspapers, but he clarified that (feeling) for me. He made it seem like an important thing.”
The Signal would not exist if Cole had not started teaching journalism classes at the College in the ’70s. Quinn, a formal Signal editor, said he would dread production nights each week because he knew Cole’s famous red ink and criticism would grace every edition of the paper.
“He was hard on us and his expectations were high for us, but it came across in a caring, compassionate way,” Quinn said. “He wouldn’t mollycoddle us, but he wouldn’t dwell on it either. He’d make his point, sometimes with humor, but we would know exactly what we screwed up and work on it for next time.”
To say Cole had a profound effect on his students is an understatement, as people like Peggy Ballman, director of issues management communications at Johnson & Johnson and ’80 English alumna, were fundamentally changed by Cole.
“When I heard the news of his passing, my first thought was how much I, The Signal team and any of the students he taught — whether they stayed in journalism or not — owed him. You came out of the program and were changed for the better,” Ballman said in a phone interview. “We couldn’t have learned from a better example … he was an amazing teacher and amazing person. I was blessed to know him and be taught by him.”
Students of the past make it clear to those of the present and future that they would be lucky to encounter a professor as captivating as Cole was. His dedication and passion held everyone’s attention so much that they never once checked the clock in class, Quinn said.
“He infused in us a sense of commitment to social justice. He was teaching us how to use this tool to educate people and make the world a better place. He saw journalism as a vital tool to challenge power. He reflected the new journalism after Watergate,” Stile said. “You couldn’t come away from a meeting with Bob Cole without a huge morale boost. He would talk your ear off and get you so amped up about journalism. It was a special thing to benefit from.”
Those who would like to honor Cole’s memory can donate to the College’s Robert C. Cole Journalism Prize.