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‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out’: Journalism graduates, faculty remember Richard Ciccone

| Tuesday, November 8, 2016

F. Richard Ciccone’s Fundamentals of Journalism was known for being one of the toughest journalism classes at Notre Dame, but it also served as the spark for many future journalists.

“In the toughness, there was the reality that, if we went into journalism, it was going to be a demanding field. We were going to have demanding editors, you’re going to have difficult deadlines and impossible assignments, but if you couldn’t really cut that in the classroom, you probably weren’t cut out for journalism in the real world,” Monica Yant Kinney, class of 1993 graduate and a former columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said. “If you were into journalism though, and that’s what you wanted to do, it was an incredible thing.”

Ciccone died Wednesday at age 76 of complications from a malignant tumor in his leg at Evanston Northwestern Hospital.

“Scores of Notre Dame students benefited from his talents as an editor and as an educator,” Robert Schmuhl, Walter H. Annenberg–Edmund P. Joyce chair in American Studies and Journalism, said in an email. “The University and the Gallivan Program were very lucky he was willing to devote himself to developing young, ethically-sensitive journalists the last decades of his life.”

Despite Ciccone’s tough exterior, Chris Hine, class of 2009 graduate and Chicago Blackhawks beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, said Ciccone had a big heart. 

“I remember walking into the first day of class and you had heard all of these stories about him, about how tough he was, and you prepared to have your work trampled on by him,” Hine said. “What I really liked about him was that he would always criticize your work in a public way, but he always had a hint of a smile as he was doing it, or that little glimmer in his eye, almost telling you that it was nothing personal, that he was just trying to make it better.”

The Fundamentals of Journalism is the gateway course for everyone in the Journalism, Ethics and Democracy program, and Hine said the lessons he learned in Ciccone’s classroom stayed with him far beyond graduation.

“One of the things he said to me once and just stuck with me was ‘Never turn down an assignment,’” Hine said. “When an editor gives you something, you go do it.”

Another major lesson Hine said Ciccone emphasized was a certain degree of fearfulness in reporting.

“The other thing he always preached was that a good reporter was always a little fearful,” Hine said. “A good reporter is always going to be a little fearful that they’re going to get scooped, that they’re going to get something wrong, but that fear was a healthy thing for a reporter, and he believed it made you a better reporter.

“If you don’t have a little bit of fear, then you’re either going to screw something up or you’re going to miss out on something.”

Tim Logan, class of 2001 graduate and current Boston Globe reporter, said Ciccone taught him the value of writing for the reader.

“He tried to give students a sense of what it was like to work in a newsroom. He was kind of old school. He was serious about editing and making sure your stuff was clean and was good and was written for the readers, basically, which is something I think that takes people time to wrap their heads around as journalism students,” Logan said. “One thing that sticks in my head is that … the point of the first sentence of the story is to get the reader to read the second sentence of the story and so forth.”

Jack Colwell, interim director of the Gallivan Program at Notre Dame, said Ciccone was a classic example of an old-school journalist.

“He came up through the city bureau in Chicago and worked with people who were like that — people who emphasized ‘If your mother loves you, check it out,’” Colwell said. “I think that’s a lesson he’s tried to impart on his students.”

Sarah Childress, class of 2003 graduate and senior digital reporter for Frontline, said Ciccone was “pretty tall, imposing, and he always had that raised eyebrow, skeptical approach to everything that we did.”

“He would read our stuff aloud, and he would tear us apart. And he would ask why we included what we did, why we used that quote, and it was terrifying and he was ruthless, but you learned from that,” Childress said. “You learned a lot, and the lesson stuck, especially when he was calling your name out in class. He was deeply committed to good reporting, and he was trying to drill those fundamentals of good reporting into us. When he actually liked something, that stuck with you too.”

Hine said Ciccone helped him recognize journalism as a potential career path.

“He was such a nice man, inside and outside of the classroom, and I’m really glad that was my first [journalism] class here because I learned so much from him and he was a big help in helping me realize I could do this for a living,” Hine said.

Yant Kinney also launched her career in journalism with help and guidance from Ciccone.

“I had had brief flirtations with applying to advertising agencies, and I was like I don’t even know what I would be doing,” Yant Kinney said. “I don’t think I had my plans set, and I didn’t know where to go. And he was incredibly generous with his time, with his expertise, with helping me weigh options, and that didn’t end when I graduated. … Throughout my career, he really remained a trusted advisor, and as I got older, I really knew him as a friend.”

Sheila Flynn, class of 2004 graduate and current Associate Features Editor at Irish Daily Mail, said Ciccone encouraged her to pursue journalism further as well. 

“[His class] was absolutely fabulous. I went to Notre Dame knowing I wanted to do something in writing. I was thinking perhaps [public relations] or magazine feature writing. His class made me fall in love with the news,” Flynn said.

Ciccone’s death is a loss to the Notre Dame journalism department, Flynn said.

“It’s a huge loss to the journalism program and the journalism world in general,” Flynn said. “He was a great writer and a great reporter and a great teacher. He was one of the last of a dying breed, and everyone who took that class, I know it was their favorite class.”

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Rachel O'Grady is a senior Political Science major living in Ryan Hall and is currently serving as an Assistant Managing Editor. Hailing from Chicago (actual Chicago, not the suburbs) she's been a Cubs fan since birth.

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