The world lost a great man yesterday and I lost one of my all-time mentors. Dr. Mike James played a major role in many of my life-changing-turning-points of my existence.
In 1974 I had just arrived at Harding College and was able to secure a scholarship position as the photographer for their yearbook, the Petit Jean. I was probably not qualified to do the job, but I thought I was. I needed the money, and I figured I would learn on the job to do what I needed to keep the scholarship.
I may not have been a good student at the time, but I was always a bit of an entrepreneur and hard worker. The job ended up being a lot of work. It wasn’t difficult, but it took a lot of time. It was more time than I ever dreamed it would be.
A few weeks into the semester, there was a knock on my darkroom door. When I opened the door there was a tall, skinny man standing there. He had dark hair and a crooked smile. His eyes squinted, but even more so when he smiled. He had a warm and helpful visage. I wondered who is this guy, and what does he want?
He said, “Hi, I’m Mike James. Dr. Joe, (the yearbook faculty advisor), sent me over to see if I could help you.”
At first, I felt defeated because I thought I must not have been performing my job very well to the point that Dr. Joe had to send someone to help me. But then I remembered that he had said he would send some help, and I needed some help. My second thought was that I was very relieved to see him because I was in over my head with this job. Mike was an employee of Harding College, working as a full-time photographer in the Public Relations office. He taught me many things about the art and science of photography. Mike became one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and a mentor in so many ways. I wanted to “be like Mike” long before I had ever heard of Michael Jordon!
In August of 1975 Mike James was the photographer at our wedding. Even on my wedding day I watched him and Beth work the event with ease, professionalism and fun. I remember thinking as I watched him, I wanted to “be like Mike.” Every year on my wedding anniversary I post a photo of me and my bride that Mike so carefully posed, and then in a 1/60 of a second, and a flash, captured a forever moment in my life.
I didn’t return to the photographers role the next semester and Mike’s brother-in-law Dave Hogan took over the position.
Near the middle of the fall semester of 1975, Mike James came to see me to congratulate me because he had received word that my work as a photographer for the 1974-1975 yearbook had placed first in the Arkansas Collegiate Press Association’s yearbook competition! I was stunned with surprise and delight! I assured Mike James that he deserved this award more than I did, but he wouldn’t have any of that talk from me and assured me that I had done all of the hard work, and he just pointed me in the right direction. He was humble like that.
In the fall of ’76, I was assigned as an intern in the news department of KATV. There had only been one other intern at KATV from Harding (or anywhere else for that matter), but I was the first intern to be placed in the news department. This gave me the opportunity to be exposed (no pun intended) to the area of photojournalism that used 16mm film. Because I knew the principles of exposure with shutter speeds, f-stops, and film processing that I had learned from Mike James, I was able to pick up the needed skills to be a valuable asset to their work. In the spring of ’77, KATV offered me a job as a full-time photojournalist. Even though I was primarily used for news and motion pictures with film, I was also the station’s still photographer whenever they needed someone. I was no Mike James in this role but I was trying to “be-like-Mike.”
I never lost touch with Mike James over the next 30 years. Every time I went back to Searcy, I made a dash to his office to say hi and visit with him. He always welcomed me warmly with that same squinty-eyed expression and crooked smile that I had come to love. My son Matthew had Mike James for his photography class and still attributes much of what he learned about photography not from me, his dad, but from Mike James, his dad’s mentor.
On December 26th, 2007 I received a phone call from Dr. James, telling me that Harding was in need of an advertising teacher and as the chairman of the department of Mass Communication he wanted me to fill that vacancy! Over the many years since I left Harding Mike James kept up with me both personally and professionally. He knew I had earned my Master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communication from Roosevelt University in Chicago. He knew that was I currently working in advertising with my own agency. He knew that I was an adjunct professor teaching Advertising in Chicago. Mike knew all of this because that’s what a mentor does with his mentees.
In the fall of 2008, 34 years after I had started as the Petit Jean photographer, I was hired as an assistant professor of Mass Communication at Harding by the chairman of the Department of Communication, Dr. Mike James. I was humbled and thrilled to be back in his discipleship now learning now how to be a professor of mass communication. I watched how the students adored him. I saw how easy and gentle he was with the department faculty. I saw how every faculty member thought of him as their best friend, as he was mine. I was still learning from him as I watched him, “just be Mike!” More than my photography skills, I learned how to be a mentor to so many students that followed me, as I walked in Mike’s footsteps.
The last time I saw Mike was shortly before we both retired in the summer of 2020. We had a conversation as we were ordering coffee in the Harding Student Center. We talked about both of our impending retirements. I reminded him that 45 years previous to that summer he photographed my wedding. Mike said he remembered it well. I don’t know if he really did or not? That would be quite the memory. He and Beth had taken over 3,000 wedding in their work, but somehow, I believed him. I then reminded him that in only five years Donna and I would celebrate our 50th Wedding Anniversary, and asked him if he would be willing come to wherever we were to take the photos? Mike stuck his hand out to shake on it and said, “Deal!” Right about that time, our names were called to pick up our coffee. We shook hands in a familial but business-like manner and walked away.
Rest In Peace My Friend – October 9, 2021
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Steve Shaner is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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