While others were celebrating Easter or Passover yesterday, the University Knight-Wallace fellows gathered with their families and co-workers to watch video clips in honor of the late namesake of their fellowship program, Mike Wallace, who passed away at 93 in New Canaan, Connecticut yesterday.
Wallace — a University alum and renowned broadcast journalist known most prominently for his work on CBS’ “60 Minutes” — and his wife Mary donated the home to the University in 1992. The building houses offices, weekly seminars and other events for members of the fellowship, designed for mid-career journalists to study at the University. Though the house formally stands as a workplace for the fellows, the group gathered there yesterday to celebrate the esteemed newsman and reflect upon his influential work.
Charles Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows at Michigan, said Wallace’s most enduring contribution to the University will be the key role he played in helping develop the Michigan Journalism Fellows — the predecessor to the Knight-Wallace Fellow programs.
“His defining legacy is a permanent, fully-endowed program at the University of Michigan to help journalists in their career to become even better than they could otherwise through a year of sabbatical study,” Eisendrath said.
Though Wallace — a former Michigan Daily reporter and broadcaster at the University’s radio station — donated significantly to the program, Eisendrath said his support transcended monetary donations, noting that Wallace visited the fellows several times a year to provide guidance during their time at the University.
“When anybody was in New York and wanted to talk journalism with him, or just simply wanted to talk to him, he, without exception, would open the office and (tell them to) come on up,” Eisendrath said.
Eisendrath said one regret Wallace carried during his life was becoming disconnected from the University after his graduation in 1939. He later used the Knight-Wallace fellowship and other University partnerships to rejoin the University community.
“Before the fellowships, he hadn’t had much to do with Michigan, and he regretted that.” Eisendrath said. “He used these programs as a way of getting back in touch with the University, and ended up co-chairing an endowment drive which at the time was the biggest in the history of public universities in America … at $1.3 billion.”
Knight-Wallace fellow Evan Halper, the Sacramento bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times, said Wallace is an inspiration for the journalists who study in the house he donated to campus. All fellows have 24-hour access to the building, which has an audio-visual system, library, computer lab with Wi-Fi, kitchen and dining room.
“He was an amazingly inspirational figure in terms of journalism,” Halper said. “He was a trendsetter, he sort of was something for the rest of all to aspire toward.”
Halper said Wallace’s journalistic legacy is unsurpassed by today’s reporters.
“If you look at some of the stories he did in his lifetime, they’re just … they’re just phenomenal,” Halper said. “It’s intimidating to look back at his body of work.”
Halper added that Wallace’s spirit is still very much alive in the Wallace house.
“The house and this program embodies his values,” Halper said. “Several of us aspire to be the journalist he was, and we’re grateful for everything he did for the program. He was a true friend and a benefactor for this program.”
Fellow Sarah Robbins, a BBC America producer, said the house not only allows reporters to gain useful skills, but also provides beneficial relationships with other reporters.
“The fellowship is also about building relationships with other journalists and using the strength and the time that we have to step back from the daily grind of newsrooms this year to rebuild and refresh and try to go out and continue the important work of journalism in the future.”
The program brings many foreign journalists to Ann Arbor as well, including fellow Alencar Izidoro from Brazil who said Wallace helped form a one-of-a-kind experience for him in Michigan.
“I don’t know any other fellowship likes this,” Izidoro said. “I have never heard of any other fellowship that can spend a lot of time just studying, just reflecting about your career.”
Izidoro’s wife, Marcela Guimaraes, a radio journalist, said Wallace stands as a model of journalistic integrity to reporters across the world, including Brazil.
“It’s so important for us to be here and enjoy this and remember him,” Guimaraes said.
Fellow Vanessa M. Gezari, a reporter with The Washington Post, said Wallace’s presence is felt by all who step foot in the house.
“When you walk into the house, there’s a big photograph of Mike Wallace and his wife on the wall so we see him everyday when we come in, and his spirit and sort of the kind of journalism he represented is very much there,” Gezari said.
Gezari said the program offers a chance for journalists from around the world to take a break from their daily jobs and hone their craft.
“It is one of the most amazing opportunities available to American journalists, period,” Gezari said.
Gezari said Wallace’s ability to ask tough questions should be a lasting model to future journalists.
“He came from an era when I think for American journalism that kind of approach was quite new still,” Gezari said. “I think he really, in a way pioneered that challenging approach, and I think that we all are the inheritors of that. I have to do that in my job, and so does any journalist who wants to get more than just a press release.”
—Daily Staff Reporters Peter Shahin and Steve Zoski contributed to this report.