Photo Courtesy Craig Carper/Virginia Chapter SPJ
Get both sides of the story and get the facts right. Sounds like an obvious lesson a journalism professor might impart to a freshman student. But a decade later, copywriter and journalist Kent Brockwell remembers the moment he knew professor Wilma Wirt wasn’t just spouting platitudes.
“We heard about how she dressed as a nun to walk across the [Mexican] border,” recalls Brockwell, who was one of Wirt’s students in 2004. “That’s one of the stories you hear that make you say, ‘What the f--- am I getting into?’ ”
Wirt taught journalism from 1987 to 2006 at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned a reputation for treating students as professionals. That meant F’s for every wrong fact, and a ban on spell check. In September, many of her former students gathered at the Capital Ale House in Richmond to honor Wirt, 80, at the Virginia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ George Mason Banquet.
Speeches from Brockwell and Smithfield Times publisher John Edwards lauded Wirt’s dedication. Wirt founded the student-run Capital News Service (CNS) in 1994 to give students experience covering the General Assembly — and to give community newspapers access to legislative stories.
“Few individuals have done more to enhance professionalism among Virginia journalists than Wilma Wirt,” Edwards said at the banquet, adding that CNS continues to be “dependable, even vital for papers who simply cannot afford to staff for the General Assembly.”
“I’m almost emotional,” Wirt said. Reflecting on a career that brought her from Oklahoma to Texas to Virginia, she added, “As I look out here, I see you and think, ‘Oh, how wonderful, you all have become such wonderful citizens, so devoted to the profession I so dearly loved.’ ”
Asked if the legend of her dressing as a nun to cross the border was true, Wirt said, yes, she did so many times while teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso. It was the 1980s, and anti-immigrant sentiment was high, she said. She thought the getup would make it easier to chaperone her Mexican students who wanted to head home to conduct interviews. Wirt was happy to help them get the other side.