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After 24 years, Vadnie passes the pen

Vads speaks to students, colleagues, family and friends at his retirement party.

Shun Jie Yong


Thumbing through the paper archives of the University Chronicle, it’s clear that a lot has changed since 1988.

Cartoons were edgier, hairstyles were fluffier and Michael Vadnie was the new adviser on the block.

In one of his early columns, Vadnie praised the outoing adviser, J. Brent Norlem.

He went on to talk about the ethics of journalism.

He channeled Tom Sawyer as he writes, “‘I’m afear’d’ I’ve got bad news. I’ve got lots of questions about ethics. Not many answers.

“That’s the damn thing about ethics. People who indignantly bat an eyelid before proclaiming absolute adherence to most ethical principles are unrealistic fools. On the other hand, people who know the precepts of journalistic ethics but are ‘afear’d’ to make a definitive decision are moral and legal loose cannons.”

Anyone who knows Vadnie as a journalist, an editor, a professor, an adviser or in any professional capacity knows he’s all about ethics. As adviser to the campus Society of Professional Journalists chapter, he’s used their Code of Ethics in the regular defense of student journalists.

“Vadnie always has your back, because he always has good journalism’s back, and he’s always ready to teach if you’ve made a journalistic mistake,” said Molly Willms, outgoing editor-in-chief of the Chronicle.

His former students and Chronicle staff say they wouldn’t be where they are if it weren’t for Vadnie.

“I may have gotten into journalism without Mike Vadnie, but I wouldn’t have been as good at it without him,” said Frank Rajkowski, Chronicle alum. “He was a tremendous teacher, a tremendous mentor.”

Rajkowski partially credits Vadnie with his current gig: sports writing for the St. Cloud Times. It was thanks in part to Vadnie that he got a part-time job there, and has since gone full-time.

Joey LeMay feels the same.

“Michael Vadnie did not get me into journalism. He did, however, keep me in journalism,” LeMay said in an email.

“It’s easy to be tempted or lured away from a career in print media. But every time I made that consideration, I remembered the man that motivated me through school and kept me going with challenge after challenge.

A little apparition of Michael Vadnie appears on my shoulder from time to time, telling me to ‘Write hard, die free.’ I fully intend to. He is irreplaceable.”

SCSU Mass Communications professor Tim Hennagir was editor of the Chronicle during Vadnie’s first year as adviser.

“Mr. Vadnie’s opus (see Mr. Holland’s Opus, movies) will be the thousands of well-trained mass communications and journalism students who have passed through his classroom in 32 years of teaching,” Hennagir said in an email. “His legacy will be historic if not legendary.”

It was this first year that riots broke out at SCSU. Some say they started because of recent changes in drinking regulations and a lack of activities around campus for minor. In the end, 34 SCSU students and 26 non-students were arrested.

Amid the violence, which included fires, tipped cars and reports of police brutality, Hennagir and Chronicle staffers Brady Kreger and Bill Olson Jones were among the crowd, shooting pictures and observing the scene.

By most accounts, it was a bad time to be at SCSU. But it was a head-first dive into new reporting at a diverse, lively campus in times of change and unrest.

Vadnie has met the challenge with grace ever since.

He’s no stranger to reporting unpleasant news. In recent years, an increase in focus on investigative reporting has led to praise and criticism from all corners of the community.

There have also been mistakes. The Chronicle is a human institution, run by students. Vadnie takes all mistakes as teaching moments, and seeks to repair all damage in a way that serves all parties involved.

Though he’s been an official Chronnie for 24 years, he’s been at SCSU for 32. Former student Al Neff was 19 in 1981, when he first met Vadnie.

“He was the James Dean of SCSU,” Neff said in an email.

“I would see him leaning back against the wall outside of his classes, smoking a cigarette. I was a radio guy but I decided to take some of his print journalism classes just so I could have an excuse to talk to him.

“Over the next 32 years we evolved from the student-teacher relationship to friends to colleagues when I began teaching at SCSU, and now back to friends.

“He will always be my big brother and mentor, and always my James Dean.”

Neff’s story is common among the SCSU community. Tim Hennagir started as an advisee, turned into a friend and is now a colleague.

The same can be said of Dan Barth, owner of Diversified Media Productions and Pioneer Place on Fifth, and a fixture in the St. Cloud arts community.

He graduated in 1989 with a mass communications degree from SCSU.

He and Vadnie now play on a trivia team together for KVSC’s annual contest, and Vadnie has appeared in plays at Pioneer for the last three years.

Working journalists say they still think of him and turn to him for advice.

“Michael Vadnie has tremendously influenced the way I approach journalism,” said Lesley Toth, who currently works at the Mille Lacs County Times, in an email. “Even after nearly 10 years have passed since sitting in his classrooms, I still hear his voice giving sage advice and turn to that whenever I’m struggling with an issue or story.

“His knowledge, experience and counsel is such a deep reservoir of support. Generations of Minnesota journalists have benefited greatly from his pivotal role at SCSU, with SPJ and the University Chronicle. I have met dozens upon dozens of his former students throughout the years and have yet to hear one negative word about their experiences with Vads.”

Emily Peterson, former editor-in-chief and currently a copy editor at the St. Cloud Times, says Vadnie has given her confidence to succeed.

“Vads taught me not to take any crap from anyone, especially yourself,” she said. “He knew I could succeed when I was sure I was going to fail. He seemed to find amusement in my stress and frustration as a tired college student because he knew I was having the time of my life.

“He’ll gladly push you off the edge because he knows you can fly. And you will fly because Vads said you will.”

The story of Vadnie as a person, friend, husband, father, grandfather, professor, journalist, lawyer, mentor and community leader could take up an entire April 24-pager.

We knew him as an adviser, and no matter how many words we use, it all comes down to this:

Thank you.

We would not be the powerful, independent voice for students if it weren’t for your hard work and dedication.

We’ve all learned so much from you, most especially in our time working here. As you and you colleagues always tell us, there’s more to be learned working in news than reading about it.

You gave us the tools in the classroom, then sent us into the community to use them.

To paraphrase Mark Twain for a final time, you’ve never let schooling interfere with our education, and we can’t thank you enough.

This post was written by:

- who has written 167 posts on University Chronicle.

Molly Willms is the Editor at the University Chronicle. She is also a staff writer and photographer.

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