Posted May 11, 2020
By Abe Danaher, a former student of Doug Fisher and now communications coordinator for the College of Engineering and Computing at UofSC
Doug Fisher has been described as a pain. As frank. Unceremonious. Even downright mean.
But those qualities have carried him since the death of his father meant taking a job at the start of middle school. They paid his way through college and earned him his first journalism job.
They are what Fisher has built a career on and what he hopes to infuse in his students. So, call him a pain if you want to — he doesn’t care. It’s exactly what got him here and he hopes it’s what primes his students for success in an industry that demands tenacity.
“I tell students to put in the extra effort, you know?” Fisher says. “Make that extra phone call. If someone won’t return your emails and phone calls, then dammit, go see them. That’s how I have gotten some of the breaks I have gotten and that’s how you get noticed in this industry.”
‘We had no money’
Eleven-year-old Fisher walked toward the front door to his family’s apartment, dirt caked on his hands from a long day’s work, his mother on his mind. For two years, he’d watched her leave early for the commute to a job as a legal secretary in Englewood and then Englewood Cliffs, just across the Hudson River from New York City. But, it still was not enough.
“We had no money,” he says.
Gardening, carpentry, caddying, shoe stocking — he did whatever it took to ease the financial burden that had hovered over his family since his father had passed away when he was eight. It wasn’t unusual for a kid Fisher’s age to be working. But that didn’t mean it was easy.
“I didn’t have a ton of friends because I was working so much,” he says.
While the other kids did their thing, Fisher headed to jobs stocking, and occasionally selling, shoes at Miles Shoes; doing landscaping and light construction; and in the produce section of a grocery store. On the weekend, he caddied at Knickerbocker Country Club. In his last years of high school, he worked as a cook at several suburban New Jersey restaurants. Later, cooking in his college dorm dining hall also helped pay the bills.
He grew up fast. His dreams sharpened.
By 17, Fisher knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life — astrophysics.
‘This stuff is just more fun’
Fisher arrived at Indiana University ready to study astrophysics. But it quickly became apparent that it was not something he was built to understand.
Even now, he remembers a three-question physics test in his sophomore year at IU. After working on it for two weeks, he wasn’t close to a solution — and no one else in the class was, either.
Around the same time, he began working for the campus's student-run radio station doing news and occasional disc jockeying. It was deep into the Vietnam War, and one perk was receiving the military draft numbers off the AP wire and phoning them back to the dorm.
“To do that stuff, it was a rush,” he says. “And, I thought I had a bit of a knack for it.”
As he got interested in broadcast news, several other students at the station talked about taking courses with Dick Yoakam, IU's legendary broadcast journalism professor. Fisher wasn't part of that program (by that time he had switched astrophysics to economics and was double majoring in economics and political science), but he approached Yoakam and asked if he could take the professor's two classes. Yoakam said yes. His life would never be the same.
Yoakam was a professor at IU who floated between the media and journalism schools and in his past had produced the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates. Fisher recalls him as an “old, garrulous guy” who walked with a cane and taught him that the meticulous attention to detail — be it the facts of a story or even the cadence of a sentence — were necessary for success.
“Yeah, I learned how to get it right,” Fisher says. “Because if you didn’t, you got that cane pointed at you and he said, ‘get it right.’”
Yoakam's classes also did some newscasts for the university's public broadcasting FM station. From that, Fisher was hired to do other newscasts for the NPR-affiliated station as well as run camera for the TV station. Under Yoakam's guidance, he also won a Society of Professional Journalists student award for a radio documentary on "deprogramming" of religious cult members.
“The bottom line was that I said, ‘I just don’t want to do the astrophysics anymore.’ I mean, I still love astronomy, I have a telescope and everything else, but I just don’t feel like doing the astrophysics,” Fisher says. “This stuff is just more fun.”
‘This kid has been waiting out here all day’
Summer meant a return to his home in New Jersey and a search for summer work, and he had his eye on the holy grail of radio stations: Group W.
Group W had a rich history and mostly 50,000-watt AM radio stations that could be heard across much of the U.S. and sometimes overseas. It was a pioneer in all-news radio. Luckily for Fisher, it was headquartered right in his backyard – New York City. Even though he was only halfway through his degree, he was intent on getting this dream position.
On a Friday morning, Fisher sat outside of the office of Group W’s vice president, who had agreed to talk with him that day. He was excited, but as morning turned to afternoon, Fisher’s name never slipped from the secretary’s mouth.
So, he sat. And sat. And sat some more. Until 4:30 p.m., when the secretary looked at him and slid into the vice president’s office. Five minutes later, Fisher was called in. He didn’t have time to sit down before he was asked two questions:
“Do you want summer work?”
“Can you be at KYW Monday morning?”
He went home, packed a single duffel bag and hopped on a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia. By Monday morning he had a room at the local YMCA and was standing in the newsroom of all-news KYW.
His summer with KYW opened the doors to Fisher’s future in journalism. Over the next two years, he reported on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in Detroit; wrote features for NPR from IU; got a job the next summer with WOWO in Fort Wayne, Indiana, another Group W station; and then, back at IU, covered the return of the Vietnam deserters at Indiana's Camp Atterbury for Group W. The experiences landed him his first radio job after graduation in Dayton, Ohio. When WOWO called, he returned to Fort Wayne. From there he moved to be a TV assignment editor, reporter and anchor and in 1980 to The Journal Gazette newspaper.
‘Goofy as the rest of us’
Joyce Laskowski remembers Fisher then — his baritone radio voice, looming stature and a seriousness that was respected throughout the newsroom. At first, she says, she was intimidated by him. But, it wasn’t long before she saw the humor he brought to life outside the newsroom.
“He was just as goofy as the rest of us,” says Laskowski, now a freelance copy editor at The New York Times. “We were all young, and at the Journal at the time I worked there, there was a real camaraderie among all of us.”
"Fish" was what his colleagues called him around the newsroom. During their free time, they’d go to Chain O’Lakes State Park to canoe and kayak.
It was good times for Fisher, working in a talented, young newsroom. But, after just one year at the Journal Gazette, he got an opportunity he couldn’t pass up — a Kiplinger Fellowship, one of the most prestigious teaching fellowships in journalism.
The first Saturday in August, a phone call woke him from a deep sleep.
“Hey, Doug, it’s Henry Shulte,” he heard as he snapped the phone to his ear. “Um, are you still interested in teaching broadcast?”
“I can teach it if you want.”
“Good, see you Aug. 12," said Schulte, who years later would join the South Carolina faculty.
Now wide awake, Doug turned to his wife.
“I think I just got the Kiplinger fellowship,” he said. They had just purchased a house in the Fort Wayne area, but off to Columbus, Ohio, they went.
‘The next bus leaves for downtown in 20’
By 1984, Fisher had finished his master’s degree at Ohio State but stayed on for a year to teach broadcast courses after the professor he had been a GA for became seriously ill and died.
“I was scared to hell at that point,” Fisher says. “I had a new kid and, getting out of college, I’d been out of the business for essentially two years at that point. I’d done some freelance stuff and whatever, but I was like, ‘Oh crap, what am I going to do for a job?’”
Through the grapevine, he had heard The Associated Press was hiring, so one day after classes, he headed down to the Columbus bureau to take their writing and IQ tests. A week later, he finally got the call.
“Are you still interested?” the assistant bureau chief asked.
There was no hesitation. “Sure.”
“When can you start?”
“Well, the next bus leaves for downtown in 20 minutes.”
“9 a.m. would be fine.”
And so he went, first to the AP staff in Columbus; to correspondent in Dayton; managing correspondent in Providence, Rhode Island; and then Columbia as news editor, where he oversaw coverage of national stories like the first woman admitted to The Citadel, Susan Smith's killing of her children, the murder of NBA star Michael Jordan's father, and the lowering of the Confederate flag from atop the State House.
As Fisher prepared to head from Columbus to become AP's Dayton correspondent, he was chatting with the bureau chief who let him in on a little secret about why he'd been hired.
"He said, ‘You were the only person that basically didn’t wrinkle his nose at covering agriculture,’” Fisher says. “The point is, you catch the brass ring whenever you can, but then it’s up to you to make it what you want.”
‘A thinking person’s game’
In 2001, journalism sequence head Pat McNeely was tasked with a challenge — finding a replacement for the legendary Henry Price, who was planning to retire the following year. Price had been the University of South Carolina’s primary copy-editing instructor for years and had a reputation for rigor.
She made a call to the one person who could fit the bill.
“The next day, I ushered Doug into Henry’s office and said, ‘It’s going to be hard filling your shoes, Henry, but if anybody can do it, it’s Doug Fisher.’”
Price, she says, leaned around his desk and looked at Doug’s feet.
“What size shoe do you wear?” he asked.
“That will do,” Price said. “I wear a size 12.”
From there, the rest is history.
The alumni who’ve passed through Fisher’s classes since then will tell you the most important thing they learned wasn’t how to get a golden quote or a land a once-in-a-lifetime scoop. It was how to do the work that leads up to those things — the interview prep, the source-building and the meticulous fact-checking.
Avery Wilks, a 2015 journalism graduate who now works as an investigative reporter for The Post and Courier, took three classes with Fisher.
“Journalism professors, they make or break you,” Wilks says. “If you have a really good one, he or she will give you lessons that live on throughout your career. There’s definitely a fraternity of us who went through the Doug gauntlet, came out on the other side, and came out better for it.”
And for Fisher, that’s enough. After 19 years at South Carolina, he’s retiring to spend more time with his wife and his grandchildren. No longer will he be grading students’ story proposals till 3 a.m. or scratching through ledes in The Daily Gamecock at 9 a.m. He’s ready for the next stage of his life.
But he hopes the life lessons he’s passed on to his students will not be forgotten.
“I try to leave students with one thing — this is a thinking person’s game,” he says, recalling the famous John-King-phone-in-each-ear story he’s told classes countless times. “All the tools and all the toys and all that, that’s nice, but it’s all just tools and toys. If you really want to be successful in anything, but especially in this plot of work, it’s a thinking person’s game.”
He smiles. Almost.