A home where journalists dream, Mike Wallace's legacy lives on

Apr 13, 2012

Everybody knows Mike Wallace was one of the best journalists of his time – and his time spanned a half-century.

But he also had a great love for his alma mater, the University of Michigan, where he wrote for the Michigan Daily, and got his first taste of broadcasting. Back then, that meant the student radio station.   

Sadly, Michigan’s department of journalism was cut in 1979.  But it was survived by something called the Michigan Journalism Fellows – a program that brings a dozen mid-career journalists to Michigan’s campus for a year to give them a fresh start.

Basically, you’re a glorified grad student, but they pay you, and you have no tests, no papers and no grades, and you share the year with a fraternity of people in your field.

Yeah, it’s that cool.

It’s a great idea – one shared by Harvard and Stanford – but Michigan’s program seemed to be in a death rattle when Charles Eisendrath took it over in 1986.  The program was down to $30,000, with no place to call home.  The fellows met twice a week in a classroom.

The future wasn’t bright. 

Eisendrath had a vision for the program, but he knew he needed help – and he knew where to go. 

Wallace didn’t hesitate.  He gave his money – $1 million, for starters – but he also his time, his energy, and his unequaled influence. When Mike Wallace said this was a first-class program worthy of your support, you were probably not going to argue.

After getting the program off its death bed, Eisendrath wanted to give it a home of its own.

The Wallaces agreed, and bought a beautiful house near campus.  Ask any former Fellow about the Wallace House, and you’ll hear the kind of stories people usually tell about their family cottages. 

Charles and company have since built a $50 million endowment for 18 journalism fellowships.  The Knight-Wallace program will outlive us all. 

I wanted to get in so badly, I applied twice.  Both times, Charles asked his signature question: What is your dream?  My dream was simple: I wanted the freedom to tell the stories I want to tell, the way I want to tell them.

The second time was the charm – and I didn’t waste a minute getting started on my dream.

I wrote a pitch to teach a course on the uniquely American phenomenon of college athletics, which I’ve been teaching for seven years.

I also started interviewing former U of M football coach Bo Schembechler every Tuesday for a book on leadership.  We didn’t have a publisher.  We didn't have an advance.  The fellowship was my advance.  A year later, we had a book contract – just two months before Bo died. 

At one of the many Knight-Wallace meals the staff hosted, I happened to chat with Steve Schram, who had just been named the Director of Michigan Media.

A year later, when Bo died, Schram asked me to come down to Michigan Radio and talk about Schembechler’s legacy – and that's how Schram got the idea for a certain sports commentary every Friday morning.

The Knight-Wallace program made all these dreams possible. 

Every year, Wallace came back to speak at his eponymous house.  It’s usually a mistake to meet your heroes, but some men, as they say, are like mountains: The closer you get to them, the bigger they are. 

Wallace was.  He loved chatting up the fellows by the fireplace, and he would never leave without saying goodbye to the staff, his friends.

When I asked him to endorse the Bo book he helped make possible, he not only read the manuscript, he called me up to leave a long message on my machine.  “John Bacon.  Mike Wallace.”  Yeah, I saved it. 

When most people saw Mike Wallace on TV, they saw a hard-hitting investigative journalist.  Others saw a loyal alumnus.  I saw someone who helped change many lives forever – including mine.

So, one more time: Thank you, Mr. Wallace.