Many of the words and images that people have seen from Union College over the past 28 years have come through a keyboard or camera in the hands of Peter Blankman.
The editor of this magazine is retiring, and with him go three decades of vivid institutional memory and the good wishes of colleagues, alumni and countless other friends. He and his wife, Lynn, are starting a new chapter in Williamsburg, Va.
Blankman-an observant recorder of campus happenings through four presidents, 27 Commencements, and thousands of meetings-arrived at the College each morning with a journalist's curiosity and the expectation that, news being news, the day ahead would be like no other. “It's been a great job where almost every day you came into work wondering what's going to happen,” he said recently. “And I knew that in most cases it would be interesting and fun.”
Trained as a newspaper reporter, Blankman found at Union a goldmine of stories. “It's always puzzled me when people ask where we get ideas for stories,” he said. “How can you walk across this campus without learning about a story? There are 3,000 people here, most of them doing interesting things.”
He had the reporter's knack for cultivating his sources and he visited them regularly during his frequent campus forays. Rare was the time when he was not the first in the office to learn some bit of interesting campus gossip. Like any good reporter, he had a dry wit and a ready supply of fascinating, but unprintable, stories.
He wrote quickly and with an elegance that made the most complex of issues understandable. He distilled long budget sheets and reduced faculty meetings to their essence. He wrote introductions for guest speakers, citations for recipients of honorary degrees and remarks for the president.
He especially enjoyed the give and take of working with President Roger Hull. But he admits it took some time to learn the president's writing and speaking style. “The first time I sent over copy, Roger called and said, 'I can't say that.' To which I replied, 'that's why I wrote 'draft' at the top.'”
No stranger to last-minute requests from the president's office, Blankman would often mentally compose a piece of writing on the six-minute walk to Hull's office and put a draft on paper while he sat waiting for the president to finish a phone call. A lifelong photographer with a keen eye for design, his hobby became more than a passing interest at Union. It was another way to tell the stories of the College. He took his camera on many campus walks, capturing the beauty of campus for magazine covers, calendars, books and brochures. His landscapes were favorites on and off campus; a recent show of his photos stayed in the Humanities Gallery some seven months after it was to come down.
The best time for taking photos, he said, was just before sunset. “The kids are outside, teams are practicing, labs are out and the light is at its best.” He especially liked winter photography. “There's nothing like fresh snow, golden sun and bright parkas,” he said. One of his favorite shots is of a snowstorm taken from an eyebrow window of Reamer Campus Center. And his favorite subject? “What other campus has the Nott, which by itself is a continually fascinating subject?” Blankman was destined for a writing career at a small liberal arts college. He grew up a faculty brat at Saint Lawrence University, where he rode his bike, watched games and wrote papers in the library. “When you're not much more than knee high and your father takes you to the press box to see a hockey game between St. Lawrence and Clarkson, you think that's a pretty exciting thing and it makes an impression.”
His father, Edward, a longtime professor of English, took his journalism students on visits to newsrooms and had them read major national newspapers. The professor's son audited the course.
“I thought it was fantastic, visiting Jack Johnson [editor of the Watertown Times] and seeing how reporters work and how editors put papers together,” he recalls. He also remembers his fascination with out-of-town papers like the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, where he would become an investigative reporter and meet his wife. Blankman joined the College's Office of Public Relations as associate director in 1976 after an interviewer wrote in the margin of his application letter, “I think this guy's great. Good, punchy leads, lots of imagination. Obviously knows how to write something other than straight news copy.”
Blankman said his most memorable moments at Union included the time that a crystal-growth experiment built by student Rich Cavoli and the late Prof. Charles Scaife was lost aboard the ill-fated Challenger shuttle. After the experiment flew on a later mission, President Ronald Reagan praised Cavoli in his State of the Union address as an example of persistence and imagination for young people.
He remembers the campus visit by NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and historian David McCullough, when they interviewed students in the newly-restored Nott Memorial for an NBC News story about the 50th anniversary of VE Day.
One incident reminds him that even the most learned and respected among us are, after all, human. While Blankman was escorting historian McCullough on a campus visit during the College's Bicentennial, McCullough announced that he needed to visit a drugstore. It seems the airline had lost his luggage and he needed some essentials.
He remembers the graduation of his daughter, Anne, and hearing from faculty “all the things that any dad wants to hear.” He also recalls the occasional surprise of hearing a “Hi, Dad” in a campus hallway, and shifting gears from PR professional to devoted father. (His son, Paul, a gradutate of Macalester College, worked at the Minnesota History Center. He is finishing his master's in public history at Northeastern University.)
Blankman said he always appreciated the College's “unspoken permission to be creative” and the fact that he could tell stories honestly and forthrightly “without falling into the world of hype.”
“At the end of the day, the goal is to make people feel good about education,” he said. “Who wouldn't be interested in that? It's easy to get excited about the product when it's education.”