COMtalk

The Day Our Lives Forever Changed

By Tom Fiedler (’71)

In recent weeks, following the news closely could induce a case of psychic whiplash. One day the stock market plunges, and doom­sayers declare the coming of the next Great Depression; the next it bounces to previous heights and the Wall Street bulls declare a return to Good Times. The fates of politicians seeking the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination seem similarly volatile as front-runners, charging dark horses and also-rans change places with every passing week.

A year from now, will any of us remember these things? Should we even care? I think not. Stocks will go up and down, elections and the candidates who participate in them will come and go, and memories of such things will be swept away like footprints on a beach under a rising tide.

But we’ll never forget September 11, 2001. It’s burned into our memories as the iconic “nine-eleven.” That date marks a life-altering event of the kind that affects each of us only a few times during our lives. Some life-altering dates are personal, such as those marking our weddings, children’s birthdays, or the deaths of parents and other loved ones.

But a few mark moments that shook our common bonds. December 7, 1941—that day that “will live in infamy,” when this country was thrust into World War II—triggered the life-altering experience of my parents’ generation. For baby boomers like me, those dates are likely to be November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr., (GRS’55, Hon.’59) suffered the same fate. For many of us boomers, those dates mark the instant when our youthful ideals and our faith in a just world were replaced by an abiding cynicism and mistrust.

On such days we remember where we were, whom we were with, and how we reacted on learning the news. From those moments on we viewed the world differently. There was no returning to our lives as they were before.

That’s how it has been with September 11, 2001. The events of that day remain vivid in our minds. The aftereffects remain with us, a collective PTSD. They have radically affected the way we travel, the way we vote, the way we look out for loved ones, whom we trust and whom we don’t, the way we view the world.

And for many of us 9/11 also alters what we regard as our life’s direction, perhaps its very purpose. An obvious example can be seen in the experience of George W. Bush. He wasn’t elected in 2000 to engage this country in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and against terrorism in general. Yet his ultimate response to events on that date defined his presidency and will define his place in history.

The cover story of this issue captures in a similar way how that date permanently altered the career paths and lives of three COM graduates. Though their stories are unusual, they are not unique. Countless other stories could be told by COM alumni, such as those whose military service has engaged them in these wars, or whose work as professional communicators has drawn them into its aftermath. After all, we alumni are communicators, storytellers, and the events of 9/11 triggered the biggest story of our time.

Jay Winuk (’82) experienced personal tragedy on that day when his brother Glenn, a volunteer firefighter, died in the collapse of the World Trade Center, where he had gone to rescue survivors. Rather than wallow in the bitterness and grief of his loss, Jay chose to honor his brother’s spirit of public volunteerism by creating the National Day of Service and Remembrance, which already has engaged countless thousands of others and drawn President Obama’s support.

Gary Tuchman’s career also took a major turn that day. As a CNN correspondent, Gary (’82) raced immediately to Ground Zero and reported on the tragic events occurring there. He later was assigned to cover the invasion of Iraq in 2003, traveling with soldiers whose motivation came from that day’s horrific aftermath. Now a veteran war correspondent, Gary has returned often to that country—and to Ground Zero.

Finally, Tyler Hicks (’92), who was COM’s convocation speaker in May, tells of his experiences as a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times war photographer working throughout the Middle East and other regions over the past decade. The dangers inherent in his profession became frighteningly clear in March when he and three other journalists were captured and tortured by Libyan soldiers. But, like Gary, Tyler believes the risks entailed in covering war are necessary to fulfill the journalistic mission of bringing vital information back to Americans.

I see at least two common threads linking these three alums. First, each saw his life and career track forever altered by the terrorist attacks on 9/11; the work they have done since that date was not what they envisioned doing when they graduated. Second, in spite of that dramatic career turn—or perhaps because of it—each has become a leader in his field, admired and honored by others.

This tempts me to claim an attribute about a COM degree that may differentiate us from many other schools in the field. Boston University holds as a guiding principle that our mission is not merely to prepare our students for their first jobs after graduation. Rather the mission is to educate students for what may be their fourth or fifth job, the one they likely never expected to hold, but that they had the expertise, preparation and leadership skills to succeed in doing. Note my emphasis on the word “educate.”

On my desk I keep a quotation from the 19th-century cleric and educator John Henry Newman in which he asserts that the primary goal of a university education shouldn’t be technical training, but rather a broad foundation in the liberal arts. In Newman’s words, the graduate “who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision…can take up any one of the sciences or callings…with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success to which another is a stranger.”

That’s the difference between training students for a job and ­educating students for a life. As Jay, Gary and Tyler demonstrate, BU does the latter.

Dean Fiedler can be reached at tfiedler@bu.edu.