Dr. Charlie Marler & the divine coincidence

marler office
Portrait of Dr. Charlie Marler in his office/ACU photo

I was sitting in a pew in the next-to-last row at Oklahoma City’s Quail Springs Church of Christ one Sunday in 1991 when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

I glanced back and almost fell out of the pew.

Sitting directly behind me was Dr. Charlie Marler, my favorite professor from my days as a student at Abilene Christian University. Dr. Marler taught most of the journalism courses I took at ACU and led the university’s journalism and mass communications program for many years.

Turns out, Dr. Marler was traveling through the state that Sunday morning and randomly decided to attend the Quail service. Quail was a large church, but somehow he ended up sitting directly behind me.

I took it as divine coincidence.

I had only been attending at Quail for about a year and had begun dating the woman who would become my wife, Paula Bottom. She was sitting next to me at that service, so I introduced her to Dr. Marler.

“Oh, you need to stay away from this guy,” he said with a smile.

I was at Quail because of the influence of Dr. Charlie Marler. Not only did he help guide me and motivate me to stay the course to graduation at ACU, he also modeled a life of faith for me that led me to Quail Springs church decades later.

I grew up in a church tradition different but similar to the Church of Christ, and had always been a religion skeptic. I’m not a smart man, but I always wondered why there were no professionals — no doctors or lawyers or college professors — in our little church growing up.

We had plenty of blue collar people who worked with their hands, and we were proud of it.

Anyway, Dr. Marler showed me that you could be highly educated and still have faith in a God of the universe. Years later, I recalled Dr. Marler’s faith when a friend invited me to Quail.

I attended the church reluctantly, but slowly came to accept the faith myself.

Along the way, I met Paula, we married and have been members of the Quail Springs church — now known as The Springs Church of Christ — ever since.

So, when Dr. Marler passed away late in May, it was a very personal loss to me even though I saw him only on rare occasions over the last 40 years or so.

I’m writing this to share how one life was influenced by his academic guidance, gentle patience and faith.

My college career at ACU also was a divine coincidence, I guess.

I wasn’t recruited to ACU in the 1970s. I wasn’t recruited by any college. Poor academic record. Poor study habits. Little involvement in my high school community.

But I had a dream. I wanted to go to college and study journalism. I wanted to be a sportswriter. I aspired to be Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News.

Somehow, life’s circumstances led me to Abilene, Texas, in the Spring of 1976. So, I sort of turned up on ACU’s doorstep with 30 hours at community college to my credit.

That twist of fate brought me into Dr. Marler’s sphere of influence for the next two-and-a-half years. I recall his teaching style with fondness because he seemed to involve everyone in each class but never singled anyone out for embarrassment.

He was notorious for marking up papers I wrote and articles I attempted for ACU’s student newspaper, The Optimist, with his red editing pen. Every ACU journalism student was subjected to the red editing pen .

Optimist3
Me (front row, right) with colleagues from The Optimist in 1978

However, that red pen helped shape my writing style, and I slowly grew in confidence and ability.

And he talked about how Christians could — and should — work in newsrooms, keeping the faith while pursuing careers in a secular world.

It took years for the message to really sink in, but it finally hit home with the skeptic that I am.

Thanks to Dr. Marler, I had a 30-year newspaper career, and a decade-plus beyond that in the marketing office of a company.

Now, multiply the influence that Dr. Marler had on my life and career with thousands of other students over his 50-plus year academic career. That’s why he was a towering figure in journalism education and the Christian faith.

There is so much more to his story — read ACU’s wonderful tribute to him here — but this was the part of his life that touched mine.

The deal was finally sealed, you might say, when Dr. Marler tapped me on the shoulder at a random Sunday church service in Oklahoma City.

A divine coincidence.

The newspaper visionary and the skeptical student

Selectric
The 1970s vintage IBM Selectric typewriter

I was sitting in a news writing class at Abilene Christian University in 1977 when I heard something so preposterous that it has stuck with me for more than 40 years.

Our professor, Dr. Charlie Marler, speculated about the future of the newspaper industry. He said that some day we could get our news on a TV -like screen and have the choice to print out the stories that we wanted to read.

No one laughed out loud, but I had a good laugh to myself. Yeah, right, I thought. Not sure where Dr. Marler came up with this kooky idea.

At the time, the IBM Selectric typewriter was cutting edge technology for journalists. We were privileged to be able to type our stories on one in the late 1970s for The Optimist, ACU’s student newspaper.

Fast forward four decades.  We can now see how dead-on Dr. Marler’s prediction was in the 1970s.

The fact that most of the world now gets its news instantaneously via a screen attached to a computer, tablet or phone made my old college professor appear to be a modern-day Nostradamus.

The rapid decline of the newspaper industry has been well documented. From my perspective, it began in the late 1990s as the public began finding news sources online and accelerated in the 2000s when WiFi became ubiquitous and smart phone use proliferated.

In fact, I accepted an early retirement offer in 2008 because my employer, The Oklahoman, reduced its workforce that year by 150 people or so. That ended a 30-year newspaper career that I launched upon graduation from ACU in 1978.

The Oklahoman was (and I think remains) the largest newspaper in the state. It has undergone multiple rounds of reductions in the years since I left.

All of which led to this week’s announcement by The Oklahoman. Beginning on March 26, it would no longer print Saturday editions.

The paper will be “digital only” on Saturdays, meaning it will be found only on your screen. A host of other daily newspapers owned by the Gannett corporation have announced the end of print Saturday editions on the same date.

You called it 40-plus years ago, Dr. Marler. I’m pretty sure that the “digital only” newspaper model eventually will eliminate print publication on most other days of the week.

Maybe the Sunday edition will be the only day we can actually get our hands on a printed newspaper. If we’re lucky.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so skeptical of Dr. Marler’s prediction at the time I heard it. Because cartoonist Chester Gould, an Oklahoma native, had introduced an even bigger fantasy for his Dick Tracy comic strip back in the 1940s.

It was a two-way communications device worn on the wrist.

Dick Tracy
Dick Tracy using his two-way wrist communicator.

I was a huge fan of the Dick Tracy comic strip as a kid and infatuated by the device that Tracy wore on his wrist through which he had instantaneous communications.

The future was right there on the funny pages for decades and we didn’t recognize it.

Gould’s fantasy device became reality when the Apple Watch debuted in 2015. Today, millions of people wear Apple’s incredible two-way communication device on their wrists.

Not sure who laughed at Chester Gould’s vision when it appeared in the Dick Tracy comic in the 1940s.

Or who was laughing aside from me at the outrageous prediction of Dr. Charlie Marler in a 1970s ACU classroom.

But no one’s laughing now.