I’ve learned from mentors throughout my life, including Tom Wilson at the Las Vegas Review Journal. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my first and most significant journalism mentor was James H. Craft, my botany professor at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado.
My best friend and I decided to take his introductory class because he was by far the most intriguing-looking character on campus, a short fifty-something fellow who wore tweed jackets, baggy pants and gold-rimmed glasses. He smoked Pall Malls, a king-sized unfiltered cigarette, which he puffed through a long holder that always jutted up at a jaunty angle. He had a short beard and equally short salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes seemed to twinkle, and he always seemed to wear a subtle, ironic smile, as though he were privy to some arch secret you just had to learn.
He had managed to irritate some of his professorial colleagues with his open acknowledgment that he was teaching at Adams State “because I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small one in a big pond,” but I found the idea appealing.
His elementary class was entertaining and informative, so I decided to take advanced botany with the eye to a minor in the field.
There were about 15 of us in the class, which he began by recommending a second text in addition to the one he required, “because it’s always better to have more than one source of information.” He told us to read the first chapter of the required text by te following class session–we met three times a week–and he spent the rest of the class talking extemporaneously about the fascinating ways folks had found to use algae.
During the second session, he asked if we’d read the chapter, and after all of us had raised a hand in acknowledgment, he asked if we had any questions. Since none of us us did, he launched into a talk about Occam’s Razor, the dictum that when seeking explanations, simplest is usually the place to start. He used his wristwatch, a Hamilton, as an example, spinning out an entertaining range of scenarios, with the most complex being that it was inhabited by a race of miniature beings. That raised questions about how they ate, what they did with their wastes, what happened when they died, and more. The simplest solution he posed, we agreed, was the most logical: a motor powered by a stem-wound spring. At the end of the hour, we were told to read the next chapter.
After the next session began and we had acknowledged reading the chapter and had no questions, Dr. Craft made an announcement. “As a scientist, I have formed a hypothesis. Twice I’ve asked if you had read the assigned chapters, and both times you acknowledged that you had. I also asked if you had any questions, and you had none. My resulting hypothesis is that you have thoroughly mastered the material you have read. Now to test my hypothesis, I’m going to call each of you into my office as ask three questions. If my hypothesis is correct, you’ll all get As.”
One by one, we filled into the office, and since my last name begins with letter that comes early in the alphabet, I was second into his office. He posed three questions, and I answered each. He smiled. “Very good, Mister Brenneman. Now call in Miss C—-.”
When the grades were posted sometime before at the start of the next class, I had the only A. There was one C, a D, and the rest were Fs.
At the start of the next class, hands shot up at question time, and another shock ensued.
The first question? “Why are most plants green?”
The answer was an illuminating ten-minute discourse on optical physics, and why the true color of grass wasn’t really green–that was the color the plant reflected, while it’s real color was red, the hotter end of the solar spectrum which was used to capture the energy to turn carbon dioxide and water into sugars.
By the time he’d finished, Dr. Craft had left the questioner with a befuddlked expression on his face. The good doctor smiled, nodded. “Let me offer another hypothesis. The question you really meant to ask was ‘What is the name of the pigment that makes most plants appear green?’” My classmate nodded eagerly, evoking another professorial smile. “In that case, the answer is chlorophyll.”
A light went on in my brain.
In every class for the rest of the semester, he answered every question the same way with unrelenting precision. Only later would I realize that Dr. Craft had just taught me the reporter’s most critical skill, the art of asking questions.