As a part-time correspondent for The Charlotte Observer for over two decades, Keith Cannon may be remembered by many readers. A reliable fixture on the sports pages, he covered games and playoffs with true enthusiasm. He was a graduate of Clemson, the University of Florida and Texas A&M, so his love of southern sports ran deep. However, about 30 miles east of Charlotte is where Cannon did his greatest work.
For 24 years, Cannon lectured, taught and molded future writers as a professor of journalism at Wingate University. It’s where I met him as an 18-year-old freshman with plans to be a smart, witty writer. Through my four years at Wingate, I grew to know Cannon well. I served as the features editor on the campus newspaper, a project under his purview, and I took more than one of his classes. He was popular beyond the walls of the school of communications, and I’m just one of many students who benefited from his gentle guidance. All of us could write volumes about how wonderful he was.
Cannon died this week at the still-young age of 66, another bright light lost to the scourge of cancer. His absence is palpable for the Wingate community, and it’s left me pondering what exactly made him such a great professor. I’ve come to several conclusions.
First and foremost, Cannon was fair. In the classroom, he kept his political opinions to himself and emphasized neutral reporting. I attended Wingate in the early 2000s, a period where the Bush presidency and Iraq invasion occupied national headlines. I don’t recall one comment he ever made about those events. He knew his role was teaching the trade, not the issues, and in doing so he built strong writers.
Second, he was an advocate for free speech. Among my favorite cautions Cannon issued was to be vigilant for calls of “free speech for me — but not for thee.” He must have had that in mind as he allowed campus newspaper writers the editorial freedom that college students deserve. I am certain we were wrong and didn’t always have the most mature opinions, but he let us because that’s how you teach free speech.
Third, Cannon knew that his students had to see how journalism skills were implemented. He connected us to a world outside the classroom by inviting alumni back to share their professional adventures with students, arranging ‘field trips’ to print and television newsrooms and orchestrating international adventures through Wingate’s study abroad programs. He also knew journalism was changing, so he was an early adopter of social media and attended workshops and conferences — indirectly offering his students examples of lifelong learning.
Through a series of opportunities, largely orchestrated by Cannon, I realized a different career path and now work in communications and public relations. These days I regularly interact with journalists, and I can only imagine how inefficient I’d be had I had a lesser professor than Cannon. In an era where good journalists are under assault, bad journalists abound and ‘fake news’ generates public distrust, high-quality professors who promote the classical ideals of journalism are more important than ever.
Just before his death, a fellow alumna organized a Wingate scholarship in Cannon’s name. He always said he’d fund scholarships if he won the lottery. Hopefully in the years to come, the scholarship turns out a professor or two of equal measure. The future of journalism depends on professors like Keith Cannon.