True Experts

Low profile sources provide perceptive perspectives

Photo by Kara Hackett
Mary Weidner of Fort Wayne provides the human element for my story about Fort Wayne Bible College because her life is shaped by its legacy. Today, Mary works at the Fort Wayne Alumni and Friends Resource Center (right).

By Kara Hackett

All that’s left of the old Bible college is a small white house called the Fort Wayne Alumni and Friends Resource Center.

As a Taylor University student representative, I had to report the legacy of our predecessor in Fort Wayne, Ind., to our Alumni Relations office in Upland about 50 miles north. It seemed simple enough.

The news writer in me planned to interview a former college dean or president.

Instead, I found Mary.

She attended Fort Wayne Bible College from 1955 to 1959 and graduated with a degree in missions and Bible. Today, she volunteers at the small white house at 915 East Rudisill Blvd., collecting alumni memorabilia.

But, for Mary, Bible college is not a happy memory filed neatly in a desk drawer. It is a memory crinkled and colored by the works-based theology that changed her life.

As a student, she was never good enough, never spiritual enough, never enough. She didn’t find happiness at Fort Wayne Bible College. Instead, she turned away from the church until she discovered a faith-based spiritual life as an adult.

Today, Mary volunteers because she wants to support Taylor University, which bought the Bible college and loosened its legalistic roots.

Writers know every person has a story, and every story has a person. The Bible college I thought was dead turned out to be alive. I just had to find who it was living through.

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser says, “Somewhere in every drab institution are men and women who have fierce attachment to what they are doing and are rich repositories of lore.”

Mary isn’t the expert I expected, but she is an expert in her own right. She’s what Zinsser calls the “human element.” Every story is about a person, and once you find the right person—the true expert—your story is no longer drab or dead. It lives through that person and assumes a life of its own.

Mary provides the human element for my story because she tells the truth with clarity. She speaks honestly without clutter.

Zissner says, “Clutter is the official language of corporations to hide their mistakes.”

Corporations use clutter to protect reputations. But the true experts—the alumna, the custodian, the old man next door—tell it as it is.

According to The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstien, a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth and second obligation is to the reader. Clutter is the sword that threatens the reader and holds him at an arm’s length from the truth.

“Clutter is the enemy,” Zinssner says. “Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word.”

In The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White list a series of words as clutter. “Anticipate” is ambiguous and should be replaced with “expect.” “Contact” is vague and self-important. “Insightful” is a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive.”

Reporters fight clutter by finding people who tell the truth without resorting to ambiguous terms, self-important language or overstatement.

After all, the truth typically provides the most incredible story.

Zissner says, “Who could invent all the astonishing things that really happen?”

Mary proves his point.

Kara Hackett can be reached at karahackett@gmail.com.

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