by Michael D. Murray
“St. Louis Post-Dispatch” Columnist, Bill McClellan, received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Saturday, May 13, at University of Missouri-St. Louis Commencement ceremonies held on campus in the Mark Twain Gym. He was introduced by UM Curators Distinguished Teaching Professor, Mike Murray, on behalf of the faculty.
“I am very proud to introduce St. Louis’ legendary columnist and television panelist, Bill McClellan. Many of you already know Bill because you have read his columns for many years. He is also the author of books — including collections of his columns and known as a founder and panelist for one of TV’s best local public affairs programs, ‘Donnybrook.’ Bill’s late friend and former boss, Martin Duggan, once said ‘Bill has a greater grasp of the human comedy than anyone who has ever written in – or about – St. Louis.’ We agree.
A friend of mine once edited a series of reference books about important writers. And he asked some of us for names of influential columnists from our region to include in one of the books. I had a bunch of Bill McClellan’s columns taped to my door. So I just folded them-up and sent them to my friend. His response was: ‘This is a perfect example of what we are looking for in this reference book — someone who writes about their community … and the entire community benefits.’ ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘most of these columns are really funny.’
In your Commencement program Bill’s biography states: ‘Like St. Louis, McClellan has proven to be a character to whom people relate fondly.’ We agree – Bill is ‘a character.’ And we know that heaping high praise on such ‘a character’ can be a tricky business. But in the tradition of the great Missouri writers — like Dr. Mark Twain — or the soon-to-be, Dr. Bill — even if we don’t always agree with such “characters,” we still greatly admire their work and recognize their talent.
We also know that nobody knows a ‘character’ like their spouse. So, it’s also a pleasure to recognize Bill’s wife, Mary, who is also here with us today. Bill and Mary have two children, Lorna and Jack. Lorna is married to alumnus, Darryl Sanchez.
Many of you know Bill as a master storyteller. He has written crime stories, love stories, stories of injustice and unexpected kindnesses. He meets the classic definition of an ‘All American’ journalist because he is someone who “comforts the afflicted — and afflicts the comfortable,” writing about lack of fairness for people who have had to struggle in life – and calling-out and even mocking some of the folks he has referred to as the ‘born-wells” and the “married-wells.’ Some of you might recognize yourself in that and you know who you are. And because of this, to some of these very fortunate folks, at least, he might be considered a TOTAL trouble-maker — but not to us. To us, Bill is simply a very talented communicator – one with a really great sense of humor.
And whatever he’s doing, he keeps that sense of humor. On TV each week, he and his media veterans dissect the local news and then take phone calls. Someone named ‘Bob from Brentwood’ might call-in. The caller will comment on something serious from the program and then ask: ‘Bill, you remember me?’ Bill always remembers them. Another time ‘Bob from Brentwood’ might call back — but this time showing signs of being very irritated or annoyed. Bill is an expert in getting agitated callers to calm themselves down. But he always does it very gently. He will frown and then repeat their name — usually three times, like: ‘Bob, Bob, Bob.’ He appears to be reaching-out across the airwaves to comfort “Bob from Brentwood” to get him to cool-off a little. This takes talent — and a certain temperament.
I have to say that this is actually the second time that I have had the honor of introducing Bill. We have a Great Speakers’ series here at the University and a few years ago, I was asked to introduce Bill for a talk he was giving entitled ‘Characters I Have Known.’ I discovered then that Bill is not only a ‘Character’ – he also KNOWS a lot of characters. And many of them showed-up for his talk at that time. And as he started describing them, they began shouting back at him. He described the founders of St. Louis as lacking in the ambition to keep moving westward. These characters would shout back at him: ‘You’re SO right, Bill.’
It was very funny to get their read on what Bill had written and then was repeating — about them. Later, colleagues in our Communication Department asked how that talk went. I said: ‘It WAS really different … but also interesting … because Bill seemed to know all these characters … and they definitely knew him.’
In spite of his status and familiarity with many St. Louisans, Bill is always low-key — and also self-effacing. Reflecting on his career, he was once asked, ‘In the end … what difference does it all really make?’ And about that era some folks are known to love — high school — Bill said: ‘You know the Pretty women and the high-school athletes go through life with an easy self-confidence. People like me … we have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. I’m always ready to get thrown-out.’ With that in mind, we say THANKS Bill! Thanks to an All-American Journalist, the one with a big chip on his shoulder, one that’s provided a unique perspective.
Because there is something ‘All-American’ about someone who speaks-up for the ‘little guy’ and underdog; or if needed, someone who can speak-up to authority; and articulate the concerns of people who aren’t able to do that for themselves. The University faculty is very proud to present an honorary doctorate to ‘A Real Character,’ and a most distinguished, ‘All-American’ journalist — Bill McClellan.”