Write. Think. Jake.

Professor Jake Highton’s advanced reporting class was my Christmas present in 1994. I was a journalism school dropout. Santa Baby left a beribboned University of Nevada spring semester catalog under the tree. We could afford one class.

That’s how I met the wiry former newspaper editor with a hard-ass reputation. He was liberal. I was a right-wing radio aficionado. He was an atheist. I was a Sunday School teacher.

Advanced reporting isn’t about politics or religion, though. It’s about writing. And thinking critically.

Highton was tough. He’d respond to our journalistic masterpieces with scrawled corrections and x’d out lame modifiers. Where’s the attribution? Supporting quote? My favorite: “Non sequitur.” He taught us to choose active verbs. Never use utilize, “a fat, greasy, dripping word.” Decimate means to reduce by one-tenth. Famous and notorious are not synonyms.

Students feared Highton. His strict demands hurt students’ grade point averages. Highton believed that an “A” rewards excellence. Few students are truly excellent, he often reminded us.

Highton said a woman once approached him after class to share an epiphany. She informed him that he’d taught her something.

“I puffed up with pride, of course,” Highton recalled. “Then she said, ‘You taught me I don’t belong in journalism.’”

Highton laughed. “I had taught her something.”

Sixteen years ago, Highton assured me that my conservatism would not hurt my grade in his class. Indeed, I earned an A. He didn’t guarantee my convictions would remain unscathed.

Observant readers might notice my RN&R column runs on a left page.

The change didn’t happen overnight. I took Highton for another writing class, for journalism history and for media law. He was well read, compassionate, open-minded and argumentative. The cumulative impact kicked in after I left the university. I fled the Republican Party after reporting on Sharron Angle’s antics in the Nevada Legislature. One afternoon, I drove from Carson straight to the Washoe County Registrar of Voter’s office and became “non-partisan.” I had learned to think.

Highton, now my dear friend and colleague, retires from UNR this spring. He’s left an indelible mark on me, as he has on many practicing journalists from Nevada to Washington, D.C.

Students who cared about writing and thinking valued his instruction.

Student leaders recently honored Highton for his 30-year career. UNR Journalism Senator Jonathan Moore read a student-crafted resolution. Some selections:

“Whereas, Jake Highton has been a role-model and a confidante to thousands of students as a long-serving professor of the First Amendment and writing classes;

“Whereas, Jake Highton’s first name is transformed into a verb by journalists to convey the experience of being “Jaked,” or having survived a class with Jake Highton. …

“Whereas, Jake Highton’s profound care of his students has led him to financially and emotionally support them, often at his own expense;

“Whereas, thousands of students have been positively affected by his encouraging attitude, his caring but fierce demeanor, his love of literature, art and music and his infinite drive;

“Be it resolved by the Senate of the Associated Students, that the Associated Students of the University of Nevada hereby officially recognize and commend Jake Highton for his outstanding service to the University of Nevada, to the Reynolds School of Journalism, to the First Amendment and to the pursuit of truth.”

My hardboiled mentor’s eyes looked damp during the resolution’s reading. “Thank you for these kind words now,” Highton told students, “because I won’t hear them after I’m dead.”

Thank you, Jake.

Editor’s note from Brian: Thank you, Jake.