Long before he was a columnist for the Sparks Tribune, Jake Highton was making a difference in journalism.
Years in newspapers and then as a University of Nevada journalism professor, who made sure his students knew right from wrong.
Highton died last week of a heart attack. He was 86.
Highton retired from the university as a professor emeritus in 2011 after a career in academics that spanned three decades. He was both a teacher and a mentor to hundreds of aspiring journalists who found out they were not in an easy major when they landed in his classes.
That was the experience of John Trent, who would go on to a career in journalism before returning to academics.
“Jake once told me that he was such a hard, unforgiving grader because the world was a hard, unforgiving place, and journalists, in particular, always needed to demand their very best,” Trent wrote in a university piece mourning his passing. “If you think my class is hard,” he once said, “wait until you have to meet your first deadline. That’s pressure.”
Highton worked for the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Evening Sun, and was a columnist and editorial writer for The Detroit News. He started teaching at the Donald W. Reynolds School of Journalism in 1981 and continuously submitted weekly columns to the Sparks Tribune since the late 80’s when he met Andrew Barbano, another Tribune columnist.
“(The Sparks Tribune) had a flaming liberal, a rightwing moon howler, and a borderline socialist communist (Jake). The diversity of columnists is what the Sparks Tribune has over any other publication,’’ Barbano said. “We were the original Three Musketeers (of columnists). I always joked that with Jake to the left of me and Ralph to the right, I looked somewhat reasonable in between. Some of his columns were good and some were crackerjack, but he did take the silver in last year’s Nevada Press Association awards for his columns.”
“I had the honor of taking third after him,” says Barbano.
“He believed in an egalitarian society- equality and justice for all. He felt that everyone should get a fair shot at doing their best in life,” he adds. Barbano remembers telling Highton about an instance when he was standing in line at a grocery store and the woman in front of him ran out of food stamps. Barbano stepped in and bought the juice for her kids. “I think that struck a chord with Jake- he was dedicated to help the plight of the less fortunate,” he says.
For decades Barbano and Highton corresponded via email and US mail sharing opinions and advice, but met in person occasionally as well. “I think he respected anyone who could use the King’s English properly and politically we were in the same place,” he says.
Laughing, Barbano shares a story of when he invited Highton as his guest to a Circus Circus union awards dinner. “I know a lot of WWII-era people that will appreciate this…we went to this awards ceremony and they served delicious Mexican food. However, Jake refused to stand in a buffet line so he went upstairs and had dinner in a coffee shop. A lot of vets I know swore that they would never stand in a chow line again and that was Jake…he refused to stand in line to eat.”
Highton was not only brutally honest with his students, he offered his sometimes unfavorable opinions to everyone about anything. Usually it’s about politics or civilian welfare, but in 2015 the Huffington Post published a hilarious article titled, “Jake Highton, Grumpy Nevada Columnist, and Really Hated His Trip to Edmonton”. Even as recent as his final column, printed here, Highton admonished the Reno Gazette-Journal for not posting the address of Louis’ Basque Corner in an article they published about the Reno restaurant.
“He defined the term ‘cantankerous’ but in a good way,” says Barbano.
Along with being a regular contributor to the Trib for decades, the highly-opinionated professor was known for pursuing truth and accuracy in his own writing while demanding nothing less from his students. If students could accept the harsh constructive criticism that Highton bestowed and applied it to future writing, they were more likely to make it as a respectable journalist in the real world.
“There were always two sides to Jake, who was a professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism for three decades, during which he wrote several books on journalism including a history of Nevada journalism,” Trent wrote in “Nevada Today.’’ “Jake had incredibly high standards, and during the course of every class he could be blunt, and often his grading was unmerciful. No one could escape the wrath of his red (sometimes black) pen.’’
Trent recalled that at one point Highton wrote a critical column in the Sparks Tribune that criticized the university presidency of Joe Crowley, who had otherwise gotten generally good reviews. He wrote that Crowley was no more than a “C” president, which sparked an engaging discussion between the two men.
Barbano knew about Highton before becoming his friend.
“His name was even transformed into a verb…if you got ‘Jaked’ that meant you survived a journalism class with him,” Barbano says after an article was posted in a May 2011 edition of the Reno News & Review written by Deidre Pike
He may have rubbed a few students the wrong way while they were there, but he no doubt left an impression- a testament to that is in Highton’s last book titled Here’s to Jake which contains 31 pages of comments from former students who appreciated his style of teaching.
Highton understood that he was harsh, but greatly valued quality education. In one of his 1991 Sparks Tribune columns, Highton stated, “Good teachers inspire, challenge. They make students think, set lofty standards, turn out better human beings. Their imprints last the lifetimes of their students. Nothing is more sacred than the minds of young people.” In April of this year, he wrote a column which included a tribute to his former students “from this cruel ex-professor”.
“Jake believes that accuracy and literacy go hand in hand. If you could write a coherent sentence in the English language then you got Jake’s attention,” says Barbano. “Having his work remembered was important to him, but his impact was far greater than his writing. He created a lot of damn good journalists and that is his true legacy.”
The Tribune will miss him greatly, and many Sparks readers will, too.
“Jake as a journalism teacher at UNR mentored a generation of students who will not forget him. Those students have gone on to jobs where they put his wisdom to work,” says Sparks Tribune publisher Sherman Frederick. “It was also our honor to publish his column in the Sparks Tribune.”
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