Leon Dash visits the UW Comm Department

Leon Dash speaks to one of Karen Rathe's classes. Photo by Rathe.

Leon Dash speaks to one of Karen Rathe’s classes. Photo by Rathe.

Last week, journalism veteran and professor at the University of Illinois Leon Dash visited the UW Communication Department, speaking to five classes, participating in a mentor lunch, and being the guest-of-honor at the SPJ meeting in just two days.

Dash is best known for winning the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism during his 32-year stint at The Washington Post for a series titled “Rosa Lee’s Story” about a family trapped in the urban underclass.

“Leon himself is a special kind of journalist,” said Christopher Duclos, president of the SPJ at the UW. “The way he combines ethics, professionalism and being a good person is unique from any journalist you might hear about today.”

But the way he got here may be a bit surprising. Dash started out going to college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He felt that the curriculum was not expansive enough for what he wanted to study – contemporary Africa – so he decided to transfer to Howard University in Washington D.C. in 1965.

“Because my parents were upset with my decision to leave Lincoln, I told them I would pay for my own tuition,” Dash said.

Dash steam cleaned buildings at night and went to school during the day, but as the weather got colder he thought it would be better to look for an indoor job. Someone directed him to a job at The Washington Post as a copyboy working the lobster shift (6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.).

“There was no line for that job,” Dash joked, “but it was perfect for me.”

Dash started as a copyboy in November 1965, received a summer internship in April 1966, and by December was a staff writer and “that was it, it just took off from there,” Dash said. Dash did a variety of journalism, including being a police reporter, a foreign correspondent, and investigative reporting.

“The ethnographic investigative pieces that I did from 1984 to 1998 were my favorite,” Dash said, “because you are explaining to the public as to why people are in certain situations, what their motivations are, what their worlds are, and most people don’t know that. Most people live in their own world.”

Throughout his career, there were three attempts to have him become an editor (of which he said he sabotaged them all), and young editors coming in who wanted him to change his focus. Dash said he hit the ceiling and already had four offers from four universities when he decided to leave.

Dash’s second daughter became one of the main reasons he chose the University of Illinois. She was born in 1979 with cerebral palsy and at the time was getting ready to graduate high school. U of I was the first in the United States to develop a program for students with disabilities in 1948, Dash said.

Dash has been at the U of I since 1998 and said his main goal for teaching is “to turn out good students, especially those that have that internal drive to be good students, which not all students have, but the ones that do are noticeable.”

“It’s not every day we get someone of his stature to come in and educate us,” Duclos said, “so naturally, like sponges, we absorb all we can in that short amount of time he is with us.”

Along with teaching journalism, Dash is also a professor of African American studies and law at the University of Illinois. He currently holds the Swanlund Chair at the College of Law.