Pratt: Sellmeyer knew empowerment of an encouraging word

The later 1970s were a pivotal time for me — one son attending Texas Tech, the second midway through high school and the youngest in junior high school.

My midlife or “empty nest” crisis never got off the ground, largely because Ralph Sellmeyer came to town to substitute a couple of months for Wendell Tooley, owner-publisher of the Floyd County Hesperian.

Seeing Sellmeyer’s obituary in Sunday’s A-J reminds me of how he so unobtrusively encouraged me to follow dreams that seemed out of reach. I was filling in as temporary typesetter at the Hesperian when Mr. Tooley went on his world tour and invited Sellmeyer to be acting editor.

Looking back now, I will never, ever think coincidence rules our lives. This small, temporary job was to benefit me in ways I could not have imagined.

For example, I learned to use what was essentially a type-setting computer, a junior something – I’ve forgotten its brand. About six years later, terminology and function I learned operating that piece of equipment helped me transition a year after I began work at the Avalanche-Journal. When the newspaper changed from a typewriter-based system to personal computers, reporters my age and older were expected to adapt quickly, but such a big change is challenging.

While he was at the Hesperian that spring, Professor Sellmeyer gave me a story assignment. Even more astounding, he asked me to edit one of his stories. I did edit it, making a suggestion or two. I think back to that with embarrassment that I made any suggestions to a really excellent writer. He had a great sense of humor, and accepted my “corrections.” (Although I occasionally wrote on assignment for a national church library magazine, I had no formal training as a writer.)

We all had fun working with Ralph, as he preferred to be called. During his last week with us, we invited him to bring his wife, Millie, and daughter Sheri, who was home for the summer, for a farewell dinner at my house. Tall, lanky Ralph and petite, quiet Millie were such lovely people. We were sorry to see him leave.

It was Ralph who encouraged me to enroll as a journalism major at Texas Tech. He described the process and provided the schedule. This was pre-computer registration when students registered for classes at the Lubbock Coliseum.

The lines were long, and by the time I would get to the front to enroll in the class I needed for a Tuesday-Thursday schedule, it would be filled. After several hours of this, I decided I had enough of college life. I went by the journalism office to leave a message for the professor that I probably wasn’t cut out for that kind of aggravation. Patience wasn’t my strong suit. I went home.

The next morning, I got a call from Mr. Sellmeyer, who listened to my doubts, and then said, “Pratt, get yourself over here to the office, and I’ll help you get enrolled.”

Occasionally he would drop by before my 11 a.m. class and ask if I’d like to go to lunch in the faculty dining area. He understood my self-doubt because his wife had also gone back to school after their four daughters were older. As a man living in a houseful of women, he no doubt developed a sensitivity about how to be an encourager. Or, maybe encouragers are born, not made. I think back to the story of Barnabas, who became encourager and companion in missionary work to Paul, who had been the most feared persecuter of Christ followers before his conversion. Most wanted to avoid him, not work with him because they were understandibly suspicious of Paul’s intentions. But Barnabas was a steady friend and encourager.

I am one of many students, traditional and nontraditional, who benefited from Sellmeyer and other professors who understood the empowerment of an encouraging word.

Later, when Sellmeyer accepted a position in Midland, he recommended that I take over a monthly employee publication he edited for one of Lubbock’s leading banks. He knew that on the farm we were in the midst of the 1980s double disaster of low cotton prices and drought. In fact, it was at that bank that I was later to meet the managing editor of the Lubbock newspaper.

But that is another story of coincidence that seems all part of a bigger plan when I look back over those years and remember those who influenced my career path.

I went to work as religion editor at the A-J about six months after graduating. By then, the Sellmeyers were at Midland College where he was Allison Professor of Journalism. I had a brief note from him asking that after I reported on Baptists, Catholics etc., to please not forget the Episcopalians, his church family. I think it was his way of saying he was pleased that I was doing newspaper work.

We last saw him briefly in 1998 when he was inducted into the Texas Tech College of Media & Communication Hall of Fame.

Mr. Sellmeyer stands out among many I came to know through the years because of their unselfish encouragement, readers as well as co-workers. Time teaches us humility and gratitude for those who encourage us to venture outside the comfortable cocoon of the familiar and grasp opportunity. It is our privilege to pass it on.

BETH PRATT retired as religion editor from the Avalanche-Journal after 25 years. You can email her at beth.pratt@cheerful.com.

 

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