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News Beloved English and journalism professor retires

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Ben Yagoda calls it -30- but only up to a point
Ben Yagoda

​What's not to smile about when you're at a party celebrating Ben Yagoda? Photo/Ben Fournier.

Ben Yagoda, who retired from The Journalism Program and the English Department in May 2017, is turning the word retirement into an oxymoron.

Just weeks after a party at the Deerfield Golf club, where dozens of colleagues, former students and current students gathered to celebrate his 25 years of teaching, Yagoda was off to England to teach study-abroad students about the London media scene. Future study-abroad courses are on the books.

But on May 5 in a packed Deerfield banquet room, it was all about his storied past. Yagoda developed and helped lead the university's vibrant journalism minor for decades. Prominent journalists who consider Yagoda a mentor gave moving (and occasionally hysterical) toasts in his honor.

They included Mike Regan, a columnist for Bloomberg News; Devin Harner, a journalism professor at John Jay College; Lydia Woolever, an editor at Baltimore Magazine; and Ellen Cannon, a longtime national magazine editor who also has been a generous financial supporter of undergraduate journalism internships.

Joceyln Terranova, who works for the Boys and Girls Club of Binghamton, N.Y., gave a moving (and poetic) testimony to Yagoda's influence on her career, and Professor McKay Jenkins offered a few examples of student writing that somehow escaped Yagoda's influence. (You had to be there, but here's a taste: "There is no reason that you should have left that school with the same self-riotous attitude that you had at seventeen.” or "She avoided me like the plaque after I told her that I was fine in a stern voice.” )

In all, it was a festive and warm-spirited send-off to a beloved colleague, teacher and friend.

Yagoda, author of several books, including "The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song" and "You Need to Read This," continues to write the Lingua Franca column for the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications.

Parting words in The Review: "The less you know, the worse your writing is going to be."

What they said about Ben: Devin Harner
Devin Harner

​Harner thanked Yagoda for "teaching us a craft." Photo/Ben Fournier.

​Excerpted from the prepared remarks by Devin Harner, former student and co-director of the journalism minor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

I've managed to build a career on Ben's 480: Literary Journalism Seminar, and I think that the world would be a much better place if our leaders had enrolled in it.  We learn current events, and we understand our place in the world, and in our democracy, from journalism, and, as with fiction, we learn empathy from literary journalism, and this sort of learning is sadly lacking in today's America.

Teaching me to write and getting me out of Delaware was a group effort involving many great mentors and teachers over the course of multiple decades.  I want to thank Ben, in particular, for showing me that there was a kind of writing that existed between straight news and straight academic writing, and for encouraging me to move into that that space, aesthetically and professionally.

I want to wrap up with a conversation that I had with Dennis Jackson once.  I had written something that was between those spaces, but not wholly successful, and he'd taken a look at it, as had Ben.  Dennis gave me back a draft with comments in red that were longer than the story itself.  I thanked him, and he asked me what Ben thought, and I said that Ben liked it.  Dennis didn't miss a beat, and responded, well Ben thinks every one of you guys is as good as he is.

I'm sure that everyone who's studied with Ben understands what Dennis meant.  And I want to thank him again, on all of our behalfs, for the confidence and encouragement, and for teaching us a craft.

What they said about Ben: Lydia Woolever
Lydia Woolever

​"We still want to make him proud." Photo/Ben Fournier.

​Excerpted from the prepared remarks by Lydia Woolever, former student and associate editor of Baltimore magazine.

When I was a senior in college, I landed a spring internship at The Philadelphia Inquirer. I had an old newspaperman of a boss who called me by my last name and sent me off on tough investigative assignments. On one warm May day towards the end of the semester, I had finished all of my work and was itching to get let go so I could join my friends who were day drinking on Main Street.

"Woolever," he said. "You busy?" Crap … But no, I responded, to which he asked, "You ever been to South Philly?"

The next thing I knew I was driving south down I-76, bound for the outer edges of Philadelphia. A high school senior - one week from prom, and a few months from his freshman year of college - had just been shot to death outside of school. My job was to go to his neighborhood - a rough part of town, to say the least - and talk to his grieving family, also refugees from Sierra Leone, about the loss of their son.

Needless to say, I was scared shitless, and as I arrived to find literally dozens of family members wailing in the street, I wasn't sure that I could do it. And so I called Ben. His exact words escape me because the fear consumed me, like it does for many a young reporter, to the point of nearly blacking out, but I do remember that he told me, matter-of-factly, that I could. To go, to be kind and polite and compassionate, but most of all, to be myself.

That advice allowed me to step out of my car and write a piece of journalism that would shortly thereafter land me a job at, in full circle, one of Ben's alma maters - Esquire magazine. Seven years later, I still try to write honestly, think about every word, and remember that I can do it. I try to write as if Ben was still grading my papers, because - as I think all of his former students and I can definitely agree - however long ago we graduated, whatever job we might have now, and wherever we may be - we still want to make him proud.

What they said about Ben: Michael Regan
Michael Regan

​Ben has "made all of us a little more Yagoda-y." Photo/Ben Fournier.

​Excerpted from the prepared remarks by Michael Regan, lead blogger for Markets Live, Bloomberg.

I never actually had Ben as my professor. But what's amazing is how much I still learned from him about my craft through Ben's own writings ... on his blog, his essays on Slate.com and the Chronicle of Higher Education, his other blog, Not One Off Britishisms.

Even his Facebook page. Recently, when everyone on my feed was outraged about a story regarding yet another Fox News executive being charged with sexual harassment, Ben was actually outraged at the unnecessary commas in the Times headline about it. And he was right! Fight the power, Ben!

Ben's always offered unique, real-time observations about the state of writing and grammar and language. What I've taken away from him is how our language is not a bunch of rules written down in a book, but an evolving and adapting organism, and as a result so is good writing.

And I confess I still haven't gotten through all his books on language: "The Sound on the Page," "How to Not Write Bad" and the soon-to-be major motion picture starring Steve Buscemi, "If you catch an adjective, kill it." (Ben, I'm trying to squeeze in as many book plugs as possible. You're welcome.)

One of my favorite essays of Ben's was on Slate, and it was about how the letter "y" was being used to turn random nouns into adjectives: angst can be angst-y, redneck becomes redneck-y, etc. So in reflecting back on Ben's career, I think about how much I'm still learning from him, and how he should be very proud to have made all of us a little more Yagoda-y. 

Scenes from a party
Scenes from the party

​At left, Ben Yagoda with a few of his many colleagues and former students. At right, retired English professor Richard Davison raises a glass with Ben's wife, Gigi Simeone; Ben's daughter Maria Yagoda; and Milena Davison.

Scenes from the party

At left, Denise and John Ernest, chair of the Department of English, with former UD president David Roselle and Nina Warren, administrative assistant in the English department. At far right, 2016-2017 Review editor in chief Meghan Jusczak with Margaret McNamara, the Review's managing editor.

Scenes from the party

At left, Mara Gorman and her husband, Matt Kinservik, professor of English and vice provost for faculty affairs, with English professor John Jebb and Ben Yagoda; Linda Russell, retired administrator of the English department with retired professor Bill Fleischman; and at far right, retired English professors Jay Halio and Kevin Kerrane with professor Claire McCabe. 


Scenes from the party

​At left, English professor McKay Jenkins led the gathering through some of the highlights of Ben Yagoda's career; former students gather round, including (back row, from left) Mark Nardone, Meghan Jusczak, Rob Wherry, Eric Ruth, Molly MacMillan, Devin Harner, Ben, Steve Russolillo, and Joe Clancy and (front row) Margaret McNamara, Kushal Naik, Stacey Carlough, Jocelyn Terranova, Lydia Woolever, Kristen Lauerman, Siobhan Wagner King, Artika Rangan Casini, Chris Dolmetsch and Kendra Acker Johnston; and at far right, journalism director Deborah Gump with retired professor Barbara Gates.

Story published on 1/1/2017 ; last modified on
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Professor Ben Yagoda was a master mingler at his retirement party, which celebrated his 25-year career in the Department of English, where he founded the journalism minor.

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Beloved English and journalism professor retires
Ben Yagoda retirement journalism UD University of Delaware
  • The Journalism Program
  • 207 Memorial Hall
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • 302-831-3870
  • journalism@udel.edu