Any high school can be quickly divided into sects. Roll into the south side of Chicago, and every kid is tagged by a gang. Zoom out to the suburbs, and things look a lot more like that show Glee. You have traditional lines between athletes, preps, and emo/goth kids. Then you have the teens who belong to band, choir, and drama clubs. In my hometown we also had a strong journalism program. Grosse Pointe South’s newspaper is called “The Tower” and for nearly two decades its cult-like staff was hand-selected by a man named Jeff Nardone.
Jeff got a degree from Michigan State University in the late 80s, taught in East Detroit for a few years, and then landed his job at Grosse Pointe South. He got married and had twin boys. Like many, Jeff got divorced and remarried, adding a wife and daughter. He was an avid baseball fan, and he loved to attend Spartan tailgates with his family. He was a normal guy – except in the classroom.
When you entered Jeff’s journalism class every topic was fair game. Yes, we learned about writing strong ledes, the differences of news, feature, sports, and opinion pieces, and the evils of plagiarism. But taboo political and social topics drew the interest of all students.
My junior year, when I joined Tower staff, he taught me how to take my opinions and turn them into effective arguments for or against school and district policies. He taught me how to win people over and how to twist the knife. In time, I could take an idea at 8 a.m. and turn it into a story by the end of my regularly scheduled school day. Jeff took me from being an average student to being a hard-hitting journalist. He brought out the best in me.
When I look back on the work that I did with The Tower, I am proud of the questions I asked in interviews, details I learned at school board meetings, and schmoozing skills I picked up that all helped me piece together powerful stories about people in our school community and decisions that would affect my classmates. Jeff taught me and countless others to fight the good fight and to keep following the story until we were satisfied with the answers.
The last time I saw Jeff was in 2008. I wanted to show my girlfriend the splendor that is Grosse Pointe South High School. The old auditorium and Cleminson Hall – a regal old library – were locked. I asked Jeff if he could get us in and he didn’t hesitate to chuck his keys right at me. That same weekend, Bruce Springsteen was set to play an Obama rally in Detroit. I knew Jeff and his wife were big fans of The Boss, so I got him two tickets. It was the least I could do for a man who taught me so much.
Since that time, I’ve become a teacher myself. Granted, I teach kindergarten, but I still try to teach my students the same lessons of fairness that I learned in Jeff’s class. I aspire to have them question the world around them and recognize that there’s more than one side to every story.
We lost Jeff to an aggressive cancer yesterday, but we will never lose his spirit. He lives on in each and every one of his students. The beauty of Jeff’s work is that he let a bunch of kids pretend that they were hard-hitting journalists and in turn they became – among many things – writers, editors, producers, teachers, and lawyers who understand the importance of ethics and love the written word.
May he rest in peace.