Bremner Tribute

Professor John B. Bremner came to the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications in 1969 and taught copy editing until 1985. Before coming to the J-School, the Australian native had been a journalist, writer, radio broadcaster and a Roman Catholic priest. Today, his book Words on Words has become a standard text for copy editing students and professionals. In the book's introduction, Bremner wrote, "Words are my professional life ... To love words, you must first know what they are ... They have their own historical and etymological associations, their own romantic and environmental dalliances, their own sonic and visual delights." He died in 1987 from cancer. Read his obituary in the New York Times.

The following are excerpts from an article that appeared in the Fall 1985 issue of the Jayhawk Journalist after Bremner announced he would retire at the end of the semester, a tribute to Bremner by a former student, and excerpts from "Editorially Speaking."

BREMNER Some of us do not look forward to the December day when John Bremner will deliver his last lecture on the Hill.
By Amber Ankerholz

John Bremner is retiring. Those words fill me and many other students with sadness. I am sad to think of all those aspiring copy editors who will never experience the fear and awe and love of being in John Bremner's classroom. Who will teach them all the things that he can? John Bremner does not simply teach editing. He teaches everything he knows, and he expects his students to learn it all. 

Del Brinkman, dean of the school of journalism, describes Professor Bremner as the best in the world. "That sounds like exaggeration, but I don't think there is anyone who can teach all the things that are important in editing any better than John Bremner."

The Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi, agrees with Dean Brinkman. The society chose to honor Professor Bremner with its Distinguished Teaching in Journalism Award this year.

The award recognizes outstanding teaching ability, contributions to journalism education and contributions toward maintaining the highest standards of the profession. . .

Professor Bremner has been honored at the University of Kansas also. Two years after he came here in 1969, he received the Amoco Distinguished Teacher Award and then the HOPE (Honor for Outstanding Progressive Educator) Award from KU seniors. In 1977, the School of Journalism recognized his efforts in teaching by naming him the Oscar S. Stauffer Distinguished Professor of Journalism. Dean Brinkman says, "John Bremner deserves all the awards that he wins and some that he doesn't."

Professor Bremner is an intimidating, 6-foot-5, 260-pound man with white hair and white beard and a wealth of knowledge that matches his formidable figure. He has spent many of his 64 years acquiring this knowledge. He grew up in Australia and majored in philosophy and classical languages in college. He earned a bachelor's degree in theology from Propaganda Fide University in Rome and continued his theological studies at All Hallows College in Dublin. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1943 and was a priest for 25 years.

Professor Bremner worked in Australia as a magazine editor, newspaper columnist and radio writer and announcer before coming to the United States in 1950. He earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York, where he won a Pulitzer Travelling Scholarship, enabling him to work on newspapers in Florida and California. He then taught at the University of San Diego from 1957 - '61. He developed the journalism sequence there before moving to the University of Iowa, where he earned a doctorate in mass communications in 1965. He taught there until 1969.

Professor Bremner says, "Most of the time I know what I'm going to talk about. Something will occur to me and I'll think, 'I've never mentioned this before; maybe they don't know about it. Out it'll come . . . Ultimately, you remember that you're trying to teach them the language."

If his students are un-cooperative while he teaches, Professor Bremner may throw open the window of the classroom, wave his white handkerchief at passersby and shout, "Help, I'm surrounded by idiots." Such events and other theatrics serve to impress upon students the lessons he gives. His manner is loud, sometimes ribald, always effective.

Professor Bremner's . . . describes himself as even-tempered, meaning always surly, and also uses adjectives such as domineering and intolerant in reference to himself. His wife disagrees. Mary Bremner says that at heart he isn't mean; he's very soft. But he is a perfectionist. Mrs. Bremner says, "Whatever he's going to do, he goes into it heart and soul, and it's going to be the very best he can possibly do. There's no simple way to do it."

Professor Bremner says, "I don't purposely act. I've just learned over the years that you have to hold an audience. And you don't hold students and professionals by simply filling them with facts and snippets of knowledge. You have also got to entertain them. You have to make them see why the world of the mind is the world that's important. You have to keep them interested, keep them alert."

Dean Brinkman says, "He knows how to motivate, he knows how to entertain, he knows how to inspire. Not everybody likes his method, but I don't think there is anybody who can say that he is not excellent as a college professor."

. . . Many professional copy editors also had the chance to learn from the best when the Gannett Foundation asked Professor Bremner to conduct a series of editing seminars around the country. The foundation hired him for the 1980-81 academic year. . . Gannett called him back during the 1983-84 year. . . In all, he lectured in 44 states.

Professor Bremner says a copy editor must know something about everything, everything about something and where to find everything else. He calls copy editors the "guardians of a newspaper's character and reputation."

He teaches healthy suspicion and is fond of saying, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out." He also touts the "thrill of monotony," because being a copy editor involves correcting the same errors over and over.

Professor Bremner repeatedly emphasizes the importance of etymology. His fervor for the history of what he calls, "our beautiful, bastard language" is illustrated in his book Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words.

. . . Other former students have many memories of Professor Bremner.  Mrs. Bremner says . . ."To me, the greatest satisfaction that we both get is hearing from former students who really remember him years and years later and write to him to thank him for yelling at them. Some of the kids in journalism today say there isn't a day goes by that they don't use something that he taught them."

Professor Bremner agrees. He says the most rewarding things about teaching are partly that so many of his students have gone on to highly responsible positions, and partly their gratitude. He says, "Did you ever hear the parable about Christ curing the ten lepers? And only one of them came back to thank him? You might want to look it up. It's the gratitude that keeps you going. That's the ego in it."

One former student in particular, Greg Hack, news editor for the Kansas City Times, said Professor Bremner ". . . realizes there's nothing really quite so important and nothing really quite so beautiful, once it starts working, as a good mind. . .

" But soon Professor Bremner will retire. I know he will be sorely missed. Dean Brinkman says, "We can't replace him. We're not going to try to replace John Bremner. We're just going to fill a position with the best person we can find."

©Jayhawk Journalist

A tribute to Bremner given at the 1996 ASNE Copy Editing Conference by former Bremner student Mary Carter

Following is a tribute to John Bremner, presented by Mary Carter, J'86, at the October 1996 ASNE Copy Editor's Conference held at the University of Kansas.

Carter was a teaching assistant to Professor Bremner and is an assistant national desk editor at The Dallas Morning News.

Everyone who ever met John Bremner tried hard to characterize him. The Associated Press called him a delightful terror in the classroom. I generally say he was a cross between Orson Welles and Zeus. He was big ... and intense. You've heard about his theatrics all evening. He would stalk around the classroom, pouncing on his students, spitting questions and throwing up his hands in dismay when we didn't know the answers. Sometimes he'd run to the window, throw it open and wave his handkerchief at the passersby and yell, "Help me, help me. I'm surrounded by morons."

I met him when I was 16 years old. Fresh off the farm in Oklahoma, had never been anywhere and didn't know anything. I thought I was interested in journalism but wasn't sure I wanted to be a reporter. My high school English teacher suggested I come to journalism camp here at KU, where I met several people who continue to have an impact on my life. ... And that first day in class, I mean after I got to where I could hear something other than my heart pounding in my ears, I heard this brilliant man talking passionately about things I loved, too ... and thought I was WEIRD for caring about ... words and language, etymology ... and he was saying that could be a basis for a career. That you could make a living out of knowing that stuff. It was like a door opening. I immediately knew I had found my way. "This is for me." And I wonder how many other hundreds of students had the same revelation as they sat in his class. And what a tremendous thing to feel that you belong.

He was hard and dogmatic and demanding. Because he knew that he was preparing us for some of the hardest, most thankless jobs in journalism. Copy editors labor in the shadows ... anonymous hands, working obscure hours, struggling for recognition and respect from colleagues who don't understand what we do or just resent it. Professor Bremner taught that copy editing is a noble undertaking, and that we have to find satisfaction in making things right, over and over and over again. He called it "the thrill of monotony," and he likened it to a child, being thrown into the air, who when she lands, squeals "Do it again ... do it again." He taught us to do it not for recognition or praise, but because we are the caretakers of the word.

I think he would be very gratified by this gathering, to see the American Society of Newspaper Editors recognizing copy editors and listening to us, and all of you who have come here to try to make our voice heard and to seek ways to nurture the craft and those who practice it. I think he would say thank you. And so do I.
The following are excerpts from the September 1987 issue of Editorially Speaking, a Gannett publication. It is reprinted with Gannett's permission.

"A tribute to John B. Bremner: His words, his lessons, his inspiration" By Phil Currie:

... we devote this Editorially Speaking issue to this master craftsman (John Bremner).

I guess my favorite John Bremner saying is: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

That seems to deliver the right message to all journalists and would-be journalists:

Check your facts: get them right. ...John Bremner retired from the University of Kansas in December 1985 after more than three decades of teaching. On July 30, 1987 in Ponce Inlet, Fla., he died at age 66.

But the teaching that John Bremner did goes on today, even after his death. Many of his students now are journalists around the country ... ...When you finish reading the collected material, you will understand -- if you do not know already -- what a special person John Bremner was. Journalists, educators and students respected and admired his skills and often were awed by his abilities. And among his followers were many who also loved the man dearly. We know that for sure. We checked it out.

"Bremner the professor: His lessons live on, although he scared his students to death" By Charles T. Wanninger:

... He scared me to death.

But he taught me about words.

About editing. About newspapers. The nuts-and-bolts stuff I needed as I pursued a career. And maybe he taught me some things about fairness. And love. And compassion. About walking the extra mile.

... And for hundreds of us -- scattered now, on newspaper staffs across the land -- John's love for the language was infectious.

That, by the way, is not always a blessing. I have squirmed in a restaurant chair as John "edited" a menu. And then pointed out the errors to a poor waitress who obviously was not to blame.

And, for the last 20 years, I have jotted a message to John on a Christmas card. Then I would read what I had written. And read it again. And again. Just to make sure there were no errors of spelling or grammar....

"Bremner the writer: His dictionary was for all who care about words"
John Bremner's wit and wisdom are preserved in his 1980 book, "Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words." The ... excerpts that follow are but a small sample of Bremner's observations on spelling, grammar, usage, language and life.

Busy as a beaver all day, he was as tired as a dog when he hit the hay last night. He thought he would fall into the arms of Morpheus and sleep like a log, but his pad was cold as ice and he tossed and turned and didn't sleep a wink. Well, to cut a long story short, in the wee small hours he hit the deck like a bolt from the blue to get himself a hair of the dog to warm the cockles of his heart, but, as luck would have it, this was more easily said than done because he was fresh out of what the doctor ordered. Make no bones about it, he was really over a barrel. Little did he think he would be without the necessary. He was in a pretty kettle of fish, it goes without saying. Rather than open a new can of worms, he threw in the sponge without further ado and hit the sack to await Old Sol and another day, another dollar. It was too funny for words, needless to say.

You get sick of reading and hearing clichés. Sick and tired.

A cliché, from French clicher, to stereotype, to cast from a mold, is an expression that is trite (from Latin Terere, to rub, hence worn-out by use), hackneyed (from hackney, a horse for hire, worn-out by service).

Speech is often riddled with cliches because people speak faster than they think and because they speak in phrases rather than in words. They have picked up the phrases over the years and don't stop to think what the words mean. At their creation, the phrases were original and bright. Down the years, they have become worn-out by use. What we need are new cliches.

There is less excuse for cliches in writing than in speech. A writer has more time to seek the right word, to avoid triteness. If, however, he decides that a cliche is the best way to convey his meaning he should go ahead and use it. He should not apologize for using it by adding a patronizing phrase such as "if you'll pardon the expression," "to coin a phrase," or "as the old saying goes."

As a building, informally, a facility is an outhouse. As a building, formally, a facility is a flatulent word tacked onto anything from a concert hall to a prison. Facilities is a handy generic word for a collection of buildings and assembly rooms with different purposes, as in "The university will open all its facilities during homecoming." But call a gymnasium a gymnasium, not a recreational facility, and a school a school, not an educational facility.

Crime stories sometimes report that the victim was unknown. Surely he hadn't gone through life unknown by anyone. Somebody must have known the poor guy. Make it unidentified.

"Bremner the Teacher: His students guard the language he taught them to love" By Dick Thien

If you are lucky, you know one.

They are so much alike. Yet, they are so different, at least from the others who didn't have their Teacher.

They sit at a terminal, sometimes looking as though they are frowning. But they aren't. They are intense.

Other times, they are, indeed, frowning. They are irritated -- angry even -- at what they see: a writer who, as their Teacher put it, fails "to stay the surge of literary barbarism."

As they read, they often move their lips.

And they read a lot. They have discovered the thrill of monotony.

... they know the etymology of what their Teacher called "our beautiful bastard language, bred from so many other languages, ancient and modern."

They are the guardians of a newspaper's character and reputation, he told them. Their Teacher taught them to "know something about everything and where to find out everything and where to find out everything about anything."

They have confidence; their Teacher instilled it.

They have humility; their Teacher caused it.

They wear a crown that is envied by all who do not have one, placed on their heads by the master Wordsmith. The crown carries a responsibility.

They must guard our language. Doing that consistently is honest and pure and noble and true because Dr. John B. Bremner told them so.

They reflect his intellectual elegance. They are Bremnerites.

"Bremner the evangelist: His 52 seminars brought the gospel of language to 3,800" By Gerald Sass

When Bremner was involved, there were never any losers. He defined excellence by constant example in and out of the classroom. He breathed into (Bremner would have said that's what "inspire" means) his students a desire to know, to be accurate, to be right.

These were Bremner's final messages to us: that we find excellence not in the language but in ourselves; and that the only ultimate tragedy is not sickness and death but failing to use our talents to the fullest every day.

In short, the giant lived and breathed excellence, and he expected nothing less from others.

"Bremner the giant: His name is on list of nation's legendary lexicographers" By James J. Kilpatrick

"To love anything," John wrote, "you must first know it. To love words, you must first know what they are. Yes, words are symbols of ideas. But many words have lives of their own. They have there own historical and etymological associations, their own romantic and environmental dalliances, their own sonic and visual delights."

I would bid him nunc dimittis and requiescat in pace, were it not for a premonition that a growl would come from the grave. "Stick to English," he would say, "so as not to reveal your ignorance of Latin."

"Meanwhile comma John comma peace period" John's disciples:

Jerry Sass

The half-joking stereotype portrayed the copy desk as a haven for burned-out reporters and drunks.

Bremner made it a bastion of language purity.... Many can be identified by the cool confidence with which they try to teach grammar, usage and sequence of tense to their superiors.

Chris Cobler
In the midst of a particularly grueling sessions, he would serenade us. That semester he usually sang "Send in the Clowns." We got the point.

Deborah Gump
Then he would say ... "Meanwhile comma peace period," pronouncing the punctuation in a final reminder to think about what you say and write. John Bremner breathed such life into words that it seemed the breath never could leave him. If he had last words, I'm sure he loved them, whatever they were, in spite of their finality.


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