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How W&L's liberal arts shaped my journalism career

By Lewis Cope ’55

It was 1951. I was a sun-tanned 17-year-old boy from a small town in Texas who hopped off a bus in Lexington, Va., with one aim: to study journalism at Washington and Lee University. But I soon discovered that the journalism courses would have to wait. W&L “forced me” to take a full load of liberal arts courses in my freshman year.

What science course should I take? In those Cold War days, I decided a little knowledge of physics might help me comprehend the threat of atomic bombs.

Math? I didn’t like fiddling with equations, so I plowed into a course that focused on mathematical theory.

History? While my high school taught little more than Texas-bragging stuff, W&L opened my eyes to the bigger world. I was fascinated by early Asian history, among other things.

In the following three years, my journalism training kept me hopping. But W&L’s distribution rules also pushed me to take courses like comparative religions. And my new-found fascination with physics led to courses in astronomy and meteorology before I graduated in 1955.

Two years later, while working at a small Texas newspaper, reporting on everything from cops to football, I heard the newsflash on my car radio: Russia had put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. “Boy,” I shouted with no one to hear me. “Would that be a great story to cover!”

That itch just wouldn’t go away. I kept learning as much as I could about science. And in 1966, the Minneapolis Tribune hired me as a science reporter, with a key aim to cover the Apollo program created to rocket astronauts to the moon.

Then came what I consider the biggest news of my lifetime: I was at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and then at NASA-Houston, to report on the Apollo 11 flight in 1969 that put the first human boot prints on the moon.

In the following years, I covered all sorts of space and other science stories for the Tribune and later the Star Tribune after the staffs of the morning and afternoon papers merged. My articles about the weather and astronomy were particularly big hits with readers.

I also covered many medical stories. Some took me into the operation room to witness transplants and other new types of surgery. Some dealt with medical research, where my numbers-savvy from W&L came in handy to sort out what really works.

I wrote about disease outbreaks and much more. And I probed the politics of medical costs, where my political science coursework at W&L came in handy.

The Star Tribune sent me to Cambodia and Thailand for a month to report on refugee medical-care problems and issues. My Asian history and comparative-religions learnings at W&L served me well.

I loved my career as a science writer. I became president of the National Association of Science Writers while continuing my Star Tribune reporting, which covered three decades before I retired.

It was an often hectic, but always personally rewarding journalism career. Thanks, W&L.