(December 24, 1907 – December 29, 1991)
Award-winning journalism professor known for his three rules of journalism - “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.”
Rodney Theodore Fox was born on a farm near Arlington, Iowa, the son of Buel K. and Eva F. Fox. He moved to Ames in 1919 and graduated from Ames High School. Fox eventually received a BS in Economic History from Iowa State College (ISC, now Iowa State University) in 1930 and was editor of the Iowa State Student newspaper and the campus humor magazine The Green Gander, and also vice president of Cardinal Guild. He worked five years as a reporter and editor for the Mason City Globe Gazette, The Des Moines Register and the Iowa Falls Citizen. Fox was hired by ISC’s Department of Technical Journalism in 1936 and taught for more than 40 years. He served as a sergeant during World War II in the U.S. Army field artillery for 3.5 years from 1942-1945, including 11 months in France, Belgium and Germany. Fox also received an M.S.J. from Northwestern University in 1941 and did post-graduate work at the University of California-Berkeley.
Fox began teaching basic reporting and other journalism performance courses in 1936. His three rules of journalism were “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.” Misspelled names or fact errors resulted in an immediate grade of “F.” But his grading toughness was offset by a genuine concern for students of the Great Depression years and a focus on improving each student individually from where they started rather than establishing any general achievement goals. Former students remembered that during those tough economic times, Rod fed them and lent them money to stay in school, not expecting that he would ever be repaid. “There is so much more to education than teaching in the classroom,” he said. Students also remembered Fox supervising quarter break trips in which teams of students would travel to Iowa communities and produce an issue of the local paper.
Fox was innovative and at times even radical in his approach to teaching. He attempted to match his teaching style to the economic and social times – desperate to learn during the Depression years, willing to challenge professors and ideas during Vietnam, and complacent and unmotivated at other times. In a 1971 interview Fox said, “There are two basic teaching principles: (1) Students learn more and remember longer if their classroom experiences are pleasant; (2) Learning and teaching are basic objectives of college – not making grades and measuring student achievement.” Fox was a pioneer in classroom teaching innovation, bringing in multimedia presentations as soon as equipment enabled him to do so. His instructions to students during class were to “Listen, Learn, and Think.” In the late 1960s, he began handing out his own notes to students during each class, telling them “You already have the notes. Now listen and think.” When the Vietnam war placed emphasis on good grades (men who didn’t make a “C” average were drafted into the Army), Fox criticized the emphasis on grades instead of learning, and experimented with giving all students “A” grades, or an A, B-F system that assured active and involved students of a passing grade with an “A” possible for extraordinary additional contributions. Fox could be found pacing the hallways each quarter before his first class, working on new creative approaches. In the early 1970s, one class began like this: “Ladies and gentlemen: This is your captain, Rod Fox, speaking. Welcome aboard flight four three one, bound for a tour of the far reaches of American Journalism History.”
Another contribution was to broaden the coursework taken by journalists from performance courses to more emphasis on the humanities. He developed a popular Journalism and Literature course that encouraged students to read widely from an extensive book list to better understand literary writing and how it could be useful to journalists. One of his areas of expertise was photography, and he developed courses that incorporated artistic techniques as well as news photography. He co-authored two books – Creative News Photography, and 1,000 Ideas for Better News Photography. To improve his own artistic skills, he spent two summers attending workshops taught by renowned photographer Ansel Adams in California.
In recognition of his teaching, Fox received the university’s Outstanding Teaching Award in 1971 and the ISU Alumni Association’s Faculty Citation for long, outstanding and inspiring service in 1972.
Fox also was an active historian and a disciple of Henry David Thoreau. He was a founding member of the Ames Heritage Association. He knew the location of every unique tree and plant around central Iowa and hiked the area frequently. When the City of Ames decided to widen Grand Avenue, cutting down rows of magnificent elms, Fox stood in front of one of the elm trees, preventing crews from cutting it down.
His experiences during World War II affected his life deeply. His letters home captured both the horrors of what he saw as well as the human side. In 1945, he was assigned to what had been a concentration camp – “The living and the dead were so mixed together, and the living were so nearly dead that it took more than a day to sort them.” But he also maintained a sense of humor: “Yesterday a lieutenant and I captured ourselves a German. The lieutenant is as bespectacled and puffy and unmilitary as I am, and we must have looked a bit funny marching our Fritz down the road, our guns leveled as his posterior. As one of the boys wrote home last night: ‘The ultimate insult has been dealt the Master Race. One of its members has been made prisoner by a college professor.’”
Fox died in Ames in 1991. He was never married.
Rodney Fox Papers, RS 13/13/57, Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives.
For secondary sources, see the Greenlee School annual newsletters from 1942-1977; Iowa State Daily interview Feb. 3, 1971; Emmerson, Tom, “A Soldier’s Story.”