By Megan Lupo
Rider communication and journalism alumni, spanning decades, mourn the loss of longtime journalism professor and The Rider News faculty advisor Willard E. (Bill) Lally after he passed away at the age of 96 on Nov. 17.
After advising the newspaper from 1956 to 1985, what he will be remembered most for was his mantra of being precise, according to multiple former students.
Both his first and last student editors of The Rider News, Stuart Gellman,’57, and Diane Thieke, ’85, respectively, recalled the phrase that he drilled into his mentees — “accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.”
Lally began his advising career with the paper on Jan. 3, 1956, according to the April 4, 1984 issue. The office, at the time, was located on State Street in Trenton and had a staff of 10 students.
Gellman was introduced to Lally on the professor’s first day in the journalism department, where the first quality he noticed in Lally was his midwestern drawl.
Lally’s hometown of Fremont, Nebraska was where he resided in his early years, graduating from Midland College in that city, according to his obituary. He went on to receive his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.
Gellman, who was about ten years younger than Lally, related to him, almost as a peer.
“I don’t think I had met anybody like him — down to earth. He was certainly interesting and interested in his students,” says Gellman. “Besides a professor, he was a mentor. Some ways a mentor as much or as more than a teacher. [He was] definitely very laid back.”
Another commonality is that Gellman and Lally were both veterans, albeit not at the same time. Gellman served in the Korean War and wrote for the Stars and Stripes American military newspaper; he went to Rider on the extended G.I. Bill that provided his tuition. Lally provided his services during World War II.
Reminiscing about what Lally told him about his army days, Harvey Trabb, ’70, said that the military turned him into a submachine gunner from a scrawny 120-pound kid.
“The Thompson submachine gun that he used had enough recoil to turn him around in place when he shot it during training. Getting on the troop ship to go to Europe, he had to carry all his gear, including the Thompson, up a wooden ramp to get on the ship,” Trabb said. “He said he was struggling with every step and knew that if he fell off the board, he’d sink to the bottom of the Hudson River and never come up. Once he got to England, they took the Thompson gun away and gave him a typewriter — a better and much more natural fit.”
With a passion for journalism, the lessons he instilled poured in from other students that he counseled during his 28-year-career with The Rider News once news hit of his death.
1972 graduate Craig Becker, who wrote for The Rider News throughout his entire undergraduate experience, said that working through the stimulating times of the Vietnam War protests under Lally’s guidance led him down a path to being a reporter for [The Times of Trenton], running the American Stock Exchange [now called the New York Stock Exchange American] communications center, a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal and a public relations professional.
“Bill knew just what buttons to push to make me a better journalist. He was never overtly critical, but you knew when you had screwed up,” Becker said. “You wanted to please him and, as such, you doubled your efforts to become a better journalist. In return, he made me a better writer. I am forever indebted to him.”
Brian Wood, ’73, echoed these sentiments.
“Bill taught us the fundamentals of journalism at a time when the industry was already beginning to go through major changes. [The] Watergate [scandal] sparked great interest in journalism as a profession, at the same time that economic pressures were causing journalism jobs to dry up,” Wood, who considered Lally a father figure, said. “From a personal perspective, I owe a huge debt to Bill for helping me through my transition from high school to college [by] learning the basics of good, solid journalism and accurate reporting, which guided me during my time as a young newspaper reporter and editor and then as a communications professional at AT&T, Bell Atlantic and Verizon.”
Gellman said that, although Lally never had children of his own, he affectionately called his journalism students “his kids.”
Besides his dedication to his profession, he was also devoted to his wife, Terry, of 58 years, which didn’t go unnoticed.
Marie Power-Barnes, ’80, ’91, who talked on the phone with Lally most weekends and admired his kindness and friendship for the past forty years, said that when his wife suffered a debilitating stroke a few years ago, he moved into her nursing home room and took care of her until she passed away on Aug. 17 2018.
Thieke, who vowed to carry on his commitment to quality in her freelance writing, said, “The thing that always jumped out to me had absolutely nothing to do with me whatsoever or Rider. It was just the relationship he had with his wife. He and his wife had what I think we would call today ‘relationship goals’ because they were so love.”
Each student of his took away memories of the legacy he left behind.
Dick Willever, ’70, said, “Bill was many things to all of us. He was wise and kind and funny. He had that quality that seems so rare today. He was selfless, caring and honest. He believed people matter. But most of all, he was a good person.”
In 1997, former student Peter G. Sparber, ’69, founded the Professor Willard E. Lally Journalism Scholarship in honor of Lally for his contribution to mentoring hundreds of Rider journalism students.
For all who he had impacted during his time at Rider and with the newspaper, Lally commented in the April 4, 1984 issue, “I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else.”
A funeral service was held on Nov. 23 in Lake Wales, Florida.