In 1999, East Tennessee State University’s office of Sponsored Programs called a group of professors together to discuss the future of ETSU in Appalachia.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation had awarded the university a significant grant that was entering its final phase. With this chance to win funding for their own creative projects, professors offered probably a hundred suggestions from every possible direction.
Dr. Jack Mooney, a soft-spoken journalism professor, proposed an English-Spanish newspaper to help journalism students become better at their work. They would learn their craft by doing reporting in the Hispanic communities around ETSU’s service area.
That idea struck a chord. It was just a spark of an idea, and we all know that little sparks sometimes ignite into something good.
Mooney was excited by a new kind of teaching tool because he had worked for several newspapers and a TV station. While in the military, he ran a small newspaper at the Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany. The paper was cited for excellence, and the Air Force flew Mooney to the Pentagon to accept the award.
Mooney left the Air Force, went to college and got interested in teaching, which eventually brought him to ETSU.
His idea launched the project, but the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services, Department of Sociology, Department of Mass Communication and the Department of Foreign Languages all convened to help bring what was called “El Nuevo” into the world. It would endure for 19 years as a student-researched, student-written and student-translated publication.
It takes a massive shove to make things happen, like trying to organize students to produce a newspaper from scratch and redo it with new students every year. Mooney wasn’t fazed by turning his class assignments into a productive venture, or by persuading colleagues to include “El Nuevo” assignments in their lesson plans.
Good newspapering keeps an eye on the landscape, whether junk car lots or Roan Mountain. Mooney saw the cultural landscape shifting, and he wanted his students to tell that story.
At first, Mooney thought the Hispanic community of Northeast Tennessee was in a migrant stage, made up of seasonal residents who worked here from May to November.
When it became clear that Spanish-speaking people were settling here for good, Mooney set out to find them. He thought articles in Spanish and English would benefit readers of both languages if each group learned something about the other’s culture. He believed his students needed to understand people who weren’t like them.
Over nearly two decades, “El Nuevo” allowed hundreds of young ETSU journalists to interview Hispanic workers, religious leaders, business owners and fellow students, all of whom helped open their eyes a little wider.
Mooney started by organizing field trips to Hispanic communities from Morristown to Shady Valley to Unicoi County and lots of places in between. He enlisted help from leaders in the newspaper business, who thanked him and praised his energy. He won financial support from the Rotary Club.
At a time in his career when many professors would be satisfied to produce scholarly journal articles, Mooney poured hours of his own time into finding sources, arranging interviews and prepping students for their tasks.
Along with his longtime friend, photographer Lee Talbert, Mooney took his camera into the field to shoot hundreds of photographs for the publication. Even after he relinquished day-to-day duties to other professors, he still celebrated each issue of the publication.
Of course, Jack Mooney’s 40 years at the university involved much more. He had a gift for mentoring, for matching people to projects. When a prospective graduate student showed interest in ETSU’s professional communication degree, his question was: “Do you speak Spanish?” before steering them toward “El Nuevo.”
He was kind. In class, he once hunted down research articles to jump-start projects for every graduate student in the room. He brought in fresh blueberry muffins for a night class, knowing that working students might be hungry.
His personal interest in students didn’t end at graduation, and he remained proud of their successes and supportive when they met defeat. Even as he struggled with health problems toward the end of his life, he was ever the cheerful mentor. When a former student wanted to write a book, he searched out potential publishers. And he read over the manuscript last fall, days after leaving the hospital.
We’re often told we should know our place in order to know ourselves. Jack Mooney knew his place and helped countless others to know theirs. May he rest in peace.
Jack Mooney died last Monday. Moore and Basconi, both retired from ETSU, worked closely with him for several years.