Some 40 years ago, Tim Doherty was a freshman at UMass Amherst and embraced the freedom that comes with being away from home for the first time. Listening to music at The Pub had a gravitational pull that a quiet corner in the library did not.
He had enrolled in professor Ralph Whitehead’s introductory journalism class but had no desire to follow in the footsteps of Woodward and Bernstein. He routinely skipped classes and assignments.
But, one day, he showed up for class and was handed a paper blue book in which he was asked to write an essay on source material he was supposed to have read.
He dutifully wrote the essay, and, after it was graded, it was handed back to him. Inside the cover, Whitehead wrote: “Obviously, you never did the work and know nothing of the subject. That said, your style of writing is engaging and your voice has merit. Who do you think you’re cheating? I don’t particularly care if you do your work or not. But you have a modicum of talent. Why don’t you try applying yourself?”
That combination of detached rebuke and generous encouragement stunned Doherty. He was even more stunned to see that Whitehead had given him a B. Doherty was never unprepared for a class or test again. He took a class with Whitehead every semester, not because he intended to go into journalism, but because Whitehead was so adept at teaching a subject much broader than that: life.
“That note, and the gracious B, changed my life,” said Doherty, who went on to get a law degree. “Part of it was that he had made me realize that I was responsible for my own future. Part of it was Ralph was the kind of guy you didn’t want to disappoint.”
What Whitehead did for Doherty he did for countless other young men and women who passed through UMass Amherst in the 43 years he taught there before retiring in 2016. Whitehead died last week, at 78, leading to an outpouring from former students who, like Doherty, recalled an unassuming college professor who changed the course of their lives by telling them just the right thing at just the right time.
Whitehead was more than an academic and mentor. He was one of the most grounded political thinkers of his generation, an astute cultural critic, someone whose views were sought by myriad media outlets, and whose advice was coveted by local pols, like Stan Rosenberg, the former Massachusetts Senate president, and national ones, like Joe Biden. He served as a press secretary for Boston Mayor Kevin White, and for Walter Mondale’s presidential campaign.
Whitehead, an old labor Democrat, leaned left but wasn’t in favor of demonizing the right. He believed gentle persuasion could change the most closed of minds, on both sides of the political divide.
As a kid, he’d had polio, and FDR became a hero. He started his career as a newspaperman, in Newark, then his native Chicago, but when he arrived at UMass in 1973, the Pioneer Valley felt like home. He stayed.
He studied, and worried about, workers and the American middle class, seeing its shrinking, along with the widening of the income gap and persistent inequality, as a malady that threatened the nation’s social health. He coined the term “new collar,” to describe the post-industrial working class.
He had an unshakable belief in the decency of young people, allowing him to recognize in all his students’ strengths they didn’t realize they possessed. His optimism was contagious.
“Everybody is interesting,” he liked to say, “once you learn their story.”
Jon Hite, the retired executive director of the Northampton Housing Authority, is one of those whose life was redirected by Whitehead’s attention and kindness. He said Whitehead talked him out of dropping out of UMass in the 1970s.
“Unlike a lot of professors, he didn’t think he had all the answers,” Hite said. “But Ralph had empathy and he cared about people. He was a great teacher.”
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.