Tom Volek leaves his mark  

Associate dean's legacy includes starting the J-School doctoral program and military and the media courses

Fall 2018 Edition

Tom Volek retired in May after 28 years teaching in the J-School.

Tom Volek retired in May after 28 years teaching in the J-School.

The first time that journalism graduate Scott Parks (j’94) walked into Professor Tom Volek’s classroom, he was scared, nervous and excited all at once. 

Parks, who is a longtime radio talk show host in the Kansas City market, said his first impression of Volek was that he was short and the second was that Volek told corny jokes. However, Parks would soon realize something else:  “This man knew what he was talking about. He knew journalism and I wanted to know what he knew. I soaked up his lessons like a sponge.” 

His feelings of nervousness and fear soon faded away.  Volek’s class put him at ease, and he felt as though he belonged there. 

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Tom Volek came to the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications on Jan. 1, 1990, and the legacy he left behind as a professor, mentor, and friend was that he positively affected his students, his colleagues, and the School of Journalism.    

Volek retired from the J-School in the spring of 2018.

More than 28 years ago, Volek was recruited by Associate Professor Max Utsler to teach at the University of Kansas. Volek had just finished his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, and he and Utsler were acquainted from their days of working at a TV station at the University of Missouri.

Given his extensive experience with production and directing, Volek could have become a big-time director in a larger city. Instead, he chose to come to KU as a professor because he genuinely enjoyed academics, and the lifestyle appealed to him, Volek said.  

Volek was all smiles after the dean presented him with a conductor's cap on his last day of teaching in the J-School.

Volek was all smiles after the dean presented him with a conductor's cap on his last day of teaching in the J-School.

Back then, the curriculum was different, but he taught the equivalent of Information Management and Media Writing. He also taught courses on corporate television, broadcasting, history and law. History and law were the two that he enjoyed teaching the most. 

J-School Professor Chuck Marsh started teaching at the J-School six months before Volek did. 

“He is drop-dead funny. I love listening to his lectures,” Marsh said. Marsh was new to academic life, so he says he would sit in the hall and listen to other professors teach. “[Volek’s] just in there having the time of his life, and his students are laughing and learning,” Marsh said.

Marsh and  Volek also have fond memories outside of the J-School. Since Volek worked with the U.S. State Department to teach journalism in other countries, he had the opportunity to travel often. There were multiple occasions where Volek invited Marsh to go out of the country and teach with him. The two have been to places like Kyrgyzstan and Costa Rica. 

“He got some fabulous stamps in my passport,” Marsh said.  

Some would say that two of Volek’s biggest contributions to the J-School would be working with the Military in the Media course and the Ph.D. program. Both programs grew thanks to his hard work, dedication and passion. Volek worked with many people to build these programs. 

Volek teamed up with Professor Barbara Barnett to create and coordinate the Military in the Media program from 2007 to 2014. The McCormick Foundation gave the School a five-year grant and a simple mandate: make things better between the media and the military. 

“The military doesn’t always do a very good job of understanding what the media does, and most journalists don’t really have an idea of how the military works,” Volek said. 

Volek had connections with Fort Leavenworth from his own work and programs co-sponsored by the school and the fort, so those provided a great starting place. Volek and Barnett arranged for a joint class between students from the J-School and the Command and General Staff College. There was also a series of “boot camps” where journalists embedded for a week with soldiers. Journalists learned about the Army and the soldiers learned about journalism.  Volek actively participated with the soldiers and journalists on their daily routine.  

“The fact is that a group of journalists went out of here knowing more about how the military operated … we believe the soldiers and the military certainly got something out of it,” Volek said. “I think it really increased knowledge and understanding.” 

As Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, Volek shepherded the first class of doctoral students for the school in 2012. “What it amounts to is that’s something you’re probably going to do once in your life, and you don’t really know how to do it,” Volek said. “It was a big deal.” Volek worked across campus and the state to recruit students and seek support for the program. Graduates from the School’s doctoral program are now working in journalism programs throughout the country. 

Tom Volek pictured with Dean Ann Brill (right) at his retirement party in May.

Tom Volek pictured with Dean Ann Brill (right) at his retirement party in May.

“We are grateful for the time he spent here,” said Dean Ann M. Brill.  “Tom’s contributions strengthened the J-School in many important ways.”

While he may have left the J-School, his hard work and contributions helped define and shape the school into what it is now. Volek went above and beyond what his job entailed, and he poured his heart and soul into his work and students. 

“What I didn't realize on that first day was that the man teaching class that day would become not only a mentor.... but a lifelong friend,” Parks said. “Someone, who after 25 years since your graduation, you will consider it an honor to sit across from them as you both dine on biscuits and gravy and laugh about the old days. That's Professor Volek. That's Tom.” 

–– Angel Tran is a senior from Wichita, Kansas, studying news and information.