Thursday, November 23, 2017
News Roundup

Iowa farm boy Paul Pohlman taught the world how to listen


ST. PETERSBURG — It was as if Paul Pohlman could not bear to live without his old car — a rusty, faded blue 1990 Toyota Camry.

He had talked for more than a decade about getting a new one, but kept putting it off as a waste of time and money. Heck, it only had 143,866 miles on it.

Finally, just a few months ago, the old heap gave up the ghost, and now so has Paul.

He died Wednesday at the age of 70 after a short period during which several systems failed him: heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys. He had been recovering from prostate cancer but had a tumor near his kidney described as the size of a football. It was as if — just like his car — the parts of his body wore out — one by one.

According to his older brother Steven Pohlman, Paul came by his parsimony honestly — on a small family farm near Melvin, Iowa, population 325, and Sibley, Iowa, population 2,800.

"Every penny went back into the farm," Steve told Paul's friends and colleagues at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. "Nothing was wasted."

When a new restaurant opened in town, the Pohlmans debated whether they should give it a try. "Let's go," it was decided. It was the only time the family went out to eat. Why buy fried chicken from a restaurant when you've got a flock in the coop?

Over time family farming faded and the children of farmers looked for a different life in the big cities. Paul's mother, Hilma, was a schoolteacher who enjoyed travel in her youth, and Paul followed in her footsteps. He earned a master's degree in history at the University of Chicago and worked there for 20 years teaching industrial and media management to adult learners.

From time to time, he was invited to teach seminars at the fledgling Poynter Institute. After a decade of visits, he joined the faculty full-time in 1989.

Over time, Paul became what a colleague described as the "ground wire" of the institute, playing many key roles during his 24-year tenure there: seminar teacher, discussion leader, listener-in-chief, timekeeper, colleague, adviser to the president, coordinator of international programs. He was that rare bird among teachers: He actually liked faculty meetings.

It was impossible to keep Paul down on the farm after he'd seen St. Pete. His Poynter work took him to Scandinavia, where he collaborated with journalists for many years. At the end of the Cold War, he taught in Bulgaria. With the dismantling of apartheid, he made his way in 1994 to South Africa, where he guided the establishment of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism.

Outside of Poynter, Paul devoted himself to liberal politics and especially to the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, where he was considered a staunch advocate and reliable worker.

You could find him at Tropicana Field — in the cheap seats, of course — rooting for the Rays, except when they played the Cleveland Indians, his favorite team since boyhood. He was quick to remind a friend that the Tribe's greatest pitcher, "Bullet Bob" Feller, had grown up in Van Meter, Iowa. On Paul's 50th birthday, his Florida friends hooked him up on a phone call with Tampa's Al Lopez, who had managed the Indians in 1954, when they went to the World Series.

Oh, he liked chocolate. "He could smell it way across the building," said a co-worker.

About a month or so before he became ill, Paul fell off a ladder while cleaning out the gutters of his St. Petersburg house. He hit his head and told friends that, over the next couple of days, he had felt dizzy. "Why didn't you get yourself to a doctor?" they asked. He told them he didn't want to wait in an emergency room — or pay the bill. Once again, you could take the boy out of the farm, but not the farm out of the boy.

Even with his health failing, Paul appeared to friends and colleagues to be in an expansive mood. At Poynter meetings, he relished his role as timekeeper and hall monitor, interrupting a time-wasting blowhard with his congenial but irresistible "Let's move on."

Among a faculty of wise-crackers, Paul developed a reputation as the class clown. At a staff meeting he blurted that he was now "incontinent." A colleague wondered aloud whether he said that he was visiting "another continent."

There is even a photograph of Farmer Paul taken before the holidays at karaoke night at Crum's Bar, imitating a colleague doing a booty dance, but giving new meaning to square dance.

He will be remembered in Florida — and around the world — as a gentle man and a gentleman, a teacher who turned an unnatural act — listening — into a friendly craft. When someone truly listens to you — he demonstrated time and again — that person becomes and remains fully present to you, and fully human.

Roy Peter Clark is vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He taught with Paul Pohlman for more than 30 years.


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