“You never forget your first love:” Carl Nolte Reflects on the Foghorn

People remember their college days for lots of reasons — a favorite professor, friendships they made, studying all night once or twice, a sports championship the school won, the first day in college, the last day. Good times and bad. The part I remember best about USF is working on the Foghorn.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because working on the Foghorn was fun, interesting and challenging. Maybe because I liked the name. “Foghorn” is a great name. We always spelled it in capital letters — FOGHORN — like the blast of a fog warning in your ear. We took ourselves seriously. Sometimes.

Maybe it was because after my time at USF I went into newspapering and spent a lifetime in the business. I’m still at it, writing a column in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and online. You never forget your first love.

It’s hard to imagine how different USF was in those days. The school was mostly male and the students were mostly local. Nearly everybody was a day student. A new residence hall was in the works, but boarding students lived in some old military facilities called “the barracks.’’ San Francisco was a smaller, tighter city than it is now. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. It was another time.

But, we are celebrating 120 years of student newspapering at USF, so the story does come with a slice of history. Mine is a small slice: I came to USF as a transfer student from City College of San Francisco in the fall of 1953. I had considered Berkeley and maybe even Stanford, but I thought USF had style, class, and Jesuits. The others didn’t.

It was a small school and welcoming, and I was pleased when I was able to work on the college paper. At first I covered small news stories, but got sent to the sports page. I managed to write about Bill Russell’s first game—a huge victory over a good Cal team.

Eventually I managed to become the main sports editor and even wrote a sports column where I offered comment and free advice to the basketball team. It worked out pretty well, too — the first of two NCAA Championships.

We thought it a golden era: the basketball team was on top of the world, and the Foghorn was pretty good, too. We had a lively and interesting paper and won some big awards from the college newspaper association of my time. That was in 1955. Ancient history.

I learned about logic, politics, literature, and a bit of the classics in the classroom. But in the battered, messy Foghorn office, I learned that there were two sides to every story, that famous athletes had complex sides to them, that we wrote news stories about real people, who could be pleased, offended, hurt, or furious about what we wrote. I learned that words had power, and that there were shades to truth.

Journalism seems to be in decline these social media days, but the ability to think clearly and to tell the truth as you best understand it will always be valued. That’s the kind of thing you learn on a college paper like the Foghorn.

I still remember walking into the Foghorn office one afternoon. I said I was interested in writing for the paper. A scruffy looking guy was there. He seemed to be in charge of something. He didn’t ask me who I was or where I went to school. He just handed me some kind of form. “Fill this out and come back later,’’ he said. “We’ll give you a try.’’

That’s what I liked best: USF gave me a chance.

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