Calder Pickett, iconic KU journalism professor, dies

Calder Pickett, a former journalism professor at Kansas University who died Tuesday, is pictured in 2005 after retiring from Kansas Public Radio, where he produced the show The

Calder Pickett, who taught journalism at Kansas University for nearly four decades and wrote a regular column for the Journal-World, died Tuesday at Neuvant House in Lawrence. He was 92.

Those who knew Pickett described him as an avid journalism historian who used multimedia in his lessons before it was common practice.

Pickett was born July 26, 1921, in Providence, Utah, working as a printing apprentice as a youngster. He later got his master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and his doctorate in American studies from the University of Minnesota. After teaching stints at Utah State University and the University of Denver, he joined the KU faculty in 1951. When he was serving as active dean, in 1962, Pickett accepted the William Randolph Hearst Foundation Award on behalf of the school from President John F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C.

Pickett was popular among students, many of whom he corresponded with long after they left KU.

“Of teaching, he once said that when he has the attention of his students, he feels like (entertainer) Al Jolson, who turned up the house lights at the end of his show and drew energy from his audience,” said Pickett’s daughter Kathleen Jenson of Chicago. “Even after his students graduated, he kept in touch with them by sending an annual Christmas letter with details of former students’ comings and goings.”

Pickett was Susanne Shaw’s advisor and professor at KU and, later, her colleague in the school of journalism.

“He and (former professor) John Bremner are probably the two who put the school on the map,” said Shaw, a professor of journalism at KU who described Pickett as “probably one of the best journalism historians in the country.”

Del Brinkman, a former dean at the KU journalism school, said Pickett taught history, not always the most exciting subject, in a way that kept students engaged, including using audio-visual elements that were considered innovative at the time.

“He taught the history of journalism probably better than anybody in the country,” said Brinkman, who is now retired and living in Bloomington, Ind. “He was just an icon of the school. It’s a great loss for the heritage of KU.”

Before Ann Brill, dean of the KU journalism school, was hired for the position, she was interviewed by some retired faculty members, including Pickett. “He wanted to know that who was going to be the next dean was going to do their very best and understand what a great place this was,” she said.

Brill added that Pickett “was an integral part of the school having a national stature, because of his work and the caliber of his teaching. You know the saying, ‘standing on the shoulder of giants.’ The school stands on the shoulders of people like Calder Pickett, Lee Young, Del Brinkman.”

Pickett also spent 32 years producing Kansas Public Radio’s “The American Past,” which used narration, music and movie dialogue to tell stories of American history. In 1973, the program received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for “meritorious service to journalism.”

In 1961, Calder Pickett, left, met President John F. Kennedy, right, when he went to Washington, D.C., to receive a Hearst Foundation citation for Kansas University.

“I think people should do something good in the world when they can,” he told the Journal-World upon his 2005 retirement from KPR, where he produced more than 1,500 shows. “I felt that way with teaching, and I felt that way with the radio program.”

Besides writing a column for the Journal-World, Pickett also worked for such papers as the Kansas City Star, Kansas City Times and Topeka Capital-Journal.

Outside of journalism, Pickett enjoyed spending time with family, volunteering for Audio Reader and rooting for the Jayhawks as a longtime season ticket holder.

He was preceded in death by his wife of 65 years, Nola, in March. He is survived in death by daughters Carolyn Zeligman of Overland Park and Jenson, two grandchildren, a brother and numerous nieces and nephews.

Memorial services for Pickett are scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Warren-McElwain Mortuary in Lawrence, with burial to follow at Pioneer Cemetery. Online condolences can be left at