In the eyes of his students, he was somebody who commanded respect as soon as he walked into a room. To his colleagues, he was the glue that held the department together.
Gilbert Otto Maienknecht, the father of Central Michigan University’s journalism department, died Feb. 3 at the age of 94. Most remembered him for his dedication to his students and the betterment of the program, as he left a legacy that would not soon be forgotten.
Betsy Rau, professor of journalism, remembers having Maienknecht as a professor in her journalism law class when she was a student at CMU.
“I remember him looking out at the group of us over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses, and he would ask a question about a case that nobody was prepared to answer,” Rau said. “He would look out at us and I remember shrinking in my seat, and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, he’s going to call on me.’ I never wanted to disappoint him.”
Rau said Maienknecht was one of the few professors who always knew her name, talked to her in the hallways, and was genuinely curious about his students’ endeavors.
“I don’t remember knowing very many instructors very well, but he was one who always knew my name,” Rau said. “He commanded respect, but it was obvious he cared about us all, too.”
Jim Wojcik, a public relations professor at CMU, worked with Maienknecht as both a professor and a colleague. Now a professor himself, Wojcik said the standard of work Maienknecht expected of his students has carried into his own classroom.
“He was tremendously knowledgeable and caring. Very demanding, but at the same time he was very supportive,” Wojcik said. “I think a lot of the teaching technique I use today I got from him in the standpoint that you don’t lower the bar for people, you raise people up to the bar. He challenged you, made you do the work, and provided you with the support you needed to get better and learn.”
Wojcik said part of the reason Maienknecht garnered so much success at CMU was due to his people-first philosophy.
“He was the ultimate people person,” Wojcik said. “He set the tone for the whole faculty. It was always student-oriented, and faculty were supposed to help, push, challenge and educate students, but at the same time provide them with the tools and support they needed to become better.”
Thanks largely in part to Maienknecht’s determination to have a strong faculty team, Wojcik said the appeal for students to come to CMU grew.
“The whole strength of CMU’s journalism department was built on the fact that it had a group of faculty who worked very closely with students. No mass lectures, nothing like that. It was all small, intimate classes,” Wojcik said. “People came here because of the fact that they knew they weren’t getting graduate assistants. They were getting faculty members who were going to work with them. That was Maienknecht’s goal.”
Through his steadfast leadership and people-oriented approach, Maienknecht experienced success both during his time at CMU and once he retired.
He was the inaugural inductee into CMU’s Journalism Hall of Fame in 2002, earned a place in the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, and was awarded the Gold Anniversary Award from the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association in 1971, as well as a national award for contributions to education in journalism in 1974.
A scholarship is set up in his honor through the CMU journalism department and is awarded annually to two students based on merit and financial need.