‘His words in our ears’
ABILENE, Texas — Charlie Marler, the first chair of the…
ABILENE, Texas — Dr. Charlie H. “Doc” Marler, revered professor emeritus of journalism and mass communication, and influential historian who taught and mentored Abilene Christian University students for 58 years, died May 27, 2022, in Abilene, Texas, following a short illness. He was 89.
Marler was born April 13, 1933, in Garfield, Arkansas, and graduated from Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951. He wed Abilene Christian classmate Peggy Gambill on Dec. 30, 1954, in Fulton, Kentucky.
He earned a B.A. in English (1955) and M.A. in history (1968) from ACU and a doctorate in journalism from the University of Missouri (1974). Marler’s distinguished 58-year career on the Hill in Abilene — the fourth-longest full-time role in university history — included 48 years of full-time service (1955-2003) and part-time senior faculty teaching (2003-13), followed by nearly daily volunteer work as an unofficial historian until the day of his passing.
He was hired by his alma mater in 1955 as assistant director of publicity, then took leave to serve in the U.S. Army’s 8th Infantry Division in Colorado and in Goeppingen, Germany (1956-57), and in the Army Reserve’s 490th Military Affairs and Civilian Government Company in Abilene (1958-59).
Marler returned to campus to serve as ACU’s first sports information director (1958-63), associate director of development (1963-64) and director of information and publications (1964-71). Another leave (1971-74) allowed him to complete doctoral work at the University of Missouri, where he also was a research assistant in the Freedom of Information Center.
His full-time JMC legacy began in earnest in 1974 as assistant professor, then professor (1979) and chair (1987-98). His teaching specialties of communication law, opinion writing and publication design made him a department icon known for meticulous standards, tough grading and indefatigable commitment to principles that guided his work. He was named the university’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 1987.
“He treasured and honored the First Amendment of the Constitution second only to Scripture because he understood and taught each one of us that freedom and truth are inextricably entwined,” said Dr. Cheryl Mann Bacon, professor and chair emerita of JMC.
During the 22 years he advised The Optimist, Marler was famous, and at times feared, for the elaborate rating system he used for print issues. He panned each page in mandatory staff meetings and, once the Don H. Morris Center opened in 1978, posted them in the JMC hallway after each edition. Yellow, blue and red dots marked each blunder, with the biggest red ones flagging the most heinous – “the Pullet Surprise.” Green dots noted the best writing, design and editorial work.
“Charlie spent his career pointing out the errors and mistakes of his students, and yet, to him, none of us were the sum of our errors and mistakes. … He saw each of us aspirationally, as what we someday would be, what God would do through us.”
“Charlie spent his career pointing out the errors and mistakes of his students, and yet, to him, none of us were the sum of our errors and mistakes,” said Dr. Kenneth Pybus, J.D., associate professor and chair of JMC. “He saw each of us aspirationally, as what we someday would be, what God would do through us. Even when I was a student, he treated me as a colleague when he had no business doing so. That, as much as anything, drove me to maturity, professionalism and to a level of excellence that I would not have even aspired to without him.”
As an undergraduate, Marler was the only student to serve as editor of The Optimist newspaper and Prickly Pear yearbook. Years later, with Marler as a faculty advisor of both, the flagship student publications became steady winners of juried competition by the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association and the Associated Collegiate Press. Marler’s dream was for the JMC department to earn accreditation by the Accrediting Council for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which it did in 2001, one of 100 such collegiate JMC programs in the world to be recognized.
“Only two other church-affiliated universities had earned that distinction,” said Bacon, who followed Marler’s large footsteps as department chair. “Every decision he made, every class he crafted, every faculty member he hired was enveloped in that grand vision to make ACU a place where excellent journalism and Christian journalism were understood to be not only possible, but essential.”
Dr. Jessica Smith, associate provost for curriculum and assessment, is one former student who earned her doctorate, returned to JMC to teach, and is building her own legacy on the Hill, thanks to Marler.
“I took three of Charlie’s classes,” Smith said. “Only one was a writing class, so although I’ve felt the bite of some of his famous editing, critical thinking was his legacy to me. His rigorous research requirements prepared me for graduate school — which I pursued after he was the first to tell me that I might find academic life satisfying.
“The idea that he planted is one of the reasons I’m where I am today: I’ve been a student, editor of The Optimist, professor and administrator at ACU,” she said.
Marler was a visiting lecturer or journalist-in-residence for Bethany College (1988), the USIA’s U.S. Speaker Program in Brazil and Argentina (1993), and the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities’ Summer Journalism Institute (1998-2000). He also taught in ACU’s study abroad programs in Switzerland (1995), and in Prague, Poland, and the former East Germany (1996).
Marler’s Horizons magazine, the forerunner of ACU Today, was an early pacesetter for Abilene Christian’s longtime tradition of earning national recognition for excellence in publication design, writing, photography and marketing communications, starting with alumni magazine awards for Horizons, sponsored by Time/Life (1966) and Newsweek (1970).
A master historian, he was editor of “No Ordinary University: The History of a City Set on a Hill,” a 1998 book by Dr. John C. Stevens about their shared alma mater. He was a member of ACU’s Centennial Commission, chaired its Centennial Collection Taskforce (2005-06) and received one of 17 Hashknife Awards in 2006 for “heroic and pioneering contributions to the preservation of archives and artifacts documenting the history of the university.” The last 26 years, he worked daily on updating and expanding the digital ACU AnswerBook, a nearly exhaustive style guide and important historical source for JMC students and the campus.
“The way he taught and shepherded generations of students would have been enough of a gift to the university and each of us who knew him. But Charlie has also kept our history. He has read and interviewed thousands of sources. And … he’s made sure that many of us still here know our story, too.”
“The way he taught and shepherded generations of students would have been enough of a gift to the university and each of us who knew him,” Smith said. “But Charlie has also kept our history. He has read and interviewed thousands of sources. And in tales told over lunches and trips to cemeteries and in 26 editions of the AnswerBook, he’s made sure that many of us still here know our story, too.”
A prolific writer and a researcher of newspapers around the globe, he also edited a 1989 book, “Lone Star Christmas: The Seasonal Editorials of Frank Grimes.” The late Grimes was editor of the Abilene Reporter-News for more than 40 years.
The Charles H. Marler Scholarship was established in 2001 by the Southwestern Journalism Congress, for which he served five terms as president. He held numerous other offices and leadership roles in professional organizations, including president of the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association and Southwestern Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communication. He also was chair of the American Journalism Historians Association board.
In 2003, he was inducted into the TIPA Hall of Fame along with Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers, joining others including Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Scott Pelley, Sam Donaldson and Jim Lehrer, along with President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.
Marler was inducted in 2006 into the ACU Sports Hall of Fame for distinguished lifetime achievement, noting his legendary knowledge of Wildcat sports history and leadership role in establishing a nationally respected athletics media relations office. Marler was press chief for the 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials in women’s track and field, hosted by Abilene Christian at Elmer Gray Stadium. And he penned the name of the Southland Conference, the NCAA league ACU co-founded in 1963 with Arkansas State, Texas-Arlington, Lamar and Trinity.
In 1993 he pioneered the creation of ACU’s Gutenberg Award, which annually recognizes the distinguished professional achievements of JMC alumni. Recipients each October at homecoming are presented a wooden scale model of a Gutenberg printing press, made all the more a treasure because Marler assembled them by hand in his home workshop. The honorees — many of them his former students — are among the university’s most noteworthy graduates, including best-selling authors; educators and business leaders; media and entertainment industry standouts; members of the Grand Ole Opry and Gospel Music Hall of Fame; and nominees or winners of Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Tellys and MTV awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.
He and Peggy were members of University Church of Christ, where he served as an elder for many years.
“Charlie was a unifier, a good friend and an illustration of how one’s personal qualities can improve a group effort,” said former UCC elder Dr. Gary McCaleb, vice president emeritus of the university.
As a fellow elder, McCaleb recalls Marler emphasizing the importance of clear, timely and open communication between themselves and the congregation. He also demonstrated his knowledge of, and respect for those who had preceded him and the decisions they had made. And his skills as a historian improved the relationship between shepherd and flock.
“His insistence on accuracy with regard to minutes kept, and a general reliance on written records rather than risking imprecision of collective memory, made an important difference,” McCaleb said.
Marler’s community service focused on the Boy Scouts of America and as scoutmaster of Abilene’s Troop 201 that met for years in a small hutment on Cedar Crest near campus, developing scores of young men who became Eagle Scouts and leaders in all walks of life. He earned scouting’s Silver Beaver and Faithful Servant awards, and pioneered the Members of Churches of Christ for Scouting and its Servant Leadership Awards and curriculum for scouts and the adults who mentor them.
“In everything he did — whether it was advising and teaching students, leading the department for two decades, shepherding the faculty, his church or a scout troop — he was always a standard-bearer.”
Judge Paul Rotenberry of the 326th District Court in Abilene said there is no telling how many young men were influenced by Charlie’s example and life lessons through the years as a scoutmaster.
“He was an Eagle Scout-producing machine who had boundless energy and grit for camping trips with boys in some of the worst weather conditions imaginable,” Rotenberry said. “Adults and youngsters alike learned from him. Many years ago, I was one of his scouts. I will always be grateful for the way he served as a father figure for me at a formative age. Charlie Marler helped set the trajectory of my life.”
Pybus saw a thread woven into every aspect of Marler’s influence.
“In everything he did — whether it was advising and teaching students, leading the department for two decades, shepherding the faculty, his church or a scout troop — he was always a standard-bearer,” Pybus said. “To Charlie, ‘good enough’ was never good enough, and it indeed never should be.”
“Few men of his stature cast such a long shadow,” Bacon said.
He was preceded in death by his parents, William Owen Marler and Velma Valentine Marler McCabe, and a granddaughter, Callie Faith Marler. Survivors include Peggy of Abilene, Texas, his wife of 67 years; sons and daughters-in-law Dr. David Marler of Easton, Pennsylvania; Todd and Lee Ann (Mills) Marler of Kingwood, Texas; and Scott and Lori (Cain) Marler of Lansing, Kansas; and sisters Doris Waggoner of Wichita, Kansas, and Shirley Buchanan of Tulsa, Oklahoma. His grandchildren include Lindsey Marler of Dublin, Ohio; Ashley and Shane McLaughlin of Chamblee, Georgia; Michael Marler of Kingwood, Texas; Jeremy and Emilie Marler of Kelso, Washington; and Jacob Marler and Crystal Stipe of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He also has three great-grandchildren: Addelyn Marler, Raegan Marler and Finnigan Marler of Kelso, Wisconsin.
In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to the Charlie and Peggy Marler Endowment for JMC (ACU Box 29132, Abilene, Texas 79699-9132 or bit.ly/CharlieMarler).
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