Thank you Tita, Manong

Manong and me.

With both parents working and no living grandparents, I was the kid who bounced around from home to home after school. One of those homes was Tita Oding’s. She lived in an attic apartment on 112th and Avenue G, just kitty-corner from Annunciata grade school. She told me she would watch be from her kitchen window during recess. Once the school bell rang, I’d race across the street and up the 13 stairs to her apartment. I was always greeted with a warm smile and hug, and a Filipino cookie (Barquillos were my favorite). I would do my homework, watch some TV and graze on awesome Filipino food. Around 5, depending on the day, I’d say goodbye to Tita Oding and walk a few blocks, either north to the East Side Little League field for a baseball game/practice, or south a few blocks to meet my dad, who would always promptly be home at 5:30.
Manong Jun was like a drop-in member of our household. Although he was technically my cousin, he was significantly older than me, and was more like an uncle. I adored him. He took me to concerts (including the first of a half-dozen Cheap Trick concerts I’ve attended), he taught me a lot about electronics (lessons that I — and many others — have benefitted from whether its setting up surround sound for a relative or managing audio at my church), and “rescued me” from the Chicago Skyway after my first car accident. He was such a good role model. He truly lived his life selfessly, and would sacrifice anything for the people he loved.

I never had the opportunity to thank Tita Oding and Manong Jun for the impact they had on my life. They moved more than a decade ago back to the Phillippines. I became busy, with a family of my own and a growing career. At times I thought I should write them, but Facebook and email seemed so impersonal. I meant to send a card and letter, but never etched out the time to write one. I could’ve called, but I just don’t like long phone conversations.

After my dad died two years ago, my mom and I talked about planning a trip to the Phillippines together. This visit with my mom would be perfect. I would finally be able to express my gratitude to Tita Oding and Manong Jun, in person.

But it’s expensive to fly to the Phillippines. There were too many family and work commitments. It made sense to save up for such a trip rather than charging it. Maybe next year. Or the year after that.

Tita Oding died last March. And Manong Jun died last night. They died not knowing how thankful I am. They died without knowing how much they impacted me. They died without knowing how much I love them.

A character trait they both enforced in me was the importance of family. Friends are great to have, but when it comes down to it, blood is thicker than friendship. I failed to heed this wisdom. I was too busy with my own life to thank them for helping to make me who I am and how much they mean to me. And now they’ll never know.

Bye-bye Grady, from a student, staffer and teacher

After 11 years, two months and 16 days, I said goodbye to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Georgia.

It was a bittersweet farewell. Sweet, because I am starting a new path on my professional career that allows me to focus on what I love most: teaching. Bitter, because Grady is where my new professional aspirations took root, and because the halls of Grady are filled with some of the most influential people in my life. I was perhaps the only person in history to have the fortune of simultaneously fulfilling three roles at Grady: full-time staff member, student and teacher. Each role allowed me a different viewpoint of Grady. And combining all those viewpoints showed me that Grady is truly a special place.

The highly functional, dysfunctional family. From left, Dean Charles Davis, Cecil Bentley, Diane Murray, Stephanie Moreno, Karen Andrews, Joe Dennis, Sarah Freeman, Ryan Cary, Clare Wall and Hannah Bause.

Joe: The staff member

The Grady College has been an incredible place to work. In the past decade, I can’t think of one person that willingly left Grady for a lateral move somewhere else. And it’s certainly not because Grady pays well. It’s the people. The term family is often used lightly to describe cultural environments, but at Grady, there truly is a sense of family. If you’re willing to invest in the Grady family, the Grady family will invest back in you.

Of course, within the Grady family tree there are several smaller families. I was fortunate to work with the external relations team. We were a highly-functional, dysfunctional family. We all had such unique personalities and jobs that often didn’t relate to each other, but we were always there for each other: definitely in work, but also in life. And when we all got in the same room, fireworks happened — sometimes bad, but usually good. My years at Grady will likely be the only time in my life I looked forward to staff meetings.

For most of my years, Cecil Bentley served as our team leader and supervisor. Always level-headed, Cecil was the calming voice when tempers flared, the voice of encouragement when egos were hurt, and the voice of silence when one needed just to vent. Forward focus. Positive attitude. And a wicked move to the basket (though he rarely makes the shot).

With a strong institutional knowledge and a strong grasp of reality, Diane Murray is the devil’s advocate. Diane has a passion for Grady that many share, but this passion is balanced with a healthy dose of common sense. This can be quite frustrating when you’re aiming for the moon, only for Diane to tell you that you have no rocket ship. But in the end, you know she is just keeping it real.

Karen Andrews is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever worked with. Whether it’s a $150/plate gala or a picnic for high school students, Karen knows how to make every person feel special. Seemingly always smiling and a laugh that echoes throughout the building, Karen embodies the “Southern Hospitality” mentality I heard so much about when I moved South. Don’t get me wrong, Karen is human and has another side, but you’ll have to get real close to her to see it. I consider myself lucky that my “sister-from-another-mister” felt comfortable enough with me to show me that side.

The four of us were the mainstays of the external team for several years, through some lean budget times. But when we finally had the opportunity to grow, Sarah Freeman was brought on board. The ultimate professional, Sarah somehow maintains her professionalism while navigating the rocky waters of the external team, dishing out ideas and compliments when needed. She is definitely the sane member of the family. But just when you’re about to feel sorry for her, she unloads a joke that cracks everyone up. And you remember, she’s one of us.

Stephanie Moreno joined the team next. Sweet, sweet Stephanie — one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. A journalist at heart, her passion for learning is evident in her work. I’ve never met another professional who continuously seeks criticism for her work. She was the baby of the family (in age and newness) for about a year, and perhaps because of this, or more likely because of her sweetness, made a concerted effort to get to know every member of the team.

Ryan Carty took the rattle from Stephanie, and certain members of the family consistently rattled their new little brother (sorry, Ryan!). But it’s his passion for Grady and incredible work ethic that define him, even if he gets a little star-struck by Ryan Cameron and forgets to take back my parking tag from the radio star. When the door locks are activated and the hallway lights shut off, Ryan is still in the building, planning new opportunities for our students.

The most recent member of the family is Clare Wall. Knowing I was leaving, I vowed on the first day I met her not to get to know her, but you can’t escape family. And dammit, I like her too. Although new to the team, Clare is not afraid to bring out the snark that has so defined our family.

There have been multiple interns that have come and gone, but Hannah Bause seemingly worked full-time during the Centennial months and became a de facto family member. Please be warned Hannah, our staff meetings are not typical. Don’t crack jokes while your boss is talking.

Speaking of boss, the functional dysfunction is certainly top-down, starting with the “My Dean is cooler than your Dean” Charles Davis. He lives and breathes Grady, and his passion is infectious. And his relaxed nature creates an environment for creativity to thrive, and maybe a little mischief to occur.

That’s my dysfunctional Grady family. But when we all get together, it works. For instance, last April in a torrential downpour after a highly successful farm party to kick off the Centennial, it was this team that went literally ankle-deep in the mud to load six cars with various items ranging from kegs to centerpieces. We were all angry, cranky, smelly and disgusting. But instead of bowing out leaving the job to another person, we stuck with it, together. Because that’s what families do.

Joe: The student

As a student, both at the master’s and doctoral level, so many faculty members have enriched and inspired me.

I had the fortune — or misfortune — of taking two theory courses with Dr. Jay Hamilton. Although I blame his courses for the doubling of my vision prescription (three course-packs … seriously?), it was his classes that showed me how to take control of my brain and grasp complex ideas.

Dr. Joe Dominick taught statistics to a group of numbers-challenged students, including myself, kicking off the semester by making us repeat the phrase: “Numbers are our friends.”

Dr. Lou Benjamin and later Dean Dr. Cully Clark showed me how to critically study, appreciate and recognize the importance of history.

Dr. Carolina Acosta-Alzuru taught me how to parlay my interviewing and reporting skills into critical and cultural analysis … even though I still don’t understand telenovelas.

Dr. Kent Middleton stoked my fascination in law and government and how it applies to the media, while helping me understand a second language: legalese.

Dr. Leara Rhodes helped me understand other cultures and how mass communication plays different roles around the world.

The late Professor Conrad Fink lifted the layer of journalism that was always foreign to me — the business side — teaching me the fundamentals of the industry, and also how to read an annual report to investors.

Picking up where Fink left off, Dr. Keith Herndon uncovered the incredible potential for journalism’s future in an age of digital and social media.

Mark Johnson taught me the critical role visual plays in journalistic storytelling, and he also stoked my interest in all things Apple.

And just when I felt confident in my journalistic writing abilities, Professor Pat Thomas taught me that there is always room for improvement, and reinforced in me the importance of using journalism to positively impact social change.

The danger in any list is leaving off people. For a complete list of every faculty member who influenced me, visit

Yes, that’s the directory of ALL Grady faculty. Whether in a class, a conversation or a presentation, every single Grady faculty member has shaped who I am. They taught me to think critically, the importance of research, how to teach and of course, a lot about mass communication.

Joe: The teacher

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to teach at Grady, home to the best students on campus (literally … check the GPAs). I never thought I would feel pride in the accomplishments of someone who is not a family member or friend, but over the years, several students have proved otherwise.

I’m in a unique position at Grady, because I meet many students when they are in high school, and get to see them through graduation. Also, as adviser of UGAzine, I’ve worked with some of the “best of the best” at Grady. Finally, as director of GSPA, I’ve worked with many students at our annual events. Nothing impacts me more than when a student offers words of appreciation long after graduation, or seeks you out for a visit or cup of coffee when in town.

Thanks for reinforcing in me my desire to teach, and for making me feel special.

I started to make a list, but then kept realizing I forgot someone. You know who you are …


God is always there

by Joe Dennis

“The Lord is near to those who are discouraged; he saves those who have lost all hope.” –Psalm 34:18

Little thought went into it, and it likely took a few seconds to write. It was a text I received on Sept. 11, 2014 from a former student (who was in my class in fall 2011):

I was thankful for the millionth time that I learned the silence interviewing technique from you. Amazing what people will decide to share during a 5-second lapse in conversation. Thank you!

This seemingly nonchalant text may have changed my life, as it came at one of the lowest points of my life. The text came at 7:12 that evening, as I was in the middle of a breakdown. Hours earlier I had just left the hospice where we had transferred my father. With my flight back home in just a couple hours, I had to hurriedly say goodbye to my dad and kissed him on the forehead. I knew that was the last time I would talk to him.

My mom was an emotional wreck so I was trying to stay strong for her while at the same time keeping one eye on my watch to not miss my flight. I knew I had to see Carla and the boys — I had been home so little the last few weeks that Matthew thought I had moved out. Work wasn’t even on my radar. My inbox was so full of angry emails and my suitcase was packed with ungraded papers, that I feared venturing into work.

I sat in my airplane seat as tears streamed down my face. I had hastened my last conversation with my dad. I had evaded my mom’s emotional pleas. I have ignored my wife, my kids, my colleagues and my students. I had failed everyone. I had lost hope.

Then that text came.

It came seconds before I had to shut off my phone, leaving me the 2-hour flight to feel its impact: in a moment in which I’m feeling my absolute worst, I was still affecting someone else’s life for the better. That simple text message was the best thing that could’ve happened to me in that moment.

The message came from a former student, but I know it also came from God, lifting me up when I most needed it.

Prayer: God, in the time when we most need you, you are there. Help us see you, and thank you for being there for us. Amen.

Eulogy for my dad, Walter G. Dennis

IMG_0095-0.JPGEulogy by Joe Dennis delivered at the funeral of Walter G. Dennis on on Sept. 24, 2014.

Many associate strength with fighting — the bravery to engage in physical conflict with another individual — and win the fight. My dad was the opposite. Rather than engage in physical conflicts or verbal arguments, he fought his battles with a Christ-like response. Anyone who knew my father knew he was the person you could go to if you needed emotional support or just needed to vent. He told me many times that his role is to pacify situations, and encouraged me to be the peacemaker when battles arise. To this day, I don’t know of one enemy he had.

But strength took on a different meaning over the past 15 years when my dad often joked that Edward Hospital was his vacation home — “Hotel Edward” he named it. Bad heart valve, loss of hearing, pacemaker, hernia, four intestinal surgeries and cancer — it has to be a record how many health battles he’s overcome. Since 2000, doctors have been warning of his pending death. Well, he outlived some of those doctors, as well as many other friends, family and caretakers. He said he was like a cat — he had “9 lives.”

See, what the doctors didn’t know was my dad was such a stubborn man. Whether it was planting a garden, cooking spaghetti or building a deck, there was a wrong way to do things, and then there was his way. And the doctor’s way of getting better — taking it easy, using a wheelchair, and resting — was clearly the wrong way. Instead, my dad continued to exercise, walked on his own and of course, maintained his garden. And the times he did need help, you had to help on his terms. His stubbornness fueled his strength and kept him alive through multiple operations and dozens of hospital visits over the years. Through his persistence, my dad taught me to never give up.

My dad was a great father. I know when I was a baby he worked multiple jobs to support his family. As I grew older, he never hesitated to play a game with me … teaching me the intricacies of Monopoly, Marbles and of course his favorite, Chinese Checkers, a tradition he taught my sons. Every Saturday we’d venture to the East Side Chicago Public Library and I’d pick out some books that he’d help me read back home — our mutual favorite being Curious George. He launched and lead a local Tiger Cub Scout chapter so I could participate. Even when he would leave home for a business trip, my sadness of him leaving was balanced with anticipation of what surprise he would bring back — usually a storybook record. When I got into sports, he always took time to help me learn to hit a baseball, swim or shoot a basketball. I knew that every game I played, he would be there, usually still in his suit coat and tie as he raced home from work to catch my first at bat. In my teenage years he gave me flexibility, supported my newfound love of heavy metal music. While other parents might have been skeptical of the influence of such music on an impressionable teen, my dad had faith the values he and my mom instilled in me through not only their words and actions, but the words and actions of a strong family would be a solid foundation. And they were right.

He showed great love for his surviving siblings and me, my sister, his grandchildren and of course my mom, who he would often call “his angel.” But that love extended to nieces, nephews, cousins, and a large circle of friends who were considered family. I know he treasured every family gathering — and being married to a Filipino there were many — and reminded me how important it is for me to be a part of them. The last words he told me was to “Be there for my family.”

He always told me that God and family need to be at the heart of everything. And again, he lead by example. It all starts with God, and my dad was the most faithful man I’ve ever encountered. Of course every Sunday church was a requirement, but it was much more than that. My dad taught me the importance of praying every night. He would sit beside my bed and we would recite the Guardian Angel prayer, the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary. Then we would pray to the Holy family, and he would encourage me to think about things I’m thankful for, and people I want to pray for. He often reminded me when I questioned God that we needed to accept God’s will.

Keeping God at the center was evidenced by the importance of service in his life. His record of service could rival most anyone. Even as his physical abilities diminished, he continued to serve others. He taught me that we all have responsibilities, not just to ourselves and our families, but to the entire community. I remember as a child one night praying with him, and I said, “God bless everyone except the bad guys.” After the prayer my dad told me it was very important to pray for “the bad guys,” because every person is a child of God. And it is our responsibility to treat every person with love.

Walter G. Dennis was truly a great man. A great husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, cousin and friend. A great member of his church and community. And a great soldier of God.

I love you dad. I will remember you everyday and continue your unselfish legacy of love of God, family and community. Thank you Dad, for teaching me how to love everyone, unconditionally.

Walter, our dear friend

Printed on the back of the memorial card for my dad, who died Sept. 20.

A child of God, he was one of his men,
Was given to us to be one of our friends.
His life on Earth was a blessing to many
He loved every person, especially his family.

In every person he met, he saw the good,
Anything to help another, he always would.
“See God in every person,” he would often say.
Love and help, and remember them when you pray.

He was always active, even sick he wouldn’t be still,
But he prayed and tried to live according to God’s will.
“Leave it up to God,” he said when life was getting tough.
Words he lived by until the end, when his body had enough.

He is now with God in Heaven, looking down at us from the sky,
Reminding us of our purpose here, and telling us not to cry.
For we are all God’s children, this life here is not our end.
Hopefully one day we will join God, and Walter, our dear friend.

–Joseph Dennis