Remembering a Mentor – RIP Brian Uzzell

Here's a picture of Brian Uzzell taken at my wedding.

Here’s a picture of Brian Uzzell taken at my wedding.

Last week, I received the sad news that one of my mentors passed away, Brian Uzzell, former owner and publisher of the Caymanian Compass newspaper.

I owe a lot to Brian, and can honestly say that I would not have my career if it wasn’t for him.

When I was 19, recently returned to Cayman after doing my A level exams in England, I wasn’t quite ready to jump straight into college. My dad had been contracted to supply computers for the Compass, which was then the only newspaper in the Cayman Islands. Knowing I liked to write, Dad suggested I apply for a job there — and said he’d put in a good word 😉 . A short time later, I was a junior reporter, covering all kinds of fun news, from a giant squash grown on the island, to Coroner’s Inquests in court, to a feature on a local beekeeper, and more.

With the help of the other reporters and the editor, Ursula Gill, I learned how to write for different types of news, how to interview, and how to take photographs to accompany my stories. While I was at the Compass, I even interviewed visiting comedians and musicians, including Jimmy Cliff, Travis Tritt and even Vanilla Ice.

After I’d been working at the Compass for about a year, Brian asked if I had thought about going on to college, because if I did, he said, and I wanted to study journalism, he’d like to sponsor me, with the agreement that I’d put my education to use at the newspaper every holiday and for a couple years after I’d graduated.

At the time, to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about college, but this offer definitely brought it to the front of my mind. Who could turn down an opportunity to get help paying tuition? The problem was, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to study journalism. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a journalist for the rest of my life. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d always wanted to do, which was to create my own stories, writing plays or movies or books.

While I was deciding, one of the reporters suggested I try out his alma mater, the University of South Florida in Tampa. Their Mass Communications department looked good, and they were only a short hour and a half flight away from home, so I said yes.

USF proved to be a great choice. I found more wonderful mentors there, including one professor, Rick Wilbur, who also wrote fiction. Rick told me one day that I “had important stories to write,” and that has always stuck with me, through good times and bad. I got a job working at The Tampa Tribune, first filing mail and writing small obits in the head office, then as a reporter at the Temple Terrace bureau, where I got to report on the inspiring daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King and cover a truly amazing exhibit of artwork created by children in the Serbian war through art therapy. And a few months before I graduated from USF, I met my husband. Bonus! 🙂

After graduation, my husband and I moved back to Cayman, where we both worked for the Compass. When my green card came through and we moved back to the U.S., I continued my career in journalism, writing and editing for a number of consumer and trade magazines for another 15+ years.

All because of Brian Uzzell.

I was the first student the Compass sponsored at university, but I wasn’t the last. Brian’s generosity helped lots of other young reporters get their education. And my going to college also had a ripple effect after I wrote an opinion piece for the Compass about why I had chosen to go back to university after working. A few years after it was published, I was covering an event in Cayman when a man came up to me, asked me if I was Samantha de Freitas (my maiden name that I was using in the paper at the time), and when I said yes, told me that he had been on the fence about going to college until he read my column, and he would be graduating soon.

I’m no longer in journalism, and I’m now finally living my dream of creating my own stories for books. But when I talk to student writers, I tell them that my background in newspapers helped me on my path. Not only did it give me a career and an invaluable understanding of how media works (I’m not a fan of a lot of what I see nowadays, especially broadcast news, which most of the time does not deserve to be called journalism — but that’s another blog post), my past as a reporter and editor taught me so much about words, stories, brevity, impact, and revealing information for utility as well as entertainment.

Would THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST be the book it is today without my experience in journalism? Or what I learned at university? Or the knowledge that mentors such as Rick Wilbur and Brian Uzzell believed in me? I don’t think it would. (Incidentally, the idea for the Make Your Own Courage Art Therapy Project that’s based on my book came from my experience covering that Serbian war exhibit years earlier.)

So to say I owe a lot to Brian Uzzell is an understatement. And now that he has passed, I realize I didn’t tell him thank you enough. I’d like to try to make up for that in a small way here:

Brian, THANK YOU, from me and all the people you have helped. While the tuition was huge, your belief in us was even bigger.

If you have someone in your life who has helped you, inspired you, or lifted you up in any way, I urge you to reach out and thank them. You can start right here… Tell me below who you’d like to thank.

What do you think?