Former UM Journalism Dean Blumberg Dies at 89

By Beacon Staff

Nathaniel Blumberg, the legendary former dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism, died Tuesday at a Kalispell hospital six days after suffering a stroke at his home in Bigfork. He was 89.

Blumberg, a demanding teacher who influenced a generation of journalists, wrote his own obituary, saying about his students that he “took great pride in their professional success, their contributions to journalism in Montana and the nation, and their strong sense of public service in their chosen careers.”

He began the Dean Stone lectures more than 50 years ago, bringing in top journalists from across the country to speak to students. Blumberg started the Montana Journalism Review, the nation’s first such publication, several years before Columbia University debuted a similar magazine. KUFM Radio, the Montana Newspaper Hall of Fame and UM’s radio and television department all were begun while Blumberg was dean from 1956-68.

Blumberg, a Rhodes Scholar as a student, continued teaching at UM for another 23 years.

“He was a very demanding teacher,” said Carol Van Valkenburg, professor emerita at the School of Journalism. “He just got after you. He wasn’t worried about hurting your feelings, he was worried about your being the best you could be.”

“He had us all terrified,” said Printer Bowler, a journalism school student from 1959-64 and now a visiting lecturer. “I remember when I was editor of (the student newspaper) the Kaimin we had a bad typo on the front page — I think we misspelled somebody’s name — and we could hear him stomping down the hall as soon as the paper came out.

“He came in the Kaimin office and ripped us all up one side and down the other. I was so shook up I went home, drank half a bottle of wine and never went back to school until the next day,” Bowler said.

But, he added: “We never had another front-page typo again while I was there.”

Peggy Kuhr, a former student of Blumberg and current dean of the school, called Blumberg “a force” who was “incredibly demanding and incredibly smart and dynamic.”

Former Missoulian reporter Ginny Merriam said the criticism would continue after graduation, but praise and encouragement were added for stories Blumberg and colleague Robert McGiffert felt were well-reported and well-written.

Kuhr said, “we all continued to get notes and letters after we left. I’ll bet he wrote hundreds of thousands of notes in his lifetime.”

In retirement, Blumberg published “Treasure State Review: A Montana Periodical of Journalism and Justice” for several years. He also founded WoodFIREAshes Press to publish the books he hoped to write.

The one he did publish, “The Afternoon of March 30,” hurt Blumberg’s reputation with some people.

The novel centered on his belief that Neil Bush — son of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush — and his wife Sharon were co-conspirators in John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Blumberg based his belief in part on reports that Hinckley’s brother, Scott, knew Neil Bush and that they were scheduled to have dinner together the night after the assassination attempt — and that the media covered it up.

“He got on a conspiracy kick,” Van Valkenburg said. “He was very proud of the book, and I think he was hurt that it wasn’t well-received. He became someone people took less seriously, and I think that hurt him terribly. But the truth was it was not up to the standards he would have expected of other people.”

Blumberg was born in Denver, educated at the University of Colorado and Oxford and served in World War II. He taught journalism at the University of Nebraska and Michigan State University before being named dean at UM when he was 34.

He had three daughters with his first wife Lynne and married Barbara Farquhar in 1973. Barbara died in 2007.

Blumberg’s style may have been gruff, but his students say he made better journalists out of them than they might otherwise have been.

“To a lot, he was a god,” Van Valkenburg said. “He was truly a mentor we looked to for advice, and he helped elevate the national reputation of the journalism school.”