Jim Richstad: Writer, Teacher, Adventurer
By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist
From an early age, Jim Richstad knew that he loved writing. What he didn’t know was how his knack for setting pen to the page would eventually lead him to travel the world.
Born the 10th child of Norwegian immigrants, Jim grew up in the Queen Anne district of Seattle, graduating from Queen Anne High School in 1950.
When it was time to leave home, he didn’t have to look far for a good opportunity. A group of Jim’s high school friends decided to attend Everett Junior College, now Everett Community College (EvCC).
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s good for me to go, too,’” Jim said. He admitted that the big draw was cost savings and the fact that he could “get out of town,” a desire that would manifest itself over and over again in his life.
Jim's love of writing had been a natural fit on the Queen Anne High School newspaper staff and easily led to a position in the EvCC public relations office.
“EvCC was an adventure more than an experience,” Jim recalled. “I enjoyed living away from home. It was good for me because I met all kinds of new people from other parts of the state.”
Not only did Jim consider EvCC a good economic decision, but he was also appreciative of the campus climate.
“It was pretty cozy at the old campus. You could walk in and talk to the president, anything,” he said, adding, “You could talk to the instructors any time you wanted and the classes were pretty small.”
Unlike many young college students with no clear cut goals, Jim always knew what he wanted to do.
“Journalism,” he said. “I knew that when I was in grade school. We had the Kuay newspaper at Queen Anne High School and I liked writing for it. That’s what my life has been: writing and teaching.”
After graduating from EvCC, Jim set a straight path to his goal and moved to the University of Washington (UW). He focused on pursuing a degree in journalism and an eventual doctorate.
While at the UW, Jim honed his journalism skills by working on the university’s daily newspaper and later spending summers as a copy editor for Seattle’s largest newspaper, the Seattle Times.
“They were big time,” Jim remembered. “They paid attention to what went in that paper and every little error you had to figure out. It was exciting, watching all of the stuff going on there.”
Following graduation from the UW with a degree in journalism with a political science minor, Jim entered the army and served two years in West Germany. When he returned to the States, he went on to pursue graduate courses at the UW.
Through his advisor’s connections, Jim learned of an opportunity to study journalism at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
“I’d always wanted to get a PhD, so I just kept chipping away at it,” Jim said. He moved to Minnesota and spent three years doing graduate work there.
In 1958, another memorable event occurred: Jim married a young woman from Queen Anne High School.
“We didn’t date back in high school, but somehow we ended up together,” Jim chuckled.
Newly married and working as a Minnesota teaching assistant, Jim had the choice between a job offer in Illinois or Rhode Island. He opted for the Illinois job and moved with his new wife to Decatur, where he worked as an editorial writer for the afternoon newspaper.
“Our second daughter was born in Illinois,” Jim recalled. “But I left because I couldn’t work on my dissertation there; there were no good sources.”
Jim returned to Seattle with his new family in tow and once again found employment with the Seattle Times, and as “low level faculty” for the UW, including a stint as advisor for the UW student newspaper.
After three years, Jim was offered an opportunity as an editorial page writer for a Honolulu, Hawaii newspaper. The new environment provided the perfect backdrop for Jim’s progressing dissertation: military censorship of the press in Hawaii during World War II.
“Luckily, the colonel who was in charge of all that was still in Hawaii, so I was able to interview him for a long time, as well as a couple of old newspaper guys,” he said. “I don’t think anybody else has done a dissertation on the topic. I finished it and finally got my doctorate degree from Minnesota,” Jim recalled.
After finishing his dissertation, Jim taught at the University of Hawaii for three years, then moved to the East-West Center (EWC), a federally-funded program with a mission to bring scholars and students from Asia and the U.S. together.
From 1972 to 1983, Jim’s work for the East-West Center in Honolulu would take him throughout much of Asia and the Pacific Islands.
“Pacific Island journalists were just dying for someone to come and teach them,” he said. “What they wanted was basic training in journalism and we could give that in short workshops.”
While at EWC, he worked with the Honolulu community as it formed the Honolulu Community-Media Council (similar to the later one in Seattle), and another group working for a Sunshine Law for more open government. Working with Pacific media, he was one of the founders of the Pacific Islands Press Association in its work to reduce government censorship and promote journalism training.
Fortunately, Jim's family enjoyed their venturous lifestyle. While Jim spent his time teaching college-age students, his children attended school in Hawaii and his wife found employment in office management.
Jim recalled teaching in Singapore as one of the highlights of his teaching career.
“I taught in Singapore for three or four years and my students were a very elite group. I didn’t have to tell them anything twice,” he said. “They were right ahead of me if I slowed down a little bit,” he laughed.
Jim also spent a year in Beijing teaching journalism to graduate students.
“They all spoke English and they were trying to develop into journalists who could deal with the Western press,” he explained.
In 1982, Jim’s job with the East-West Center was cut short when President Reagan instituted a reduction in force.
Having racked up a considerable amount of experience and credentials, Jim had more than one job offer to consider when he returned to his home base in Honolulu. Choosing between offers in New England or Oklahoma, Jim elected to move to Oklahoma for a full professorship at the University of Oklahoma.
In 1982, the “traveling Richstads” once again relocated, this time to Norman, Oklahoma. Jim would spend the next 13 years in Oklahoma, teaching journalism to university students.
“I liked teaching a lot,” he said. “It was the interaction, but it also allowed me to read about things where I could research and learn more.”
What did he find so enjoyable about journalism?
“It was an adventure for me and it was also a public service,” Jim observed. “If you’re doing your job, you’re pointing out things that people should know and that people are doing that maybe they shouldn’t be doing—or, at least, everybody should know what they’re doing.”
In line with his passion in life, Jim points to the written work he’s most proud of: a paper titled, “The Right to Communicate.”
“The simple statement is, ‘Everybody has the right to communicate,’” he stated. “Obviously, if you look at the world, you’ll find that’s not true—you can get killed for saying things.”
In 1977, the most important paper Jim had written took him to Paris, where he spent three months working with UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), writing a draft for a conference on the Right to Communicate.
What does he think of the state of journalism today?
“Well, it’s rapidly changing. It has been for many years,” he observed. “Just look around. I think it’s getting more into commentary and not quite so fact-oriented. In my time, you couldn’t say something without a good source, and now you see that in the paper all the time.”
If there’s one thing Jim’s career has demonstrated, it’s that he’s not afraid of a challenge. It seems appropriate that this world traveler, writer, teacher, adventurer, might offer counsel to today’s EvCC students:
“When you do something, think about how it might help you move forward as you go down the road,” he said. “Everything leads to something else.”