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April 11, 2002 -- No. 209

John R. Bittner, longtime faculty member, scholar, dies at 58

CHAPEL HILL -- Dr. John Robert Bittner, a journalism professor of broadcasting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who wrote eight college textbooks about mass communication, was the author of a seminal work about law and ethics, won excellence-in-teaching awards, was a widely traveled lecturer on Ernest Hemingway, and was an activist for humane treatment of animals, died Tuesday evening, (April 9) at home after a long illness. He was 58.

Bittner was the James H. Shumaker Term professor in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The professorship is awarded on the basis of teaching excellence. His position as head of the school’s electronic communication sequence was appointed solely on the basis of a distinguished career.

"John Bittner was a remarkable man," said Dr. Richard Cole, school dean. "He had a diversity of interests from broadcasting to literature and excelled in all of them."

The author of 16 books, book chapters and articles in Journalism Quarterly, Journal of Broadcasting and the International Journal of Instructional Media, Bittner continually crafted materials with all the force of a relentless whirlwind.

He often insisted that "hard work eventually pays off" and referred to his textbook, "Mass Communication," which has gone through six printings, a translation into Arabic and use in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Australia.

"John was a wonderful award-winning humanistic scholar," said Dr. Donald Shaw, Kenan professor in the school. "He had the ability to use primary sources with a skill that brought alive such literary figures as Ernest Hemingway."

Citing former students’ frequent visits to Bittner’s office, Shaw said, "He was a gentleman who spent enormous time working with students in class and long after as they pursued their careers."

Those visits recaptured Bittner’s lively classroom lectures, models of scholarship and fondness for students.

"He would yell at me and made me read The Wall Street Journal, which I hated," said former student Lindsay Berra, who works for ESPN The Magazine. "But I learned, because he was fun. You could sit in his office and talk with him. He always smiled."

"That’s one of the many things I loved about him," said Chuck Stone, Walter Spearman professor

in the school. "That impish smile. We called each other ‘Bro.’ He had a commitment early in his life to racial equality."

Before joining the school as a professor, Bittner was chairman of the department of radio, television and motion pictures. During his five years as chairman, from 1982 to 1987, the number of majors doubled, a master’s degree was approved, and the N.C. Radio-TV High School Institute quadrupled.

Kay Phillips, former director of the N.C. Media Scholastic Association, said Bittner re-created a successful summer broadcast program for high school students.

"He was a wizard at finding the means to make expensive programs work," Phillips said.

Besides Bittner’s respected teaching and research skills, he was a proficient administrator. As executive director of the Radio-Television Association of the Carolinas, he helped nurture the organization into becoming one of the largest regional news directors associations in the United States.

Holding three professorships at three different universities, he also held administrative appointments as director of the Center for Media Research at the University of Oregon, director of Broadcast Communication at DePauw University and chairman of the RTVMP department at UNC.

But something within drove him to professional explorations beyond broadcast journalism.

"Dr. Bittner had a keen interest in literature, especially the writings of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe," said Dr. Joseph M. Flora, a prominent professor in UNC’s English department. "His knowledge of journalism led him to new discoveries about both authors. His presentations were warmly received by literary scholars."

One prestigious presentation was Bittner’s paper two years ago about Hemingway at the U.S. Air Force Academy, "Fascism and the Censorship of War in Frank Borzage’s Production of Ernest Hemingway’s Novel, A Farewell to Arms."

Flora revealed that Bittner’s developing illness could not shackle an incessant intellectual curiosity.

"He had embarked on a major project on the relationship between Wolfe and Jonathan Daniels when his illness intervened. But even in illness, he continued to write about Hemingway and Wolfe," he said.

Dr. Richard Simpson, Bittner’s colleague in the electronic communication sequence, called him "a passionate man with a lot of heart — my boss, my colleague and my friend. He brought me to the journalism school."

A native of Greensburg, Pa., Bittner graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University, which awarded him its Outstanding Alumni Educator of the Year Award. He later received both his master’s and doctoral degrees from Purdue University.

In addition to his wife, Denise Alexander Bittner, whom many friends praised as an academic team, he leaves two sons, John P. Bittner of Flagstaff, Ariz., and Donald B. Redmond of Charlottesville, Va.; a granddaughter, Annie, of Flagstaff; a brother, George W. Bittner, of Mitchell, S.D.; and in-laws, James and Dorothy Alexander of Fearington.

The family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the John R. Bittner Fund in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Bittner’s body will be cremated and his ashes buried in Ketchum, Idaho, where Hemingway’s ashes are buried.

"Ketchum is right next to Sun Valley, where John and I went skiing many wonderful times," his wife said.

A memorial service celebrating John Bittner’s life will be at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, in Carroll Hall auditorium on the UNC campus.

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Note: Bittner’s faculty colleagues in the school reported and wrote this obituary.

Contact: Mike McFarland, (919) 962-8593