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Alumni Spotlight: Bryan Cuttingham

It was 1964. America was a year removed from the unspeakable shock of the assassination of the first president born in our century. Our president. The very real threat of nuclear destruction had awakened us each morning for an entire week just two years before. Our hair, soon to grow past our shoulders, was no more than an inch long as we looked over our shoulders at the specter of The Draft. Already, 300 young Americans had lost their lives in a far-off country called Vietnam. Gas was 25 cents a gallon and MSU tuition was $87.50 for an entire semester. 

And the British had invaded America. Little did either the Beatles or I realize that each of us would soon embark on our own Long and Winding Road. I had no idea just how long and winding that road would be. 

I was a lowly freshman, a frightened 17-year old who only months ago had stood atop the academic mountain as a senior at Winona (MS) HighSchool. I had turned down a full scholarship to Ole Miss so I could be among the first class of sixteen Radio/TV majors at Memphis State University. All of us already had experience – I had been a disk jockey since I was 15 years old. Others were even more seasoned. We all shared the excitement of being in one of the few colleges in the country where we could actually get a degree in the field we already loved. 

I loved college. We built a campus radio station and proudly named it WTGR. We studied announcing and television and went to football games in the fall and basketball games in the winter and spring.

Then I got distracted. I became interested in the girl who became my wife during my junior year. I enjoyed fraternity life and decided I could take also 18 hours of class, work full time (I was working in “real” TV at WMC-TV) and move towards graduation. I couldn’t. The future needs of academia gave way to the more urgent needs (and wants) of the moment. School could wait. I had no idea just how long it could wait.

For the next 47 years my career and my family grew. I had eight children and lots of grandkids and great-grandkids. I worked in local television and then became an independent producer/director/writer, doing everything from studio wrestling to country music and symphonies to televised sports, national telethons, and even a network television series. Along the way I even managed to win an Emmy. Life was good.

Finally, after 50 years in the business, I decided to retire. I put aside the deadlines and the triumphs, the constant effort to be better, and the rewards of a business I still loved deeply a half century later.

But I didn’t slow down. I started writing a book – but that wasn’t enough. There was still a nagging thought in the back of my mind. My wife and almost all my friends had advanced degrees (one is the Dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts at an excellent southern university) – and I didn’t even have my bachelor’s degree. My solution? The road took a sharp left turn as I decided to go back to college. It wasn’t always easy. My 65-year-old brain had to re-learn how to learn. Math was a foreign language after 50 years. So were biology, philosophy and Spanish. There were days when I wondered if the reward was worth the struggle. Deep down I always knew it was. In spite of the difficulties  was exhilarated. I wanted to study. I wanted to learn – and I wanted to excel. I told my wife that if I had worked this hard when I was in college the first time I would not have to be working this hard now. The truth is, I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t motivated back then. My goal was to work in television, not to get my degree. Life and inner reflection have a way of refining your attitude.

My goal is in sight. I will graduate from the University of Memphis with a BA in Communication on December 14 of this year. But the road still winds. My next goal is graduate school so I can teach and share the experiences of 50 years (both professional and academic) with college students. The road hasn’t ended; it has just taken yet another uncharted turn. 

Robert Frost once said that when confronted with two roads, always choose the road you have not taken. I’ll offer one more challenge. Graduate first, but then take the Long and Winding Road. It may take you longer to get there, but the scenery along the way is breathtaking.

Cottingham and Ranta working

Bryan Cottingham (BA '13), at left and Dean Richard R. Ranta

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Last Updated: 4/8/14