Editor turned teacher balances passions

By Ezra J. Effrein, NewsNetNebraska

Rod Henkel, teacher and coach at Yutan High School. Photo: Rod Henkel

Few people get to make use of all their talents in their career. Rod Henkel, a teacher and coach at Yutan High School, is an exception to that rule.

For him, every day is a new chance to put his various skills to work. To most students he is known as the algebra and pre-calculus teacher, but he is also the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook and coaches several sports as well.

Henkel is originally from Davenport, Nebraska. He was introduced to the world of journalism through an Omaha World-Herald sports correspondent he met in high school.

Following him on several assignments, Henkel became interested in his friend’s career.

“I was an athlete in high school and knew I couldn’t do that forever, but covering sports was a way to stay in contact with it,” he said.

After high school, he studied at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He pursued a double major in both math education and journalism.

“A dual major that very few people I’m sure have done.”

He decided to take up math because of his math teacher in high school and wanted to journalism on the side.

“I went into the college of education to avoid taking a foreign language,” Henkel said.

He worked for the sports information office during his time at UNL. He wrote press releases, conducted interviews, and compiled press guides for journalists. Press guides were packets of information the teams for journalists to reference before the advent of computers.

Henkel taught in Victoria, Kansas, for two years after completing his degrees. He then received a call from his friend who had introduced him to journalism in the first place. He had now purchased the local newspaper in Wahoo, Nebraska and wanted to hire Henkel as the paper’s managing editor.

Henkel took the job, but the small staff and budget made the position hectic.

“Some people think, ‘Oh, it’s not the daily,’ but they forget that it’s the same guy. So I’m writing sports, I’m writing news, I’m writing editorials, I’m writing headlines, I’m putting the paper together,” he said. “There were many, many late nights.”

Despite the environment, Henkel enjoyed the pace of the work.

“I like that deadline,” he said. “There’s a rush to that deadline meeting”

He said that being an editor helped him realize some of the errors he made.

“By being an editor, I think it makes you more critical of what you do yourself,” he said.

He stayed there for five years until his friend developed health issues and sold the paper. With his friend gone, Henkel left the newspaper and found a job teaching mathematics in the nearby town of Yutan, where he is still teaching.

He also worked as a sports correspondent for the Omaha World-Herald during his first eighteen years at the school. He covered games and wrote feature stories. He would also write for multiple other small-town papers in Nebraska. When he accepted a position coaching basketball in the winter, he was forced to give it up. He still pursues writing, covering football for the Lincoln Journal Star.

Though his main position at Yutan High School is teaching mathematics, he also heads the journalism program.

“With my journalism background, it was attractive for [the school] to have me take over their yearbook and newspaper,” he said. “The person that did it before I came was just a business teacher who they just assigned it to. She was thrilled that I would take it off her hands when they first hired me.”

As the school’s journalism teacher, Henkel is the editor for both yearbook and newspaper.

The newspaper, titled The Chieftain Times, covers events in the school and the local area. The paper is published once every month or two months depending on the budget.

He noted multiple differences between editing the student newspaper as opposed to his previous occupation. The main one involved the timeliness of the paper.

“With a professional publication, you’re on a deadline and boom, the turnaround for the publication is immediate… With students, there’s so much rewriting and editing that if I cover something that happened last night, it may not be published for three or four weeks.”

He also said that he wants students to take more time to edit and improve their work.

“I’ve had a couple students here…they’ll give me a story and it’ll be just as good as a daily or weekly paper… Then there’s some ‘why don’t you give me that a ninth or tenth time and we’ll see what happens.’”

He said that the average student takes about three or four drafts before their article is good enough to publish.

The yearbook is also a challenge but reminds him of working as an editor at papers. He said that it is not as hectic or time-consuming as working at a local paper, but some of the skills still transfer to it.

He said, “[It is not] as intense or as often, but the skill set is exactly the same.”

One of the major differences he noted was not in the methods, but the technology. When he worked at the paper, Henkel and his staff would put the layout together by hand on a light table, and now his students can do everything on a computer.

Alongside the editing and journalism, Henkel is still a coach and math teacher, getting to exercise all his passions. He said that he enjoys being able to do everything he loves and make use of both his degrees.

“I came here thinking I’d only be here for one or two years, really, and I thought I’d get back in the journalism field somewhere. And after a few years, I kind of liked it here. I like the coaching. I could still do my writing… Pretty soon, I [thought] I don’t think I’m going to do anything else. I’ll just stay here.”

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