Dr. Keith Cannon, John B. Ashcraft professor of journalism and a member of the Department of Communication for nearly a quarter of a century, has passed away after a battle with cancer. He was 66.
Cannon, affectionately known as “Doc” by his students, was a dedicated instructor who kept abreast of the myriad changes in the news industry by staying active as a correspondent for the Charlotte Observer, filing his last story, on a high school football game, last fall.
Cannon was active on social media – “He was on Twitter before I was on Twitter,” says 2004 graduate Randi Davis – and had even recently introduced a class dedicated to digital journalism. But although he changed with the times in a sometimes-chaotic industry, he instilled in his students the immutable basics of journalism.
“I still remember three rules from Doc, and one of them I yelled at the TV last night,” says Ryan Stanzel, a 2000 Wingate graduate. “First of all, there’s no such thing as ‘first annual.’ Nothing’s annual until it’s the second. You spell a name wrong and you fail the paper. It’s important. And there’s no such thing as a grand-slam home run. Is there a grand-slam single? No.
“To remember those things with such clarity 20 years later really shows what he was like in the classroom.”
Possibly even more than for his instruction, Cannon will be remembered as a mentor and father figure. Davis, now an internal-communications specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has won a slew of awards from a state public-relations association in each of the past few years. Her first instinct each year was to call Cannon to share the news.
“I’m 37 years old and still want him to be proud of me,” she says.
Cannon majored in mathematics at Clemson University but took an interest in journalism while working for the Clemson student newspaper, The Tiger. Upon graduation, he entered into a journalism master’s program at the University of Florida and, after graduating in 1976, launched into a full-time career in journalism that lasted 20 years. Over the years, he worked for newspapers large and small, including covering the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL team for a suburban Pittsburgh paper from 1992 to 1994.
It was then that Cannon realized that his passion for journalism could be fulfilled in other ways. He had received his doctorate in educational administration from Texas A&M University in 1988 and decided that teaching was his calling. He found his way to Wingate University in 1994.
Cannon and Dr. Jim Coon joined the Department of Communication the same year. "There’s not a more collegial, friendly, decent human being," says Coon, who has been serving as interim chair of the department in Cannon's absence. "I couldn't ask for a better chair. He was fair, kind and compassionate."
At Wingate, Cannon did more than teach from a lectern. Cannon, who won the University's Charles and Hazel Corts Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2007, regularly arranged for students to get their first taste of real journalism by covering minor-league hockey and baseball games and NBA basketball games in Charlotte, not to mention local city-council and school-board meetings.
Cannon was the advisor for the Weekly Triangle, Wingate's long-running student newspaper, for the duration of his tenure at Wingate. Stanzel, whom Cannon tapped to be editor of the Weekly Triangle as a sophomore, remembers Cannon's exacting journalistic standards.
"We covered stuff," Stanzel says. "We didn’t back down. I think some people would have rather us taken a more yearbook, fluffy approach to journalism, but that wasn’t him."
Stanzel went on to work for 10 years for the Minnesota Wild, an NHL team in Minneapolis, and he credits a trip to cover a Charlotte Checkers minor-league hockey game as part of Cannon's sports-reporting class with opening his eyes to the possibilities of a career in that realm.
It was all part of Cannon's holistic approach to teaching.
“We would have guest speakers who did the jobs that we wanted come into our class,” Davis says. “Now I go to his class and talk. He would bring people to you and bring you to people that could tell you, honestly, ‘Here’s the job you want to do and here’s how you do it.’”
Often his father-figure tendencies and journalistic ethos intersected. Davis was in a Cannon class when news broke about the Sept. 11 attacks. “It was my first time away from home,” Davis says. “It was the first time in many of our lifetimes that we’d seen anything like that. I wasn’t able to get in touch with my parents, and he just really kept us all calm. I’m sure that he was scared too, but we didn't know that.”
As a form of catharsis, he sent students out to work the story. “We were all stressed and worried, and Doc was like, ‘You know, there are people on this campus who are from New York. Go out and do some stories for the Triangle. Go out and talk to people,’” Davis says. “That’s kind of how I got through the day.”
After Cannon was diagnosed with cancer in September of 2018, Davis set up an endowment to fund a scholarship in Cannon’s name. The scholarship will go to a student from North or South Carolina who is majoring in communication with an emphasis in journalism or public relations. The fund’s goal was $25,000, a figure that was reached over the weekend thanks to an anonymous $7,600 donation.
“We’ve done it in a little over three and a half months,” Davis says. Davis and many other alums rallied around Cannon and his wife, Jayne, visiting him several times over the past few months.
Donations to the endowment are still being accepted. To give to the fund, please contact Becca Paylor with the Office of Advancement at 704-233-8828.
A celebration of Cannon’s life is set for Saturday, Feb. 23. More details will be forthcoming.
Feb. 5, 2019