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Beloved Penn State communications professor dies from cancer

Curt Chandler and John Beale at a graduation reception for December graduates on Dec.  17, 2011.

Curt Chandler and John Beale at a graduation reception for December graduates on Dec. 17, 2011.

Photo provided

When Joe Paterno died and media students assembled at the former football coach’s statue to shoot coverage of the university’s response, Penn State Professor Curt Chandler could be found grabbing socks from his car and giving them out to students so they could finish their work in the frigid cold.

To students, Chandler was a mentor willing to stay up all hours of the night to help with a project or idea. To colleagues, he was an energetic spirit that inspired others to be better to each other and to themselves. And to Penn State, he was an unparalleled force in his commitment not only to teaching visual journalism but also in helping the college evolve with the field.

Chandler, whose tireless dedication to teaching and hunger for storytelling inspired students and colleagues, died on Monday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 64.

Chandler, an associate professor in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, joined the university in 2007 after 25 years of award-winning newsroom experience. Before coming to Penn State, he worked as a photojournalist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Ogden-Standard Examiner in Utah and the Pueblo Chieftain in Colorado.

Chandler is survived by his four children and his wife Stacie. He was an active member of his Philipsburg community, and with Stacie, helped to spearhead the Center Film Festival.

In the wake of his death, current and former students have flocked to social media to honor Chandler and share stories of his indefatigable efforts to help students succeed. While each memory with Chandler is unique to the student who shared it, the posts prove one thing — that a professor can have a profound impact on the people who step foot in their classroom.

Jillian Knight met Chandler in 2011 during her junior year when she went to the National Press Photographers Association Northern Short Course in Photojournalism. Chandler was her ride home from the conference and for the seven-hour drive from Rhode Island to State College, the car filled with lively conversation.

By the time Knight, a budding photojournalist at the time, arrived back at Penn State, the man who was a stranger just hours before became a trusted mentor whom she could confide in.

“He was a man of a million stories,” Knight said.

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Curt Chandler riding the shuttle bus at the end of a long day at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016. Will Yurman Photo provided

Chandler continued to guide Knight in developing her multimedia skills throughout college. During the Sandusky scandal, she said Chandler would stay with her and her classmates at his Innovation Park office until early hours of the morning helping them with projects.

“He had this boundless energy in the spirit of helping students and this willingness to be there for us, even at 3 am on weekdays,” Knight said.

Dave Cole, Wall Street Journal photo editor, graduated from Penn State in 2013 and said he wouldn’t be where he is today if he didn’t have Chandler as a professor.

It was experiences with Chandler outside of the classroom that Cole cherished, like staying late with him editing stories, traveling for assignments and working on side projects.

When Cole told Chandler he was interested in a career in digital journalism, Chandler spent an entire day driving Cole to New York City to meet with startups.

“He did things like that for all of his students,” Cole said. “He was so incredibly generous with his time and he believed in the projects students were working on.”

Like Cole, Penn State alumni Sarah Nathan said she was inspired by the strides Chandler took in helping his former students achieve their goals.

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Curt Chandler with fellow instructor Shadé Olasimbo at the Short Doc Workshop in 2018. Will Yurman Photo provided

Nathan’s first impressions of Chandler, from when he would stop by her photojournalism class, was that he exhibited a great sense of humor and was someone that students felt comfortable approaching with ideas or questions.

Nathan, now a video producer at AJ+, said she was inspired by his enthusiasm for journalism and wanted to take a class with him so badly that she and a handful of other students made up an independent study just so they could get the opportunity to have him as a professor.

In 2008, when the recession hit, Nathan said she remembered professors encouraging journalism students to fall back on other majors because they believed the industry was dying. When she walked inside Chandler’s classroom, that sense of pessimism was left at the door.

“He was always so hopeful and believed that if you have a good story to share and you work hard for it, it’s going to work out and I think that’s something that he continued to push with all of his students — to never stop being curious ,” Nathan said.

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Sarah Nathan poses with Penn State professor Curt Chandler after graduation in 2009 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Photo provided

More than a decade after she graduated, Nathan was trying to pitch an independent project and turned to Chandler for advice. After a whole day of teaching, she said Chandler would meet with her via Zoom, bouncing ideas around and going through photo edits.

Chandler’s upbeat attitude and eager approach to his work rubbed off not only on students, but also on the colleagues he worked alongside throughout the years.

Will Yurman, associate teaching professor, met Chandler roughly 20 years ago when they were working for different newspapers. Years later, after being recommended by Chandler, Yurman joined the college and saw firsthand the dynamic force Chandler was in the classroom and beyond.

Yurman said during computer labs and work sessions, Chandler would stay until the last student wanted to leave — often until the early hours of the next day. It was then that Yurman said he was impressed by Chandler’s energetic nature and patience with students.

“There are people who think the glass is half full and there are people who think the glass is half empty; Curt always thought the glass was completely full,” Yurman said. “He was always seeing the positive in what students were doing and he was always treating people as if they had the potential to do whatever they wanted.”

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Curt Chandler and John Beale at a graduation reception for December graduates on Dec. 17, 2011. Will Yurman Photo provided

It was his constantment that Yurman said brought out the best in the people who looked to him for support, adding that many students have said they went on to do great things in their careers because of the gentle pushes he gave them encouragement.

As time passed following his May diagnosis and Chandler grew weaker, Yurman said he was amazed at how Chandler continued to radiate positivity.

“I think he made me a better teacher and a better person,” Yurman said. “He had such joy in teaching, in being around people, in his wife and in his family.”

Marie Hardin, dean of the Bellisario College of Communications, called Chandler a “catalyst” in helping the college become a place of innovation, emphasizing that he tapped into the inquisitive energy of his students while making the classroom fun and engaging.

Hardin was reminded of two reporting trips she went on with Chandler: first to Hong Kong in 2015 and then to Rio in 2016. She said he would be up all hours of the night working with students on their projects — and she marveled at how despite his lack of sleep, each morning he was ready with a smile on his face to do it all over again.

“Curt had a way of helping students see the potential in themselves and there’s something magical and transformative about that,” Hardin said. “His indelible mark on the college is his adventurous sense of innovation and a real dedication to the values ​​of journalism.”

Penn State will hold a memorial service for Chandler later this month. As a tribute to Chandler’s legacy, donations can be made to the Bellisario College’s Chandler Grant for Storytelling.

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Curt Chandler and students use Facebook Live to talk to Curt’s Comm 271 Class from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. (Will Yurman) Will Yurman Photo provided

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