Sporting a new pair of modern-looking glasses and a dark auburn sweater to match the frames, Dr. David E. Sumner shuffled through his lesson plans 10 minutes before his 2 p.m. class at Ball State University. As students filled the seats of the sunlit classroom, they smiled and complimented his change in eyewear.
“I’m glad some of you have commented on my new glasses,” he said, laughing as he continued. “My wife went 30 minutes last night without noticing.”
He went on to give the Advanced Magazine Writing class a review of the site from which he ordered the glasses. Sumner, or Doc, as students call him, often offers personal anecdotes and advice. The sharing of these bits of wisdom is one of his most beloved traits.
“This is my new look, and I’m happy with it,” Sumner said proudly.
New glasses are not the only change in Sumner’s life. This class period was one of the last in his 25-year career at Ball State. According to The Washington Post, Sumner will join an estimated four million baby boomers retiring this year from the industry he helped shape, leaving it to the next generation.
In his quarter century at Ball State, Sumner has taught students in one of only 20 magazine programs in the nation.
“The magazine sequence would not be here if it weren’t for David,” said assistant professor Brad King, who will become interim coordinator of the magazine media program and advisor for Ball Bearings Magazine. “There has been a chaotic rush to condense writing for online consumption, and he’s faced pressures to fold, but he has kept the program going. As long as I’m here I’ll advocate for the program as well. It makes our journalism program distinct.”
Sumner’s qualifications came from a lifetime of curiosity and interest in the field. He was an early adopter of new technology. He was typing in elementary school, could write 20-words a minute in Morse code and was a certified ham radio operator. His typing skills were known to his classmates at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. For extra money, Sumner would type papers for friends for $1 a page.
His first job in the industry was editor at Interchange Magazine. His wife, Elise Sumner, noted his love of research and encouraged him to become a professor. This suggestion altered the course of his life. While he had taught a class and a few seminars at the University of Tennessee while working on his doctorate, he had never been a full-time professor until he applied to Ball State in 1990.
During his tenure at Ball State, the world changed. He describes the evolution of technology that he has watched over his lifetime as breathtaking. The first class he taught was computer-assisted journalism, which was outdated soon after his arrival.
“Teaching was something different and challenging,” Sumner said. “And I’ve always felt that this work gave me a chance to help people.”
And help people he has, but not in the ways typical of a professor. Sumner said he has informally counseled students who were suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. He felt he had an influence in their decisions not to follow through. Impacting students and being their cheerleader is something Sumner said is most rewarding about teaching.
Students are not the only ones who have benefitted from Sumner’s career at BSU. Sumner said he learns from his students everyday: from their leadership skills, to information in the stories they write, Sumner has never stopped learning.
“That’s been my goal in life,” Sumner said. “To enjoy learning and reading for its own sake, not for something that helps me pass a course or earn a degree.”
Catherine Greis, copywriter for Neiman Marcus and former online managing editor for Ball Bearings Magazine, admired Sumner for his non-stop quest for knowledge and the way he treated students as equals.
She recalled a time when Sumner was writing an article for The Saturday Evening Post and asked students to edit and critique it.
“It was so nice to see a professor who trusted his students with his work,” she said. “It speaks volumes of his character for him to give his work to students so he can continue to learn.”
Sumner’s thirst for knowledge and ever-present curiosity is why he spent 11 years in higher education. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Economics, a master’s in Divinity and another in Theology and Church History, and finally a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. To keep his skills fresh, Sumner continually freelances, and has published an estimated 400-500 articles.
Desire to learn is a trait Sumner wishes his students also had. He said each generation he has taught has been polite and easy to work with, but the millennials are less inclined to interview sources and learn about the world around them.
The dedication he shows his students has taken precedence over almost every obstacle in his life. In 2010, Sumner was diagnosed with male breast cancer, which happens to about one in 1,000 men according to the American Cancer Society.
“I never wanted cancer to define me,” Sumner said. “It was important for me not to miss work. It was a point of personal pride, my way of taking an active role in defeating it. I wasn’t just being a victim.”
In the months that he went through chemotherapy for four hours in the morning on weekdays, he would still be on time for class each day sporting a baseball cap to hide his balding head. He maintained perfect attendance despite his condition. After a while, Sumner shed the hat. He realized his students and colleagues supported him, and his fight was not something that embarrassed him.
“Watching him fight cancer and never miss a class taught me that no circumstance can take away your goal or what you want to do,” Greis said.
Taylor Ellis, assistant editor of Indianapolis Monthly and former editor-in-chief of Ball Bearings Magazine, had a different take away from his example.
“Because he let himself be known, I felt known in the classroom,” she said. “How he interacted with me as a human being, how kind, how patient he was with us when we would continue to make the same mistakes. That’s how I’ll remember him.”
Ellis considered Sumner a champion for his students, teaching them to coach other writers and always help others grow.
Humility is a word that describes Sumner perfectly. In interviews, he chooses not to boast of his accomplishments or promote his legacy. He does not have to speak about himself, though; his colleagues do.
Joe Bernt, a retired journalism professor at Ohio University and long-time colleague of Sumner’s, said “the magazine division has benefited year-in and year-out from David’s leadership and example. He never seeks the limelight…Instead, he makes it easier for others to bask in it.”
Sumner looks toward this transition in his life with excitement. His first goal in retirement is to complete the book he is working on, Million Dollar Fumble. It is the historical recollection of a 1962 college football scandal that resulted in a 10 million libel dollar suit against the publisher of The Saturday Evening Post. Sumner estimates this book will be published in the summer of 2016. He will continue to freelance, turn Million Dollar Fumble into a screenplay and hopes to have a second book in the works within the next few years.
He is also looking forward to slowing down a bit and not working on constant deadlines. Gardening, his exercise and volunteer projects are just a few of his future endeavors in retirement. Sumner has always enjoyed photography, listening to bluegrass music, watching reruns of Hawaii Five-0, roller skating and running.
“I think it’s so important to embrace life, enjoy music and plays, the outdoors, stay optimistic and encouraged, and to live the abundant life that Christ promised,” he said.
Sumner had an immense impact at Ball State University. The program he helped create is nationally accredited and draws students from all over the state and country, which is something Sumner is most proud of. The mark he has left on students and colleagues is even more significant than that of his program.
That is how he would like to be remembered: “a tradition of excellence and always doing my best.” But the most important lesson Sumner has learned, and what he would like to impress upon students, is to remain honest in all facets of life.
For these lessons and countless more, his students thank Doc for his 25 years of unforgettable teaching.