Dr. Mac: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

J. Sean McCleneghan, affectionately known as Dr. Mac by the hundreds of student lives he touched as a Journalism and Mass Communications professor at New Mexico State University, knew he had entered the right field when he covered the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in 1965. As a recently out of college full-time reporter for The Visalia Times-Delta, Dr. Mac remembers being scared and intimidated by the assignment.

“The Visalia Army National Guard and other California Army National Guard troops were rushed into action in support of police to stop six days of looting and arson resulting in 34 deaths and $40 million in property damage,” he said. “An Army National Guard Capt. prohibited me from taking flash bulb pictures at night because there was rumored sniper activity during the Watts urban unrest. I’ll never forget that assignment.”

Now 74 and retired as of spring 2014 after a satisfying career cocktail in journalism, public relations and academia, Dr. Mac describes a settled life in the West Lake suburb of Augusta, Ga., where he is tending to the health of his mother-in-law and renovating his 30-year old home alongside his wife, a native of Augusta. While running headfirst into dangerous reporting situations may be a thing of the past, Dr. Mac has taken on more tranquil physical activities, such as walking or running 21 miles per week, light weight-lifting, some body-weight exercises and making use of his self-described ‘NBA basketball hoop setup’ that came with the house.

“ I enjoy basketball shooting,” he said. “I was on the varsity basketball team in high school. It beats playing golf.”

Somewhere between the two extremes, Dr. Mac fell in love with academia and helping his students, famously referred to as ‘young people’ on the long path to career satisfaction.

“It’s not about media or professional accomplishments after college,” Dr. Mac said. “What’s important is finding happiness with the ones you love and earning ‘little victories’ in everyday life. Remember there are always going to be speed bumps in the ‘circle of life.”

Following a NMSU national search that took place in 1982, Dr. Mac was brought on board as the department head for NMSU’s Journalism and Mass Communications program and the Center for Broadcasting, a position which saw him lead for 12 years, continuing with full-time teaching until his 2014 retirement with the rank of Distinguished Achievement Emeritus Professor.

“I wish I could have started earlier in the ‘paper chase’ to become a college-level full professor,” he said. “I did not earn my master’s degree from the University of North Texas until I was 31, and I did not earn my Ph.D. from the University of Texas [at Austin] until I was 39. On the other hand, I was able to earn more ‘commercial media’ experience during those five years to support my journalism higher education career.”

Dr. Mac receiving his Ph.D. from UT Austin, a moment he described as the biggest reward in his higher education career

It is those five years that prepared Dr. Mac with the field personal experience necessary to teach students about the real world of journalism and public relations. His background across the board in all forms of journalism, along with his grandfatherly, loving presence within the classroom have made him a legend throughout NMSU journalism building Milton Hall’s hallways.

“The thing about Dr. Mac is he was always your number one supporter,” spring 2015 graduate Sam Horstman said. “You could ask for his help and without hesitation he would be willing to help you out. He is like a sports coach, always giving you the perfect pep talk before the big game.”

Universally remembered for his smile, bright blue eyes and determined strut down the hallway while wearing a colorful lilac v-neck sweater with a button-down underneath, Dr. Mac underestimates the power of his 32-year stint at NMSU.

“I don’t think I left behind any ‘NMSU legacy,’” he said, but student responses following his retirement announcement disagree with that statement.

“I was distraught and the idea of him not being there for my last year at NMSU was unreal,” Horstman said. “I had just spoken to him a couple days before to check in with him. What really touched me is all the past students that came out and shared stories of him- to learn about his impact he had made me appreciate the time I had him as my professor and mentor.”

NMSU 2012 graduate Isabel Rodriguez agreed. “My reaction was relief that I was able to meet him during his time at NMSU,” she said. “I also think his retirement was, unfortunately, a huge loss to the journalism department and to future students.”

Rodriguez fondly remembers Dr. Mac’s enthusiasm whenever one of his students gave an impressive answer in class. His trademark use of  ‘young man’ and ‘young lady’ when trying to make a point remain with her to this day.  

As the last batch of NMSU students that had the honor to learn under him nears graduation, the memory of Dr. Mac’s years with the university still spreads through professors, alumni and current students that have heard the legends. As for Dr. Mac, he has a message for the students nearing the end of their time in school.

“I hope each one will make ‘good decisions’ at critical crossroads in their young lives,” Dr. Mac said. “It’s so easy to make a wrong decision with the ‘bad stuff’ out there in today’s world.”