Teacher Feature: Dr. John Huxford

Katherine Silkaitis

In a distinct British accent, professor John Huxford conducts the grand tour of his St. Augustine office. Decorated in a style that reflects his professional interests and sophisticated demeanor, it immediately grabs the visitors attention. On display are his treasured original print plates from famous newspaper editions, including a front page from the day President Kennedy died. With a smile, Huxford points to a miniature grandfather clock that plays the Westminster Chimes at the top of the hour, the famous melody of Big Ben in London. Seeing that the hour has already passed, Huxford sings the notes. Finally, he draws attention to the door where a newspaper article titled “Are You Drinking Enough Tea?” is posted.

“I’m slowly trying to turn Americans into tea drinkers, instead of this coffee stuff,” he says.

A new professor this semester in the communication department, Huxford has traveled a long way both geographically and professionally to share his insight and talent with aspiring Villanova journalists. With numerous awards, publications and two decades of journalism experience under his belt, Huxford was selected by the University to offer students a rare firsthand perspective of the field. As Huxford looks through his resume, he seems surprised at its length. “My, have I done all this?” he asks.

Born in Coventry, England in 1956, Huxford is the oldest of three brothers. His hometown, the locale where Lady Godiva rode nude on horseback through town to protest high taxes, did not offer children much excitement.

Forced to find his own means of entertainment, Huxford began to read at a young age. “My mother took me to the [laundromat] as a little kid and I asked her for a comic … and she came back with this American superhero comic,” Huxford says, recalling his dissatisfaction with his mother’s selection. “But then I really got into it. That’s where most of my fascination with America came from … We’d never seen things like pizza, which people in American comics ate. So, America was like this magical world of pizza and superheroes and fire hydrants. You have [above-ground] fire hydrants!”

With a lifelong interest in reading and writing, Huxford was drawn to journalism. However, a journalism career was not always the plan … at least as far as Huxford’s parents were concerned. “My parents wanted me to go work at a car factory which was just down the road. But that meant getting oily hands,” Huxford says, grimacing at the thought. “I had absolutely no ability manually at all and I was just fascinated by journalism.”

Determined to follow his own path at the age of 18, Huxford “did what everybody else in Britain did at that stage” and left school. Eventually, he acquired an apprenticeship with his local newspaper. While rising through the journalism ranks at several local and regional newspapers, he worked as a court reporter, conducted celebrity interviews, wrote theater reviews, worked at the news desk, did feature writing and held several editorial positions. From 1978 to 1980, he even tried his hand at writing strip cartoons, but, “there wasn’t much money there … unless you’re Snoopy,” Huxford recalls.

Looking back, Huxford says the memories that journalism afforded him far outweighed any joy that would have come from spending his days in the car factory. Huxford’s very first assignment, one that he frequently tells his students about, was to report on the strange phenomena of a “hairy pear.” Although he admits it was just some peach fuzz, with an editor in chief looking for something more, he jokingly recalls of story, “Maybe if I was American, I would have gotten the Pulitzer.”

Perhaps the lowest point of Huxford’s 20-year career was running in the London Marathon. Assigned to cover the race from the inside, a well-trained Huxford set out on the 26-mile trek, running alongside several marathon enthusiasts who dressed up as historical figures.

“As I’m running, I’m slowing down, and Charlie Chaplin overtakes me,” Huxford says, shaking his head. “And then, the Wellyphant (a hairy elephant) overtakes me. And then, Gandhi overtakes me pulling a rickshaw. And, when you’ve been overtaken by Gandhi pulling a rickshaw, your heart sort of breaks.”

In 1992, after time healed Huxford’s bruised ego, he found himself missing the university life he chose to pass over so many years ago. So, with money coming in from freelance journalism and not being married, he applied to University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, where he was selected to participate in an elite English and American Literature course. “It was harder to get into than Cambridge or Oxford because it offered a year in America,” he says.

After spending three years studying American literature in England, he traveled in 1995 to America to study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A year later he was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also began to teach.

Huxford says he decided to change careers because after devoting two decades to journalism, he began to find the work repetitive. “I found myself saying, ‘I did this story three years ago somewhere else, and the year before that,'” Huxford admits. “I thought, ‘Good gracious, I am in a rut.'”

After earning his doctorate from Penn’s Annenberg School of Communication this past May, he set out to achieve his goals as a professor. From taking various media classes during his own schooling, he realized that since few classes were taught by those with a background in journalism, most courses did not bring together theoretical insights with an understanding borne of practical experience.

“They had the theory, but they didn’t have the practical and you really need the two to see how [journalism] really works,” Huxford says. “Villanova is starting this [journalism] program from scratch and was wise enough to bring me in to do it in this comprehensive way that will offer both a deep theorethical understanding and practical know-how.”

Of the many lessons that Huxford looks to teach his students in the coming semesters, he says that young journalists must remember, “You still have a life outside of journalism. If you give everything to journalism, it will take it quite happily. It’s an interesting way to live, in many ways a lovely and wonderful way to live. The danger is you wake up 10 years down the line and say, ‘I’ve done nothing but work.’ Somebody who swims underwater every now and again has to come up for air or they drown.”

Although content with his life and career, Huxford admits that he rarely has the free time he advises for young journalists. When he does find a few moments however, he enjoys tuning into PBS “Brit-coms.”

Interestingly, Huxford is also a fan of the long-running, dysfunctional cartoon family, “The Simpsons.” “It’s almost a British comedy,” Huxford says. “It’s sarcastic and cynical with little charming moments.” Having trouble recalling the name of his favorite character on the show, he responds, “The neighbor … okalie, dokalie … Ned Flanders!”

Reflecting on a career that spans 20 years and two continents, Huxford says he does not regret any of the choices he has made along the journey. When asked to envision a life without journalism, in his usual animated manner, he suddenly springs from his seat and calls out to an imaginary worker at the car factory he so narrowly escaped as a teenager, “Will you pass me the wheel nuts and I’ll screw this wheel on … But make sure they’re not oily!”