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I want to take a moment to move away from my usual topics to speak about the passing of a really great man. You’ve probably never heard of him unless you were a military brat who went to school in the Philippines or Japan.
Vernon Harmelink was a great teacher, editor, and friend.
You see that sentence, above? I could have started it with “the great teacher Vernon Harmelink” or “A fine teacher, Vernon Harmelink,” but I didn’t. There’s a reason for that. Mr. Harmelink, my high school Journalism teacher, taught us never to start a paragraph or a lead with the words “a, an, the, or on.” Vernon Harmelink was a genius. “It’s lazy,” he said. He ensured that people used active voice, and didn’t use stilted language, by forcing them to think about saying things without using unnecessary words. I learned today that the man who taught me so much about the craft of writing — things that I still use every day — passed away a few days ago. It brought back some great memories, and at the same time, I know his wife, also one of my teachers, is hurting.
Vernon Harmelink was an English teacher at the Department of Defense Dependent School at Clark Air Base, Philippines, when I was in high school. Wagner High had the children of sergeants and generals all in the same place. It had its problems, but it also had a cadre of exceptional teachers. Mr. Harmelink made me an alternating editor of the Falcon Crier newspaper in my junior year – duties I shared with a senior – in the hopes that I would take over as the permanent editor in my senior year. For reasons both good and tragic, that didn’t happen. But what he taught me about the craft of writing and the ethics of journalism remain today. I can’t help thinking that this past year must have been physically painful for him, seeing the people who purport to be journalists breaking every ethical rule of the profession.
Dary Matera, another Harmelink student and published author, and I both have published books on the market. Matera’s tribute to Wagner High School and coming of age in the Philippines called MacArthur’s Children, is available on Kindle and is a great read. It gives you the flavor of how good Mr. Harmelink was at spotting good writers and molding that raw talent into greatness.
Until I read his obituary today, I had no idea that he was in the Navy, or that he served in the Korean War. I had no idea that he was a reservist even while serving in the DOD Schools. He was a quiet, private man, except when it came to one thing. He loved his wife Sondra.
Often calling her Sandy, he frequently told the story of how the two of them, both teachers, met. They found each other in front of the Taj Mahal. How perfectly poetic that a structure built as a testament to love would be the foundation upon which those two special people met and married.
Mrs. Harmelink (we never called her by her first name) was a good teacher that I recall being a bit strict. I’m sure if she recalls me at all she recalls a smart alec who could not keep his mouth shut. She must have wondered what her husband saw in me.
“The secret of writing,” Vernon Harmelink said, “is to write down what people need to know. Just write. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar, or any of that. Just write. Tell the story.” Mouths dropped open when he said that. Then he added: “then edit that work mercilessly until it’s perfect.”
When we put out the Falcon Crier in the perpetual summer that was the Philippines, we went to a place called Mepa Press. Mepa Press had an honest-to-goodness Linotype machine, the kind of thing that produced lead slugs of type that were then run off to make the newspaper. We often would edit a page of the paper six or seven times trying to correct the errors on a page. Every time we fixed one thing, the dyslexic Filipinos operating the Linotype would inject another, different one. Sometimes it would take ten different edits to get a page right. We went to Mepa Press at 4 p.m. and the six or seven students who went with Mr. Harmelink would often stay up well past 4 a.m. trying to get the paper perfect. Then Mr. Harmelink would drive us back to the airbase and see that we got to our houses. No one ever felt anything but love for Mr. Harmelink.
Mr. Harmelink liked what I wrote for the most part, and did little editing on it. Then he taught me how to edit. “You have to be careful that you don’t make everything sound like you,” he said. “Just take out the bad parts.” I struggle with that even today. I’m happy to write a 50-page brief without any help, just don’t ask me to edit someone else’s work. My brain goes numb.
One of Mr. Harmelink’s greatest gifts to me, however, was simply making sure I understood how to write simple declarative sentences in active voice. Early in my career in the Army, I worked for a major who couldn’t write in active voice if he tried. Having been trained to fog, so as not to apportion or accept blame by an Army that lived for that very purpose, his writing was always longer than it needed to be. If he had to communicate “the enemy is attacking” he would write “an attack by the combatants against whom we are engaged appears to be commencing.” If four words were good, then fourteen were even better! Try as I might, I could never get that major to see the beauty in writing simple declarative sentences. And for a while, after I got out of the Army, I found myself doing it.
It saddens me beyond words that Mr. Harmelink has gone to his reward. But surely God needs a great editor, and there are very few of them these days. I will remember Vernon Harmelink as a man of conviction. He believed good writing could change minds, open doors, and improve society. He believed that accuracy was the most important part of any story, and that balance was best achieved by practicing the Golden Rule.
Hundreds of teachers touch lives every day. So many of them never know just how special they really were to their students. When I learned that Mr. Harmelink had moved from the Philippines to Japan, I sent him a letter and thanked him for all he taught me. I never heard back from him, but I do so hope he got it. He touched my life, and he changed it too. I hope God has a wonderful place set aside for him in Heaven. Rest in peace, sir.Published in