Bob de Maria, W&L Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications Emeritus, Dies at 79 De Maria, a longtime professor and manager of the university’s radio station and television studio, was a beloved mentor to students and a cherished colleague and friend to many in the university community.
Robert J. “Bob” de Maria, professor of journalism and mass communications emeritus at Washington and Lee University, died Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Lexington, Virginia. He was 79.
De Maria, affectionately known by legions of friends, colleagues and students as “de,” was a much beloved member of the W&L faculty for 36 years. In addition to teaching courses in documentary filmmaking, broadcast journalism, radio management and other topics, he served as a longtime faculty advisor for the university radio station, WLUR; faculty general manager of the university’s television production facility and public access channel; and instructor of programs such as Summer Scholars and Alumni College.
Upon hearing of de Maria’s death this week, a staggering number of admirers, including dozens of former students, flooded his family with telephone calls and social media messages, expressing their deep appreciation for his impact on their lives.
“We’ve been getting phone calls from all over the world,” said his daughter, Sarah Mayo. “It’s truly overwhelming, but it’s filling all of our hearts with love. We feel him all around us.”
Born in Rochester, New York, on June 14, 1943, de Maria went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in literature from St. John Fisher College and a master’s in public communication from The Newhouse School at Syracuse University. During the 1970s, he spent several years working in television and radio, including stints at General Electric Cablevision in Biloxi, Mississippi; WHOC in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and WCBI-TV in Columbus, Mississippi. He also was an adjunct professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, and a tribal documentarian and communications consultant for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
In 1974, de Maria became an instructor of communications media and director of the Media Center at the Mississippi University for Women. He and his family moved to Lexington, Virginia, in 1977, at which time he took a job as a professor in W&L’s Journalism Department. In that capacity, he inspired students and faculty as an engaging educator, caring adviser and supportive colleague.
“For his students, advisees and colleagues, he was the listening ear and the compassionate friend,” said Dayo Abah, professor of journalism and head of W&L’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. “Many students gave him credit for helping them graduate from our program because he was comfortable with bearing both good and bad news, and they listened to him in a way that they might not have listened to others because they trusted him. As a colleague, he was supportive and friendly, always willing to help out in any way he could.”
Retired W&L Journalism Professor Pam Luecke said de Maria captivated students in the classroom by illustrating his lessons with colorful stories. When she invited him to her Journalism 101 class to talk about radio, he played clips of Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from the rooftops of London during the Blitz and instructed students to listen with their eyes closed. “He understood that this was a generation of students who really didn’t grow up with that kind of radio, and he wanted them to really feel the power of the spoken word,” Luecke said.
As effective as he was in the classroom, his real strength was working one-on-one with students, particularly at the radio station or in the television studio, said Brian Richardson, professor of journalism and mass communications emeritus. De Maria had an impact on many students who never took a single journalism class because of his work in those areas.
“He was very hands-on,” Richardson said. “He had nicknames for most of the kids, which they cherished. Everyone talked about what a kind, giving, caring person he was. Sometimes it was tough love. They knew he was not happy, but they realized they screwed up. Nobody caught a ration from him unjustifiably. They knew if he came down on them they’d better sit up and take notice. He did so much teaching outside the classroom.”
Countless people were charmed by de Maria’s sense of humor, too, and what Luecke called “a twinkle in his eye all the time and a little sense of mischief.” Richardson recalled that de Maria was so accommodating that he often had trouble saying no when someone came to him for help. Once, in the middle of a lecture, de Maria knocked on Richardson’s classroom door with two students in tow and interrupted to ask if Richardson could advise the women about how to evict a skunk from the basement of their off-campus home.
“He always made time for people,” said Melissa Cox, retired administrative assistant for the Journalism Department. “He was very down-to-earth, he had no airs of superiority, he was just a guy that you would be very comfortable spending time with, and you didn’t have to prove anything to him to be his friend.”
De Maria also was a prolific media producer during his lifetime. His films included “New Orleans: A Place Nobody Knows” about volunteers who helped in the clean-up following Hurricane Katrina; “Lee: Beyond the Battles”; films about Rockbridge County and Lexington; and video productions about W&L’s Mock Convention, Honor System and architecture.
He was a member of multiple professional organizations, including the Virginia Association of Broadcast Editors, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, National Association of Broadcasters, and American Film Institute. He also was heavily involved in his community, serving on the board of directors of Lime Kiln, as president of the Lexington-Rockbridge Chamber of Commerce, and in multiple capacities with his church, Grace Episcopal. His work both at W&L and in the community resulted in a number of honors and awards, including W&L’s W.W. Pusey Award and recognition for Best Documentary from the National Cable Television Association.
When he retired from W&L in 2013, de Maria’s colleagues threw a celebration that attracted so many guests that it had to be moved to the Pavilion on campus. It was attended by alumni from all over the country – and some from around the world – many of whom described him as a father figure and mentor. The broadcasting studio in Reid Hall, home to the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, was named for de Maria, and former students established an endowment in his name to provide scholarships for student internships.
“I think his biggest legacy is the students he taught,” Luecke said. “I know for a fact that he changed dozens of lives just by his support, and he probably helped many people remain at W&L, graduate from W&L and go on to have wonderful careers.”
De Maria is survived by his wife, Lynda de Maria; daughter Sarah Mayo (Mike); stepson Aaron Renfro (Margo); and six grandchildren. The family will hold a private graveside service in the coming days and a celebration of life event in the coming months. Information about the public memorial service will be provided at a later date.