Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

Tommie Storyteller Searches for Truth and Justice

Usually the one asking questions, it is time for Dr. Mark Neuzil to have his story told. Standing in the new Schoenecker Center as a member of the Emerging Media faculty, he is surrounded by a reminder of the progress seen by the university he calls home.

The retiring professor worked as an environmental journalist and print reporter at the Associated Press when he began teaching at the University of St. Thomas in 1993. Why teach? For Neuzil, seeing students develop as people and professionals is a meaningful experience.

“(Watching students) come in as a freshman, really excited about (starting college), and seeing how they progress through four years of training and experience and work and internships and classes. That’s very rewarding. And knowing that I had a little bit to do with that,” he said with a smirk.

Feature video produced by Abraham Swee/University of St. Thomas

The love seems to be reciprocal. Students light up when they see the tall Iowa native walk down the well-lit hall of the Schoenecker Center. Sam Larson ’24 cited a preliminary meeting with the professor as a main reason for him choosing to attend St. Thomas.

“Mark has been as influential a professor as I could have asked for,” Larson said.

While Neuzil’s passion for teaching is clear, his interests extend beyond the classroom.

Passionate about European culture, Neuzil, in fall 2021, took on being the director of the Rome Empower Program on the St. Thomas Bernardi Campus in Rome. He said that guiding students on a transformational semester abroad creates meaningful connections.

Larson, who participated in the Rome Empower Program, said, “I’m grateful to call him a friend and I’ll always treasure the time in Rome.”

In honor of being named Professor of the Year in 2013, Mark Neuzil posed for a portrait in the former TV studio of O'Shaughnessy Educational Center. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

Always a journalist

Once a journalist, always a journalist. That’s been the truth for Neuzil, who never gave up on his writing. Media and news have seen dramatic changes since the invention of the World Wide Web near the start of his career and the recent popularization of social media. Neuzil said continuing as a freelance journalist has been a way to stay up to date with the craft, something he brings with him to the classroom. Working for outlets like the Associated Press and the Star Tribune, he brought real-world experience into courses like Journalism and Media Ethics, Environmental Journalism and Intro to Mass Media.

Peter Gregg, chair of the Department of Emerging Media, described the impact Neuzil has had on the four-year-old department as massive since its transition from being the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“He was the first chair of the Emerging Media Department, steered us through the COVID-19 pandemic, and led the department in the planning of our new home in the Schoenecker Center. That doesn’t even touch on all the work he’s done with our curriculum and with advising students in Tommie Media,” Gregg said.

When asked about the art of journalism, Neuzil’s eyes light up. “There are so many ways to tell a story. That’s the rewarding part,” he said.

Passion can be contagious. Beyond inspiring students for careers in the field, he raised a daughter who followed in his footsteps. Elena Neuzil ’17 works as a letter and copy editor for the editorial pages division at the Star Tribune. “She’s in the family business,” he joked. His wife, Amy Kuebelbeck, is a night copy editor at the paper. His other daughter, Maria, received her bachelor's degree in physics and applied mathematics at St. Thomas in 2020, and is now a graduate student in physics at the University of Minnesota.

Advocacy, passion and a love of people

Articles are not the only thing Mark Neuzil has published; he has written or co-written eight books, three of which received prestigious awards, including the 2016 book Canoes: A Natural History in North America that he co-authored with fellow canoe enthusiast Norman Sims. Neuzil, who canoed with his dad since early childhood, said the sport has been a way of connecting with the natural world around him.

Professor Mark Neuzil poses in his handmade wooden canoe on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. (Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas)

Ever-winding rivers and emerald woods color the next phase of his life. Future endeavors for this forever-an environmental-journalist at heart include writing another book and developing a podcast about nature. “And putz around in the garage, can’t forget about that,” he joked. Retirement certainly doesn’t sound like it will be boring.

Idleness in the face of injustice has never been an option for Neuzil. When Russia launched a brutal invasion of Ukraine, he felt a call to action. Staying engaged, he has given presentations on the topic, trying to rally attention to the Ukrainian fight for freedom.

“I think it’s a topic that should engage everybody. Russia is not going to stop in Ukraine, and they’ll get whatever they can get. People should be thinking about that and talking about it, discussing what to do, how to respond, how to react,” he said.

A small liberal democracy against a massive authoritarian force. Having Czech heritage himself, the injustice felt close to home. Passionate in his beliefs, Neuzil believes standing up to injustice is a responsibility everyone shares.

Advocacy and passion never fail to inspire. His colleague Gregg described Neuzil’s lasting impact on an entire community of students and faculty.

“Mark has always been a good, thoughtful listener and strong advocate for colleagues and students, not just within the department but throughout the university,” Gregg said.

Neuzil talks with students at an end of the school year event in the Anderson Student Center on May 20, 2024, in St. Paul. Neuzil is retiring after three decades at the University of St. Thomas. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

In 2020, the University of St. Thomas recognized Neuzil’s contributions and accomplishments by bestowing him with the John Ireland Presidential Award for Outstanding Achievement as a Teacher-Scholar for 2019. He also was voted Professor of the Year by his peers in 2013, recognized as a Fulbright Scholar in 2017 and named the Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota-Morris in spring 2018.

Exploring his life and career, one theme seems to be recurring: his love for people. In a world full of hopes, aspirations, dreams and accomplishments, Neuzil sees uniqueness and stories to be told.

“I firmly believe that everybody has a story to tell. You may not really realize it or you may think that’s kind of boring, nobody cares. But I think that’s probably not true. If you think about your life, there’s probably a story there somewhere. The fun part is drawing it out, putting a structure around it, and making it into a narrative that people are interested in,” he said.

Neuzil hopes students dare to be their authentic selves. Impulses and opinions from friends and relatives can pressure decisions. However, it’s uniqueness and individuality that define us. He believes it’s key for everyone to pursue their passions, finding a life where waking up in the morning provides a sense of excitement.

Neuzil is certain when summarizing his advice for students.

“Be true to yourself,” he said.

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