The many rides of Dave Tewksbury

Longtime and well-admired professor retires from the University of Illinois
Dave Tewksbury on the Main Quad with bicycle
Dave Tewksbury on the Main Quad with his Trek bicycle. After more than 27 years on campus, the well-admired teacher, researcher, and administrator has retired. (Photo by Carly Conway.)
How cool is Dave Tewksbury? Very cool, and perhaps freezing, especially if it’s winter, because every day in any weather short of an ice storm the professor commutes to campus on his 15-year-old Trek 7000 bicycle. It’s not the transportation plan one might expect from a native Southern Californian in the Midwest, but then again, Tewksbury has taken quite well to Illinois.

We’re now four sentences into a profile about him, which means that by now everyone who knows Tewksbury is asking: “What about the Chicago Cubs story?” We’ll get to that. It’s a winter morning and Tewksbury sits in his Lincoln Hall office, his bike helmet on the shelf. No ice in the forecast, so in a few hours he’ll be pedaling around potholes on his way home. It’ll be one of the last times.

Tewksbury is retiring and soon he’ll be headed back to California, which, to his many friends and colleagues in Urbana-Champaign, is definitely not cool.

Few professors have had such wide-reaching impact at the U of I as Tewksbury, who arrived on campus in 1996. Aside from his teaching and research duties, he served for several years as head of the Department of Communication and as an associate dean in the College of LAS, helping to oversee both departmental and collegewide operations.

His last leadership stint started in 2017 when he became executive associate dean for LAS. It was a time of leadership change in the dean’s office and steadying hands were necessary; little did anyone know that change unlike any other was coming like a tsunami. Tewksbury served as executive associate dean until 2022, helping to steer the college through the worst days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To Tewksbury, leadership at a university is fundamentally simple. You show interest in people and what they do. Then you help solve their problems. He makes it sound easy, but he did it in a way that people admired.

“Dave has shaped our culture to one in which excellence and respect for others are equally valued,” said John Caughlin, head of the Department of Communication. “He genuinely enjoys the scholarly climate he helped create, and he seems to take the most pleasure in helping others thrive. He has been consistently generous in sharing his time, including working with many graduate students on research and serving as mentor for faculty and myself. Dave went way beyond being a good colleague. He conveyed a genuine interest in those around him, and he made them better.”
Dave Tewksbury teaching
Of all his duties at Illinois, teaching is the role that Dave Tewksbury enjoyed most. This photo is from his earlier days on campus. (Department of Communication.)

“It is an understatement,” Caughlin added, “to say he will be missed.”

Now, about that baseball story. It was October 2015 and the long-faltering Cubs were headed into a wild card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was win or go home. A student in one of Tewksbury’s classes set in motion a soon-to-be-famous email exchange by asking to reschedule his midterm exam so that he could attend the game.

“The universe gives Cubs fans only so many post-season games,” Tewksbury replied. “They must be savored.” He rescheduled the student’s exam, the student shared the exchange on Twitter with the hashtag “myprofessorgetsit,” and the gesture made headlines across the country.

Now, in his office more than seven years later, Tewksbury answers the student’s question again—this time a little older, with the benefit of hindsight.

“Of course I’m going to let you go!” Tewksbury cries. “The baseball gods have given you the chance, you should go!” He shakes his head in disbelief that anyone would consider his decision odd. “Look, I’m pretty much a soft touch. Health reasons, personal reasons, whatever. Makeup exams are standard procedure.”

You may now start to understand why Tewksbury is such a beloved teacher, but his influence on students runs deeper than that. Ryan Hurley (PhD, ’09, communication), a former advisee and now a professor of communication at North Carolina State University, recalled meeting Tewksbury for the first time.

“He looked like Bill Nye the Science Guy,” Hurley said. “He was super smiley. He ended up being a wonderful advisor for my dissertation and my academic father, if you will. He got me through.”

Hurley wasn’t the most organized person when he entered graduate school. He needed some guidance.  

“I didn't know what I was going to do—if I was going to be a coach or a researcher or just a teacher or whatever,” Hurley said. “Dave sort of just let me figure it out, but he pushed me in little directions. And in the end, I couldn't be happier.”

Scott Althaus, professor of communication and Meriam Professor of Political Science and director of the Cline Center for Advanced Social Research, arrived at Illinois the same time as Tewksbury. They were both from Southern California, they had offices next to each other in Lincoln Hall, they dressed alike (khakis and like-colored shirts), and they researched together.

It turns out that Tewksbury is one of the most prominent researchers in his field. Althaus cites a number: 13,907. That was the number of times, as of late January, that Tewksbury’s research—which includes a book and dozens of journal articles, book chapters, and other publications exploring how people consume news and information—has been cited by other researchers.

“The typical scholarly publication, if it gets cited twice, that's probably average,” Althaus said. “And so that number is pretty amazing. That’s the kind of impact that Dave has had.”  

One of Tewksbury’s favorite research projects was a landmark study that he conducted with Althaus in the late 1990s. They asked two groups to read the news for a week; one group read the print version of The New York Times and the other read the online version. They found that the print readers knew more details about the stories they read, but that online readers were aware of a greater number of stories.

“If you want to know anything about what’s going on in the world, print is better, we found,” Tewksbury said. “If you just want to get a smattering of what’s going on in the world, the online environment is just fine.”

Teaching, however, has always been paramount to Tewksbury. His eyes light up when he tells teaching stories; there was the time he was caught in a rainstorm right before class only to realize, as he stood in front of his students, that wet khakis are virtually see-though (“You were wondering, briefs or boxers? Now you know,” he said to peals of laughter). Then there was the time when he kept teaching through a tornado siren until someone arrived and ordered them all to the basement (“Come on, this is Illinois!”).  

“Helping someone else,” Tewksbury said, “is the most fundamental thing.”

He seems natural at his job, but there was a time when he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He was in his 20s, “monkeying around” after earning his undergraduate degree at Occidental College, he said, working in the financial aid office at the University of Southern California. One day he saw an admissions officer at the door.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I just met this beautiful woman,” Tewksbury recalled. It was his future wife, Risa, who accompanied him as he earned his graduate degrees and joined the faculty at Illinois. They raised two children, Neil and Maggie, now in their 20s. Risa remained employed at USC the entire time, working remotely, and remains employed there still. Now the couple is headed back to where they met.  

Tewksbury leaves with warm feelings for Illinois, ice storms and all. He’s been involved in so many facets of the university that it’s hard for him to summarize his career in one statement. Finally he lands on this:

“If there are people on campus who aren’t cool,” he said, “I’ve never met them.”

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Dave Evensen