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Rediscovering the magic of National Geographic

Kathleen McQullan
Posted 2/11/20

When my father died in 1959, the impact upon my family resulted in many of the predictable challenges when a loss of that nature occurs. As is common, our family was thrust into greater financial …

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Rediscovering the magic of National Geographic

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When my father died in 1959, the impact upon my family resulted in many of the predictable challenges when a loss of that nature occurs. As is common, our family was thrust into greater financial uncertainty. It would be a long time before we’d be counted among the middle class. It wasn’t long after my mother had graduated from Redford High School with the Class of 1945 that she met and married my father. (He was one of the few men around who hadn’t been drafted into the nation’s war effort to stop Hitler’s Army. His ineligibility was due to a childhood disease that had left him with long-lasting effects.) Thirteen years later she found herself widowed with three young children. And with only a high school education, she entered the workforce on the bottom rung of the proverbial economic ladder.
For me and my siblings, elementary school became a big source of information and support. Our teachers took us under their wings and became a major influence on our early development. Then, in 1962 something very special happened. Each month, a magazine wrapped in plain brown paper and addressed to “Karen, Mike and Kathy McQuillan” began arriving in our mailbox! We learned it was a gift from our “Grandma and Grandpa Mac,” something more exciting than anything we could have imagined!
The cover format was unassuming. Using only text framed in gold, “National Geographic Magazine” arched boldly across the cover in ornately styled lettering. But the nondescript cover belied what was inside. Brilliant photographic images and spellbinding stories of far-away places and the people who lived there. So began my introduction to a new and magnificent world.
My curious mind was regularly refueled by brave strangers on expeditions to foreign countries, reporting back on the exciting things they discovered there. I never questioned “the source” for things like accuracy or bias. My still-developing brain was just feverishly inquisitive, hungry for knowledge and absorbing every tidbit of information it could. My mother, bless her heart, created a repository in a small hall closet and kept stacking volume after volume for only god knew what purpose.
Then lo, on my eighth birthday, Mom handed me a black three-ring binder, complete with alphabetical dividers. “My job,” she explained, was to “categorize each article by its subject and create a directory of all those stories, back to our very first issue!” Thus, National Geographic became an ad hoc encyclopedia, available for our homework assignments, any complaints of boredom and answers to the many questions for which my mother lacked a response. Back then it was a trusted resource. Only much later would questions arise regarding its “correctness.” New technologies coupled with growing respect for diversity would create a broader array of informational resources and cultural perspectives. National Geographic became subject to serious scrutiny regarding its biases and “blind spots.” Many abandoned this once popular magazine, turning to alternative sources that in the final decades of the 20th century included the “world wide web”!
A few years ago I listened to a lengthy interview with National Geographic’s newest Editorial Director, Susan Goldberg. She’d taken the reins in 2015. Goldberg acknowledged the criticisms directed at this iconic publication, admitting that changes were necessary and forthcoming. She expressed enthusiastic commitment to a new focus and format. By recent reports, it appears her vision has paid off. I’ve learned that the magazine received the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for both journalistic and and photographic excellence.
In December 2018, I was stumped over what to put under the tree for my twelve-year-old grandson. I recalled the interview with Goldberg and decided to give Bradley a subscription to National Geographic. While ordering his subscription, I decided to gift myself with the same. That way we’d have new things to talk about when we were together! I knew this kind of present would be competing for his attention, but I felt confident that once it started arriving, he’d surely find something interesting between those covers, just as I once had. How could he not be “wowed” by those outstanding photographs? Yes, the world is a different place now. Young people know so much more than I did. “But still,” I thought, “I’ll give it a try.”
Thankfully, I’m able to think critically now about what I see and read. I’m aware when I browse high-end messaging by Dow Chemical about “the future of plastics” or Grumman Corporation, knowing full well that they make much more than just canoes. I know that these major sources of funding support much of the magazine’s content. But I still peruse its work with awe, and still believe in its value, nonetheless. There is something special about the way National Geographic presents information, pulling together in one issue multiple facets and perspectives on a given theme, capturing the tangible and the lesser tangible elements of some very important stories.
Now, nearly sixty years later, I still vividly recall combing through hundreds of articles to list in my three-ring notebook, subjects from “A” to “Z” on topics as diverse as Appalachia, Algeria, auks and amoebas, Zanzibar, Zambia, zebras or Zoroastrianism — a cornucopia for the imagination and our understanding. There’s also a lot to be said for its longevity and relevance, as well as its power to move us closer to places we may never see and people we may never meet. And then there’s Mom? I’d say… genius!
[This article was inspired after reading, cover to cover, the August 2019 edition devoted to the theme of human migration, prehistoric to present day.]

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