Mentor of the Year Paul Stekler Pays It Forward

 

"Mentor of the Year" Pays It Forward

Paul Stekler is a “boffo” mentor, according to Variety. The entertainment-industry trade paper known for its idiosyncratic jargon has picked UT’s Stekler as their Mentor of the Year.

It’s another title for the chair of UT’s Department of Radio-Television-Film (RTF), who also holds the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies. Those titles, too, speak to a successful career as a filmmaker and teacher, but that’s just part of it. Educated at Harvard, Stekler led a previous life as a political science professor at Tulane University and a political pollster in Louisiana before coming to the Forty Acres (where he is also the founder of Center for Politics and Governance at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs).

Then again, those accomplishments aren’t why Variety chose to “hypo” Stekler’s recognition. He took the honor because, as Austin Chronicle and SXSW Festival co-founder Louis Black, MA ’80, told the paper, Stekler is “an amazing communal force.” And one who feels compelled to help young filmmakers.

He can’t help it, really. “We’re surrounded by very energetic students,” Stekler says. Students with big dreams come to UT’s top-ranked RTF department, and he wants to see them get better at their craft. More than anything, he’s impressed by their ideas, and wants to help them learn how to make them reality. Working a sweaty weekend film shoot for his students? Check. Cutting personal checks to filmmakers, like the one he gave to Ben Steinbauer, MFA ’07, to help pump-up (or “hypo”) the cult-hit documentary “Winnebago Man”? Double check.

“What’s the cliché?” Stekler asks. “Pay it forward?”

Stekler isn’t just teaching students how to emulate the masters of documentary film, he’s working to help them find their own style and tell their own stories. Once upon a time, someone did the same thing for Stekler himself.

“I think people in all fields have mentors,” he explains. His was Henry Hampton, the late documentarian and observer of the intersection of media and politics. “Without him, I have no idea what I’d be doing right now.” When Hampton died in 1999, Stekler wrote a memorial piece in Louis Black’s Austin Chronicle.

“…my friend Henry Hampton changed the world in which we live,” he wrote. “And proved that a filmmaker, sometimes, really can change the world, and make it a better place.”

As for himself, Stekler says he was just in the right place at the right time, and that the award speaks volumes about UT. The Moody College’s RTF department is consistently ranked in the top 10, and its scholars and students can flex their muscles on both production and theory. “I think that this is a reflection of just how great UT’s RTF program has gotten,” Sketler argues.

Of course, if he’s adding another title to his résumé, Mentor of the Year isn’t too shabby, Stekler notes: “It’s better to be remembered as somebody who helped a lot of people.”

Wikimedia commons photo courtesy Charlie Llewellin.

 

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