Memories of Ronald Alexander

Ronald Alexander
Ronald Alexander, 1923-2017
  • Ronald Alexander, professor emeritus of communication, dead at 94, Stanford Report
    Ronald Alexander was best known for his attention to detail and dedication to his students. The professor emeritus of communication had a distinguished career at the National Film Board of Canada before joining the Stanford faculty in 1970.

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5 thoughts on “Memories of Ronald Alexander

  1. Ron Alexander was a brilliant, kind and inspiring teacher. When I took the undergraduate class in filmmaking as an elective course in 1972, he and Ricardo Diaz created a vital, work intensive and challenging class which took everything a student had in them. It was through these two men that I really got to understand film as a meta art form containing all the other arts. My undergrad degree was in music, and Ron’s immense sensitivity to music and sound challenged even us poor, novice filmmakers to create exquisitely crafted and detailed soundtracks to our meagre burnt offerings…sound tracks which by their sophistication and attention to detail far exceeded the quality of the rest of our work! I remember the many many pre mix downs we did to create a layered, subtle soundtrack, and how vital it was to the quality of the finished piece. He would work as many hours as it would take, sometimes on into the night, to help us finish our tracks. I was so inspired by this work, and particularly by Ron, that I jumped many high hurdles to be accepted into the graduate film program, for the chance to learn from this wise, kind, and always gently humorous man. I later learned that this level of attention to sound was not the norm in University film programs. It stood me in good stead. In later work for CBS and others, I brought those skills into post, and never forgot the attention to detail I learned from Ron Alexander. That’s how art happens, and that’s what he taught us.

  2. I can’t begin to count the things Ron taught me as a graduate student (1979-83), all with a gentle life lesson. Self-sufficiency by learning to solder my own audio box wires; problem-solving by doing crossword puzzles sitting together under the big oak tree; how the details add up to a much greater whole through sound design and operating the Mixing Board; that there is always room for innovation, wow, that Cue Vue! And, most of all, the importance of navigating the world with kindness and humor, even when the going gets tough. On every documentary I’ve made, there always seemed to be a point when I thought of Ron. When I began teaching at American University in Washington DC some 12 years ago, Ron was the paragon I strove for. A mentor, a sage, and an inspiration. About six years ago, he visited DC for the celebration of the installation of his cousin’s sculpture. As we strolled to a restaurant to catch up over dinner, he smiled and said, ‘I’m glad you’ve finally learned to slow down.” I realized that maybe I finally learned the most important Ron lesson of all. That, and of course, doing daily crosswords.

    He left me with a piece of advice he given me many times before, one that I still struggle to follow. Slow down!

  3. I feel incredibly lucky to have had Ron first as my graduate teacher (1981-84) and eventually as my friend. When I started out my studies, I was clueless and somewhat spoiled, used to getting by with the minimum of effort. He showed me that, to create something worthwhile, the details really mattered. It was a life lesson that I am still applying in my company.

    When I think of Ron, I see his gentle humor, natural grace, kindness and never-ending calm (did anyone ever see him flustered?) No wonder so many of his students came from all over the world to celebrate him and his 80th birthday. I loved hearing about his life – when he was a porter on the train as a young man. or visiting a cousin who passed for white who could not let him into his house for fear of being found out. Or when he was the only cameraman of color during two of Queen Elizabeth’s visits to North America. He got the train to stop close to North Buxton, so that his mother could come and have tea on the Queen’s train. I am quite certain that on her second trip, the Queen must have looked out at the press corps and thought to herself “there is that tall handsome fellow again.”

    I last saw Ron this winter, when we brought pizza to his house for dinner – and he showed us a gentle comedic documentary about North Buxton – till then a nearly mythical place to me. The piece even included shots of the outside and inside of the schoolhouse, where Ron’s father taught and Ron learned. It’s now up to us, his students, to carry on their example of treating others with the kindness and grace of Ron Alexander.

  4. It has been over 30 years since I studied documentary film at Stanford. Like many who learned their craft from Ron I’ve tried to incorporate the wisdom he passed on into every project I’ve undertaken. I stayed in touch with him over the years through phone calls and visits. I last saw him after my car was stolen the first night it arrived in San Francisco. It was located 13 days later.

    Ron would probably be amused that the memory I want to share of him starts with the return of my stolen car. But in fact on September 19, 2016, the first thing I did after my car was located was to call him and say I wanted to celebrate my regained travel freedom and ask would he be up for lunch. He was. So I drove to Menlo Park. We headed over to Bianchini’s Market for sandwiches and then settled in for a nice talk on the deck.

    It was a memorable conversation because somehow we got around to the subject of creativity, especially his. He stated he was the least creative person he knew. I was stunned into silence having benefited greatly from his genius marrying picture, sound and music. He insisted he was only a technician and had no creative ability at all. I actually laughed out loud. That was another of Ron’s charms; he was truly humble.

    On a less serious note another gift he gave me was a quick way to solve Jumble puzzles. He said put the letters in a circle, you’ll see the word immediately. I did and still do. Unfortunately he didn’t share his secret to solving New York Times crossword puzzles in record time.

    He was important to me for so long. I miss him.

  5. Page Konrad’s comment about Ron saying he wasn’t creative reminded me of a conversation he and I had about why he’d never made a movie himself. He said he was too much of a perfectionist. If it couldn’t be perfect he didn’t want to do it. His advice to us, on the other hand, was that perfection was fine in the abstract but impossible to achieve; creating a very good film should be the aim.

    Finishing up the edit on “Satellite House Call,” my thesis film about health care in bush Alaska, I was futzing with sound effects for the end-title sequence: an Athabascan woman doing laundry in a wringer-washer outside her cabin. It was all there, all those wonderful sounds I’d cut in: the clanky old motor, the wash water sloshing around, the dogs barking in the distance. But something wasn’t right. Ron wouldn’t tell me what it was but he agreed that something was wrong. Finally I said, “Maybe it doesn’t need sound effects. Maybe what it needs is music.” He nodded. And it was the right thing to do. I’ll never forget that. He taught not by hammering his own point of view, but by allowing students’ intuitive understandings to rise into consciousness. Such restraint! Such subtlety. I’ve never forgotten that lesson: Maybe what a sequence needs is less, not more.

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