Digital media production program struggles to cope with student death, professor diagnosis

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Students in the Kent State digital media production (DMP) major were struck with two tragedies less than a week apart from each other.

Students rush to and from classes, with textbooks in their arms and film equipment hanging from their shoulders. In such a fast-paced industry, these digital media production majors are learning how to adapt and grow in a filmmaking environment.

One wouldn’t be able to tell in a brief glance at excited laughter and stressed sighs that tragedy struck these halls less than a month ago. If one were to go down the hall towards the offices of DMP Professors, you could notice a room left abandoned; blinds shut, photographs left behind, paperwork unfiled, all left in darkness.

It will stay as such for the rest of the semester. Professor Joe Murray is the name you will read in the plate above it; a name which, for many of his students like Dan Braden, was a beacon for positivity.

“I’ve had Professor Murray in multiple classes,” Braden said. “He’s always been very positive and very encouraging when it comes to, just learning more and getting better at cinematography and stuff like that.”

Murray’s confirmation of his absence for the rest of the semester came as a shock to the majority of his students, such as Brandon Hurst, who received the news via email.

“Actually, Adam Wasserman was one of the producer for shorts, one of the shorts (Kent State University Independent Films) produced last year, and he sent me a snapchat when I woke up and said, ‘Did you hear about Murray,’ and he posted an announcement on Blackboard that gave the news about his quote ‘aggressive form of cancer,’ or as he called it ‘a new challenge,’ which was just brilliant and admirable,” Hurst said.

Murray’s absence has been felt throughout the DMP major, not just for the students here, but for his coworkers as well.

“I was shocked and more than a little worried for him, Joe seems like a very healthy person. Cancer is something that can really affect, any kind of person. Worrying about him and his plans and his family and how they are,” said professor Scott Hallgren.

Hallgren is one of Murray’s closer associates and was one of the first to be told of his diagnosis.

“It was definitely a hard piece of news because there wasn’t much he could tell us at the time and also because it meant that, you know, here he’s gonna be dealing with this and we won’t be seeing him on a regular basis and I think people would like to return the same kind encouragement that he’s given to them,” Hallgren said.

Less than a week after news spread of Murray, film students were struck with yet another tragedy.

“I had a friend reach out to me and basically tell me, ‘Did you hear what happened to Ian?’ and when I first saw that I was like oh like, he’s always been like the diva of the group and like, just like very dramatic in that kinda stuff. And then I was like ‘Oh, what’d he do now,’ like ready to hear the drama, or whatever. And then my friend Mike called me and told me that he had passed away from an overdose.”

Ian Minnick was best known for his role in the band Chil, which got its start here in Ohio.

It took less than a day for news to spread that Minnick, a founding member, had passed away.

“That was hard,” Hallgren said. “It was really, really hard, being a parent and having had Ian in a couple of classes and knowing what his promise was and also knowing what his struggles were and I think … it’s just so disappointing. And it’s so ultimately sad to think that he had so much potential and he’ll never see that now and…now his parents have to bury their son.”

Hurst echoed the hardship.

“We knew, especially with Ian he wouldn’t want to…his death to be sort of a sad thing, we’d want us to appreciate the times we had with him. And I know I saw lots of people posting different stuff. Madison Milhous posted some fun stuff from the set of Fly By Night of him just being a big goofball,” Hurst said.

Madison Milhous is a producer for one of DMP’s television shows, The Agenda, and was one of Minnick’s closer friends. She recalls the moment she and Minnick had met with a smile and a somewhat distant look, reminiscing the past.

“Freshman year when we had all those big lecture classes when you just like, saw all these people, Ian just always stood out cause you know he had the white blond hair whatever, and we always just like, we knew of each other we would like see each other going out or whatever. And then one time I remember, we were both at the same fraternity, and it was like the first time we ever actually spoke one-on-one, he comes up to me he goes, ‘Hey, I know you,’ and I was like ‘okay,’ and I think that was the start of a beautiful and weird friendship that just kinda always was like, in the weirdest places, me and Ian would always find each other,” Milhous said.

These events left shockwaves of grief rippling throughout the DMP major. However, in an environment which thrives on human connection, these students did not allow sorrow to overpower more joyful memories of those who they’ve lost.

“Murray, of course, he’s always been like very positive to like every student and willing to help pretty much anyone with anything. Every person who’s talked to him, especially in DMP, has been like, if you need anything like, you can reach out to him and he’s always willing to like, give a hand or ask someone if they can help them out. Some students got together and we started a GoFundMe for him. A lot of people reached out for him with emails and stuff like that to just see if he’s been doing okay.”

A memorial was held for Minnick a few days after his passing, which Hurst and his friend, Anna Kastas, attended. She recalls the experience.

“Yeah it was a really beautiful memorial,” Kastas said. “It was at a campus. People had to stand because they ran out of seating, Ian impacted so many lives and it was evident to see that. The hardest part was when they showed a slideshow of pictures from Ian’s life. And that was hard because you got to see how he grew up and listened to the music he made. There was just this incredible, talented boy and … he’s gone.”

Upon trying to get in contact with Minnick’s band members, they declined to comment. A few days after conducting these interviews, Murray’s students were greeted with an email from him, as he had been told about the GoFundMe and how his absence had affected the community.

I am optimistic…I am hoping to return to teaching in the intersession if the treatment permits. I don’t know if I am cured just yet—but the thoughtfulness of all of you makes me feel as if I am. : )”

Though these tragedies had been isolated to a specific major within the halls of DMP, Hallgren and one of his students, Matt Ackerman, believe these events have allowed the community to become stronger.

“When you have a bunch of people who are teaching together and learning together and whatnot, it helps because you can share that burden when things like this happen. I think we’ve handled them as a group. And I think that’s a really good thing, and I think we’ve also been there to support each other for those of us who were maybe affected by this differently and I’m grateful for that.”

Stephanie Martzaklis is a Kent State digital media production student. Contact her at [email protected].