Saturday Night Live. Goldman Sachs. The White House. The Orlando Sentinel. Vanderbilt University. The U.S. Army and Navy. IBM. And now, the University of Richmond.

Sitting at his desk in a simple corner office in the Robins School of Business, Frederick Talbott lists off just a few of the places he has worked as an attorney, professor, investigative journalist, mediator, humorist, author, consultant, lecturer and more.

As a visiting professor of business communications at the E. Claiborne Robins School of Business, Talbott came to teach at UR for just one year, but accepted an invitation to come back for a second. He is now wrapping up his fourth semester of inspiring UR students by bringing his unique perspective, experiences and empathy into the classroom.

Lizzie Andre, a sophomore who took Talbott's class last year, spoke of his devotion to knowing each of his students individually and taking time to encourage them in class or even through email correspondences.

“I would send him an email about the homework and he would respond like, 'You're such an incredible person, these are your strengths, this is what I admire about you. But also, here's the homework,'" she said. "Every email turned into a motivational conversation."

Talbott, a native of Petersburg, Virginia, initially studied journalism at Florida Southern College, then attended law school at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He began teaching night classes at a community college nearby to pay for his educational and living expenses.

Talbott also spent many years as an investigative journalist working at the Orlando Sentinel and the Virginian-Pilot.

He later taught journalism at Old Dominion College, and then leadership communications and public speaking at Vanderbilt University. Talbott said he always enjoyed humor, and taught stand-up comedy classes while he had been working at Old Dominion.

Talbott contributed material to NBC’s Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” and, by special request, he once spent a day teaching humor writing to George H.W. Bush’s White House speech writing team, he said.

“Then, the head speech writer, we talked every week, and I helped write some of the speeches he was writing for the president," Talbott said. “That was pretty cool for a guy from Petersburg."

As a professor at UR, Talbott has made a lasting impression in a short time by extending his business-communications curriculum beyond the textbooks and creating the Empathy Project.

From the beginning, Talbott said he knew he wanted to incorporate local historical figures into his course because of Richmond's rich history. The four he had in mind were patriot Patrick Henry, poet Edgar Allen Poe, Pocahontas and Maggie Walker, an African American and the first woman to charter a bank in the United States. 

The week Talbott started teaching at UR in August 2016, a photo of Omran Daqneesh was on the front page of every newspaper. Daqneesh, 5-year-old boy injured in a bomb explosion in Aleppo, Syria, was covered in dust and blood in the photo.

“When Omran’s picture showed, it all came together,” Talbott said, pointing to an Empathy Project poster which displayed photos of Daqneesh, Henry, Poe, Walker and Pocahontas. 

“I realized everything every one of them did: [Daqneesh] calling for his brother. [Poe] channeling all that sadness into writing and communication to others. [Walker] what she did for everybody; her banks were open to everybody, white and black. [Henry] trying to save everyone from tyranny. And [Pocahontas] saving everyone from starvation. Everything was about empathy,” he said.

That week, the Empathy Project was born.

Talbott’s project challenges students to walk in the shoes of these historical figures and reflect on their hardships and personal struggles by writing essays from their point of view. Students also write weekly essays about their experiences with empathy in daily interactions with people they meet.

Tess Monks, a sophomore who took Talbott’s course last semester, said the Empathy Project had encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone.

“I’m sure it subconsciously affected me in the way I went about interacting with different people, because there’s just so much that we don’t know,” Monks said.

Talbott has sent the idea to many other colleges and universities, he said, and he hopes that they will embrace the program and spread empathy the way his students have.

“They write me the most beautiful, and the most heart-filling stuff I’ve ever read,” Talbott said of the nearly 4,000 essays his students have written over the program’s existence.

Last spring, the roles of teacher and student in Talbott’s empathy course suddenly flipped when he developed a near-lethal case of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of staph infection.

Talbott suffered for three months and endured many failed treatments as the disease spread across his back and attacked his tendons. Still, he remained committed to teaching.

“I’d be teaching, and 24/7 I had a bee sting all over my back,” he said.

Suddenly, his students were the ones showing him the power and reach of empathy as they supported him throughout his struggle, he said.

Talbott said his students give him so much more than he has given them. Their positivity, vibrant spirit and goodness encouraged and calmed him throughout the process, Talbott said, and they were the reason he continued to come to work.

According to Talbott's students, the feeling is mutual. 

“I've never had a professor like Professor Talbott," Andre said. "He is the most interesting guy in the entire world."

At the age of 69, Talbott decided it was time to return to retirement after finishing the spring semester of 2018.

Reflecting on his two years at UR, Talbott had a continuous stream of praise for his students, saying they had all been extremely dynamic and dedicated, and even insisted that he had not had a single student who was not “absolutely amazing” here.

“I guess I’m quitting ‘cause I want to quit while I’m ahead!” Talbott said, laughing.

Contact contributor Sara Schuham at sara.schuham@richmond.edu.

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