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Back To The Twilight Zone: Rod Serling's Legacy Spans Across Space And Time

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Rod Serling's Twilight Zone revolutionized how TV shows are created. The writer's success has left a lasting impression; from classrooms to the television industry.

Serling is honored in his hometown with a star at the Broome County Forum and an entire wall dedicated to his achievements. It's expected for a city to make a big deal when one of their own makes it, but when that person happens to be a creative genius and one of the most prolific writers in the history of television, the signs, photos, and plaques don't seem quite big enough.

"Rod had the distinction of being one of the first writer/producers," says Larry Kassan, Twilight Zone enthusiast and Events and Theater Coordinator at Binghamton High School, "He had creative control of the show, but also creative control of the script."

Now, that's called a "showrunner," a job that was a rarity in the 1950s. 

"Having creative control was a luxury not many writers had prior to that day," says Kassan.

He used that creative control to turn television into more than entertainment. Kassan says you really can't talk about Rod Serling without getting political. He used his medium to critique the world around him. 

"He has a wonderful quote," says Kassan, "What he couldn't have republicans or democrats say on TV, he could easily have Martians say."

Tucking political commentary into a 28 minute sci-fi feature, Serling made his audiences think, and they're still thinking through those lessons today.

Elementary school children in the Binghamton School District are taught life lessons and critical thinking through Serling's work.

"The kids really hear the underlying messages about justice and fairness," says Jill Browne K-5 Enrichment teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary and Challenge Program Coordinator for the district.

Browne's 5th graders at Ben Franklin, along with all other Binghamton elementary schools, learn about Serling in the district's enrichment segment, aptly named "The 5th Dimension."

 "Every year we go in for a series of 6 to 8 lessons that focus on the life and work of Rod Serling," explains Browne, "Particularly as it relates to how he used his medium to try and impact the world."

Those lessons culminate in the district-wide celebration of Rod Serling Day. Last year, the students were asked what they would want Serling to write about if he were still alive today. 

They talked about bullying, dangers of war, the importance of community and neighborhood, the rights of all people, poverty...

— Jill Browne, Teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary 

Those are important lessons for any generations... in any dimension. Pretty powerful lessons to leave behind, but Serling didn't always want to be a writer.

"He didn't really know what he wanted to do," says Kassan, "At first he thought he wanted to be a Phys Ed teacher."

After serving in World War II, Serling cashed in on the education benefits offered by the military and attended Antioch College in Ohio. It was there that he discovered broadcasting. After he made it, he would lecture at Ithaca College.

To this day, nearly every communications and media student studies Serling's work, it's part of the core curriculum at many colleges.

"You can't go to a single college freshman television class without hearing about his work," says Kassan.

Kassan serves as a guest speaker at Ithaca, teaching script writing students about Serling's life and work.

"It's great speaking to students who are learning about script writing because of all things, Rod was a writer," says Kassan, "And no matter how much technology and bells and whistles and special effects, you have to have a good story."

Those Ithaca students don't have to look far for inspiration. 5 of Serling's 6 Emmys sit right outside the door to their script writing classroom.

"You know, one day maybe they could have an Emmy like that," says Kassan.

Fans can only wonder what more he could have gone on to accomplish. A heart attack would cut short his life and career in 1975. He was just 51 years old.

156 Twilight Zone episodes, 6 Emmys, 3 years in World War II, a wife and 2 daughters. A short life, but one well-lived. In his last interview before he died, Serling was asked how he hoped people would remember him. His answer:

I just want them to remember me a hundred years from now. I don't care that they're not able to quote a single line that I've written. But just that they can say, 'Oh, he was a writer.' That's sufficiently an honored position for me.

— Rod Serling

Many of the places that inspired Rod Serling still exist in Binghamton. You can read more about those locations here.