People with Passion: Mary Schmich
A People with Passion series
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich
For nearly twenty years, columnist Mary Schmich has told stories in the Tribune. Headline-driven stories, personal stories, stories of sage advice, stories of thoughtful irreverence, stories about unknown Chicagoans, stories about the best-known Chicagoans. She continues to do so into today, where she takes her inquisitive eye to Englewood and wonders how people stay healthy in an unhealthy neighborhood.
In person, Schmich is as diverse an experience as is her column. She is soft-spoken yet tough, measured yet lively, and of course, a great storyteller.
In the second of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People with Passion series, Schmich gives the three elements of her childhood that have most shaped her career, her introduction to Chicago, and how columnists can keep themselves from growing stale.
There were three things that really shaped me as a journalist that might be different from what shaped a lot of journalists, at least at the Tribune. I grew up in the South. I grew up reading novels, not newspapers. And I grew up in a family of ten people. All of these to me are the formative elements of how I approach the world and how I approach stories. Journalism has always been at its base for me about stories, and I think that has something to do with having grown up in the South, which is a story culture. And having grown up reading novels. And having come from a huge family. I encountered the world in my family. By the time I came into journalism, I had already seen mental retardation, physical disability, alcoholism, marital discord, poverty. The bigger world was just a bigger version of what I grew up with. That shaped how I think and what I write about.
When I was in high school, I was my high school’s correspondent to the Teen Gazette, which was run by the Phoenix Gazette. I wrote a groundbreaking story about the discrepancy between the pom-pom girls having to pay for their uniforms and the football players getting their uniforms provided. That was really exciting for me to have a place to express an opinion like this, but I still didn’t think of myself as a journalist. I did get a little journalism scholarship to college, though, from the Eugene Pulliam Foundation. I had no idea who they were. I didn’t know what the Indianapolis Star was. I didn’t know who the Pulliams were. But that was the tiniest seed for me.
Then I went to college to read novels, and I wound up co-editing the newspaper for a semester. But I still didn’t read newspapers and I knew nothing about journalism, with a capital J. I just knew, Oh, here’s some interesting stuff. Let’s write it up. Let’s put it in the paper.
I got out of college. Still didn’t care about journalism. Still didn’t read newspapers. Worked in college admissions. Went to live in France for a year on a fellowship. While I was there, my boyfriend at the time wanted me to come home. He sent me applications to journalism school. I knew I wanted to write, but I had no idea how you made a living doing that. What does that mean? “I want to write.” Millions of people “want to write.” But how do you shape that?
I apply to Stanford and to Berkeley. I get in. I didn’t apply for financial aid. I’m living in France, right? My boyfriend drives down to Stanford and says, “She really wants to come but she doesn’t have any money.” And they gave me the money to go. All of a sudden, there I am in a journalism program. They ask what newspapers I read. “I don’t… well… um… several!” (Laughs.)
We were assigned to read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the San Jose Mercury, and the San Francisco Chronicle everyday. So I started reading those, and they still bored me out of my mind. I just thought they were boring. I wound up getting an internship while I was at Stanford at the L.A. Times. I started going out on stories. And it blew my mind. Oh, my, god. I’m going out into the world. I’m talking to people. I’m learning things. I’m coming back. I’m typing it up. And somebody is putting it in the newspaper with my name on it. This is unbelievable!
For the first time, I realized that I had skills that I could put to use. I didn’t know how to write for a newspaper, but even though I’m ambivalent about journalism schools to this day, what that program at Stanford did was to take me, someone who didn’t understand the formulas – and there are formulas in journalism that you need to learn even if you decide to break them – and it taught me the formulas. And it put me in the Los Angeles Times newsroom, and exposed me to going out into the world. All of my natural instincts and the things I loved to do were suddenly being put to use and being improved upon by teachers, by editors, by people who, thank god, believed in me enough to help me get better.
To my surprise, I loved the newspaper. I loved being in the newspaper. The newsroom. I loved that office. The first time I saw a newsroom I thought, Oooh, never working here. I was going to be a magazine writer. (Grins.) You know? Have a little office. Work at home. It was going to be kind of an academic life, because I couldn’t imagine – we went on a field trip when I was in journalism school to the San Francisco Chronicle, and we walked into this newsroom, this giant room of people practically sitting in each other’s laps, with typewriters, typing. The noise. The chaos. I just thought, How can people possibly think, create here? I didn’t get it. But just in three months at the L.A. Times, suddenly I got it. Oh, this is good.
I was beginning to find things that interested me. The San Jose Mercury at that time, when Knight Ridder was in its glory days –
See, this is how far we’ve come. Knight Ridder was one of the major news corporations of our time. It failed before Tribune went into its doldrums. The Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News – I can’t even remember what else. Knight Ridder won all the Pulitzers. I mean, Knight Ridder was breaking the rules. They were writing stories that were stories. The San Jose Mercury was part of that, and I would read those stories. And then I would read Ellen Goodman. I actually think I read Ellen Goodman in the San Jose Mercury. And you may go, “Who?” (Laughs.)
Ellen Goodman, Pulitzer Prize winning Boston Globe columnist. How quickly glory fades, right? (Smiles.) Ellen Goodman was the seminal female columnist. She came in, and she began to do something that really no woman had done in American newspapers. And now a number of women – you know, Anna Quindlen came out of Ellen Goodman. Ellen was writing at this juncture of public and private. She took on the big issues, but she also wrote about smaller things. It was the kind of column that really did not exist before she did it.
Now when I was sitting there in 1980 reading her, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking, Oh, I’m paging through the newspaper, and here’s something that grabs my attention in this boring newspaper. Ellen Goodman, writing about interesting stuff, in an interesting way. Subliminally, that shaped me. Not that I was thinking, Oh, I want to be a columnist – but it provided me with an example of how you might, as a woman, present your ideas in a newspaper.
My editor at the little Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto went to edit the Orlando Sentinel and asked me to go to Orlando. So I gave up my nice life in Palo Alto, California to go to godforsaken Orlando, Florida. Both of those papers were Tribune Company papers.
The Tribune had started – even though I didn’t know it – running some of my stories that I was writing in Orlando. Somehow I’d gotten on their radar, and I got a call one day at the Orlando Sentinel asking me if I wanted to come work in Chicago. I got out – this is very pre-Google – I plucked my Rand McNally atlas out of my row of books, opened it, and traced my finger from Orlando up to Chicago and went, Oh my god, that is very far north. Really. I knew nothing about Chicago. My father brought me here once when I was seven-years-old, because he was from the Midwest.
You’d never really done the cold weather thing for any extensive time.
I had never owned a coat. Seriously. Never, owned, a coat. My editor in Orlando was moving to San Francisco at the time to edit the San Francisco Examiner, and he offered me a job. He offered me a column. I said, “I’ve got this job offer in Chicago. I’m going to go up and talk to them. But I’ll probably come to San Francisco,” because why wouldn’t you go to San Francisco? And he leaned back in his chair and said, “You’re never coming to San Francisco.” He said, “You’re gonna get to Chicago, and you’re gonna walk up Michigan Avenue, and you’re gonna see that Tribune Tower, and you are going to think I am somewhere.” And that’s pretty much how it happened. I went, Oh yeah, I am somewhere. I don’t know where. But it’s somewhere.
I came as a feature writer, and I did that for two years, and I was bored out of my mind. So I went on the national staff. I went down and I worked out of Atlanta covering the South for the Tribune for five years. Greatest work I ever had. I saw things, I learned things, I revisited the place I grew up and came to understand the South I’d grown up in and tried to translate it for an audience in Chicago.
Those were the days when the Tribune had a number of domestic bureaus along with our foreign bureaus. Part of the mission of the Tribune in those days was to bring the country, bring the world, to Chicago. And those correspondent jobs were taken very seriously. It was fantastic work. But it was also exhausting work. I traveled all the time. I lived in hotels. I lived in rental cars. Then one day someone called me – my path has been a series of phone calls – and said, “Do you want to come write a column in the metro section?” And my first thought was, No. I really liked being out on the road by myself. I liked not being seen. I just like not having to answer to anyone except on the other end of the phone line. I said, “I’ll think about it.”
I hung up, and a little voice said, Think about it? You’re gonna just think about going to write a column in the city of Chicago? Are you crazy? That was 1992.
I never look back at my columns. It’s not that I never will. But I think that part of keeping your momentum as a columnist is that you’re always looking forward. The worst thing that can happen to a columnist is to become nostalgic. And I think columnists do become nostalgic if they start thinking about what they’ve already written. Every now and then it will cross my mind that, Wow, I’ve been at this way longer than I ever anticipated. And longer than I really thought was proper for any columnist. (Laughs.)
Why is that?
Well, as I said, my concern about staying in a column job for very long is that I didn’t want ever to become nostalgic. And I didn’t want to become lazy. I had seen that happen to some very good columnists. It’s difficult to write year after year after year, week after week after week, three or four times a week, and keep your energy up. When I started this I would never have foreseen doing it this long. But it still feels fresh to me, partly because I do work off the news a lot. I stay in the metro section. I like staying in the metro section for that reason. I want to always feel tugged by the current of the news, even if I choose, as I often do, not to write on the news. I always want the news to be available to me. I always want to feel that urgency, even if I choose not to hear the call of whatever today’s big news is.
So now, having had this whole career, and having the bulk of your life – your house is built, and it’s at a newspaper. Are you a journalist? Have you come around to feeling like “Yes, that’s my identity”?
These stories about relationships, what makes our hearts hurt, what animates our days – this is the real fabric of our lives. And I think that part of what journalism does is to chronicle that. Those are stories that don’t have heroes and villains. Those are stories that don’t send people to jail. But they’re part of who we are and how we live. I think they’re very important stories. Which sometimes in some of the more highfalutin discussions about journalism get lost or denigrated. The other stuff is really important. But it’s not the only stuff.
Jack M Silverstein covers music, sports, and community in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama’s inauguration is available at Amazon. Read his coverage of Chicago journalism on ChicagoNow’s Eye on Chi, and say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)