By Dawn Barreto-Brown
On a recent spring evening, students, alumni and admirers of Mary Schmich gathered at National Louis University’s Chicago campus to hear the Chicago Tribune columnist and 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner share humor and insight.
“I am one of those people who always think that nobody is going to come listen to me,” said Schmich. “Thanks for proving me wrong.”
Joanne Koch, Ph.D., director of National Louis University’s Master’s in Written Communications program, invited Schmich to speak as part of the University’s Pulitzer Prize series.
As a columnist for the Chicago Tribune for 28 years, Schmich’s thrice-weekly columns shine a spotlight on the people at the heart and soul of our city. Humor is at the heart of Schmich’s conversational and relatable writing style.
She does it so well.
When you read her column, it’s like sitting with a friend in a coffee shop sharing the triumphs and heartbreaks of life over a hot cup of coffee. Sometimes the conversation is about politics and the city that we share and love, and other times it’s about the ordinary life we all lead.
And just how did someone who didn’t read newspapers end up a reporter?
“I really didn’t know what to do with my life,” says Schmich. “I worked in college admissions for three years after college graduation…then I got a fellowship, and I went to France for a year. My boyfriend sent me applications to journalism schools and to oblige him; I filled them out.” When Schmich was accepted to Stanford’s journalism program, she the thought it was a sign she should go.
A three-month internship at the L.A. Times allowed Schmich to report on the people and the City of Los Angeles, and it was an experience that set her career in motion.
Schmich spent more than two years in Palo Alto, California, as a reporter for the Little Peninsula Times Tribune newspaper. “It was a place where normal people lived in the 1980s. I covered the planning commission meetings for Cupertino…where there was all this debate about tearing up the ranches…to build something called Silicon Valley.”
Schmich then followed her editor to the Orlando Sentinel. The Chicago Tribune started running her feature stories and called her one day and asked her if she would be interested in coming to Chicago. Schmich recalls using a Rand McNally map to trace the path from Orlando to Chicago.
“I never owned a coat,” said Schmich, who was born in Savannah, Georgia. “And all of a sudden, here I was.”
With an impressive array of experience, what advice would Schmich give an aspiring writer today?
“Be prepared for a bumpy ride,” she said. “Don’t expect to get rich.”
There is less certainty today than in the past but Schmich notes that reporters today have the same fire and a great set of skills.
In terms of the writing itself, clarity is the most important skill a writer can have, she believes. Keeping sentences simple and short are key–the rhythm can be added later.
Take Mary Schmich’s 1997, Chicago Tribune column, “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Wasted on the Young,” or as it is better known, “Wear Sunscreen.” This piece is a touching mock graduation speech chock full of common sense and heart. And it is as relevant today as it was then.
Schmich is a self-proclaimed procrastinator. “I never made a deadline in college. That is why I didn’t graduate on time. But deadlines crowd out doubt. Panic is my muse.”
Schmich was in the male-dominated world of print journalism before it was commonplace. She never felt disadvantaged because she was a woman, but she did note that there weren’t female bosses back then. Upon reflection, she can see there was a fair amount of sexual harassment in the workplace.
“It was part of the job description…it was like a job skill,” says Schmich. “‘Get away from me, I can deal with this.’ But not everyone could deal with it and I think this is what the Me Too movement is showing…nobody should have to deal with it.”
Looking back at her career, Schmich attributes her ability to succeed at the male-dominated Chicago Tribune to her growing up with five brothers. As the oldest child, she ruled the roost and knew how to push past manly behavior.
Someone asked Schmich how social media has changed the news industry. She admitted that it makes her exhausted but she finds it useful because people can connect and respond.
“I am extremely grateful that people read my column and respond in some coherent way,” says Schmich.
The audience chuckles as Schmich responds that social media has opened up the floodgates and has made everything confusing. “I’m hoping there is going to be a next tech age where we learn to manage this stuff better,” comments Schmich. “I don’t think it’s sustainable. It’s not good for our minds…it’s bad for society.”
A long-time practitioner of yoga, Schmich feels that the rise in the popularity of yoga corresponds with the increase in technology use.
The Chicago Tribune is moving to a new home in June. After 100 years in the Tribune Tower, the paper will move to the Prudential building on Michigan Avenue. Schmich expressed sadness and anger at what led to the change, but in the end, has made peace with the move.
“It is time to get out of the old gothic tower,” says Schmich. “It feels old in there, the building feels old, the newsroom feels old.” Schmich feels that it will be easier to forge ahead in a new building with a view.
“It will be easier to move ahead in a new space…without the baggage of the past weighing us down,” said Schmich. I am looking forward to overlooking Millennium Park this summer.”
Just think of the story ideas that may exist for Schmich once she has an office with a view.