People with Passion: Mary Schmich

People with Passion: Mary Schmich
Mary Schmich. (photo by Jens Zorn)

A People with Passion series

Chicago journalism

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.

“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? 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.”

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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.

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. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

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Enjoy this interview? Click here to read more, as Mary talks about her arrival at the Tribune, her enjoyment of life on the road as a correspondent in Atlanta, and how columnists can prevent themselves from becoming stale.

Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein's People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up next week: Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune

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