It was May 17, 1971, my birthday and the first day of a summer job at my hometown newspaper after my sophomore year in college. I had landed an internship at the paper and was set to launch my journalism career.
I was majoring in “English-Writing” at the University of Pittsburgh. At that time in the 1970s, hard as it is to believe, there was no true journalism major at the school, a path I had chosen for myself when I was in eighth grade. That meant that I pretty much had to take every writing course the school offered, including fiction and advertising.
During my first week at the newspaper, I was given an assignment for a feature article, the subject of which escapes me. After interviewing the subjects, I had pounded the story out on one of the newsroom’s manual typewriters,and turned it in to John, my city editor. He later returned the article to me, politely letting me know that my article resembled a personal treatise on my experiences with the subject, rather than a legitimate feature. Just a tad too informal, he said. Journalists didn’t use “I” in stories then, and I wonder what he would think of how things are done now.
So I worked hard and rewrote the story and was told that now the piece resembled a term paper, way too formal: no “Is” which was good but also boring. John realized we had reached an impasse and suggested that one of the more seasoned reporters work with me to help me find a happy medium for my articles.
That’s when I began working with Kay and this was the best thing that happened to me that summer. She was a natural wonder and became my mentor at a time when I had never heard the term. She would send me story ideas and give me small things to follow up on, She would tell me what questions to ask to get information and who to ask them of and how. In running down those details, and learning how to nail the story, I learned my craft that summer and the next.
Kay was about my parents’ age, maybe a little younger, but those of us working at the paper thought she was the coolest person we had met in the town we knew so well. Her personality fit in so much better with us than with some of the more stodgy people in the newsroom. There was always a group of young people gathered around her desk, talking about the news stories we all wanted to cover.
Kay was unusual in another way. As a middle-aged woman, she was still interested in helping young women succeed. This wasn’t always the case with the older women we worked with in the newsroom, As they spent their days writing descriptions of wedding gowns or grange meetings, they were also unhappy that their potential wasn’t being met, either. Women’s lib had arrived on the scene full force and there were skirmishes everywhere between the different generations of women.
That meant nothing to Kay, who just wanted to share what she knew and help develop our skills whenever she could.
I learned that Kay died this past October when some of my former co-workers threw a little get-together to honor her and to renew old friendships. (It was odd, though, and I am not sure I will ever get used to this -- being one of the oldest people at the party. “And when did you work there?” Ice age, for sure).
Thinking about Kay again led me to consider how young people today are struggling as they try to embark on their own paths in the world. Graduating from college used to mean starting at the bottom rung of the ladder and working your way up. A lot of today’s college grads can’t even find that bottom rung in our struggling economy.
Seems to me that we should all take a page from Kay’s book and become good mentors to our young people, generously passing along the knowledge we have gained over the years. Being remembered as fondly as Kay is would be thanks enough.
By Teresa K. Flatley