A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
After his "briefing," the South Vietnamese ambassador takes some questions and leaves the huge newsroom. An instant later, as if a starting gun has been fired, 88 people around me begin pounding on typewriters -- creating a thunderous din. But my typewriter is silent. A professor, a kindly white bear of a man, tries to help. I am frozen..
That's not a bad dream. It actually happened on my first day at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where I was a genuine outlier. Almost all my classmates had worked at news agencies, foreign outlets and big urban newspapers. My total experience: zero.
And I probably wouldn't have been there if my father hadn't asked his author friend, John Tebbel, to give me a bit of career advice as I entered my last year at Stanford. After reviewing some of my work from creative writing classes, Tebbel suggested I go on to journalism school — preferably Columbia. With that training, he said, I could have a very interesting career.
I hesitated. Journalism? Dominated by male faces and bylines, where women often were confined to the fields of fashion, home, and family? But then I recalled my 10-year-old self telling my mother that I wanted to be a writer. “Good,” she said, “Find something to write about.”
Journalism could be the road forward. But my "Day 1" at Columbia -- September 22, 1965 -- showed me that I'd have to travel a good distance to succeed.
My initial meeting with my faculty adviser, a professor, turned into a crash on black ice when I said I’d have to be missing classes the Friday before Christmas break. Why? Because I'd be getting married in Wisconsin, where it was impossible to get a license without a waiting period of at least five days between an application and the ceremony.
The professor bristled with disgust and he ignored me from then on. I couldn't arrange to meet with him again, which became a big problem when it was time for me to start work on my "major paper," equivalent to a master's thesis and required for graduation.
Acting as my own adviser, I decided to focus on some prominent Greenwich Village residents opposed to a New York University plan for a new library. Opponents objected to the starkly modern 12-story building on grounds that it would overshadow Washington Square and clash with all of the area's historic townhouses. The conflict was moving slowly through a maze of official bureaucracy.
Before long, it was time to leave for Wisconsin with my soon-to-be bridegroom. We got there early enough to get our marriage license. Then, instead of worrying about the "J School" problems, I was delighted to have a wedding in the midst of the tribe that raised me and my hometown, sparkling in Christmas gaiety. .
When I returned for the start of the spring term, I was on academic probation. The dean, Richard Baker, kindly took time to discuss the overall situation with me. Then, he gave me a new advisor, Donald Shanor, whose sunny positivity reconnected me with my strengths.
It was helpful to practice my listening and typing skills. I became quicker and better, but my major paper anxiety kept growing. I felt blocked at every turn.
On one gray afternoon, I found myself dallying at the dean’s bulletin board. A note caught my eye. “The Faye Henle Show” at WOR Radio wanted a J School student for a program about journalism careers. At first, I chuckled at the irony. My prospects were dismal. But an afternoon away from my major paper project? I wavered, then went into the dean’s office and volunteered.
At WOR, I was directed to a corridor on the 24th floor that was lined with photos of on-air stars; household names to millions of New Yorkers. I joined Faye Henley in a small studio with two employers: a suburban newspaper executive, and George Brown, WOR’s Radio-TV news director. My role in the show was to ask questions, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
When the program was over, Brown introduced me to his TV documentary producer, Stanley Friedman, a slender guy with dark hair, who looked to be about my age. After a pleasant chat about the J School, he told me he needed an assistant. If interested, I should write to Brown. Yes!
Finishing my letter, I realized I should include a reference. But who? Certainly not my professors. I thought back to the reason I was at the J School — John Tebbel. I added his name with his home address, sealed the letter and mailed it. Then began a long wait.
I finished my major paper, leading with NYU’s redstone mock-up on the edge of the square and the resentment it inspired. Finally free of the bête noir, I began to enjoy blending in with the rest of the class and buying into the professional culture. Professors told real life stories about conflicts where facts, fairness, and important issues were at stake. We were told that having a “go to hell fund” would nourish strong spines.
One of my favorite reporting assignments required little more than a warm coat and a trip to the Yale Club in the heart of midtown Manhattan. A hot issue was brewing — a proposal to let women attend Yale. I walked into the club lobby and was immediately shown out the door. No women allowed!
So with a notebook prominently in my hand, I stood on a a sidewalk near the club entrance and eagerly collected apocalyptic visions of a co-ed Yale: Women would be a constant distraction. Yale would decline and become a party school. The degree would be diminished in value! I couldn’t resist concluding my story with a reference to Stanford, where co-education dated back to the university’s founding in 1885.
In early spring, some of us spotted Fred Friendly near the dean’s office. Six-feet-four and hard to miss, here was a famous example of an extremely strong spine. He had resigned as head of CBS News in February because the network refused to provide live coverage of a key Senate hearing on Vietnam. Soon Columbia announced that Friendly would run the J School’s broadcast journalism program.
After celebrating graduation with my husband and my parents, I took a summer job at Bloomingdale’s, did some free-lance editing, and stayed in touch with Stanley Friedman at WOR.
Finally, I got the call to come in to WOR. When George Brown welcomed me, he said something that amazed me. “Interesting that you would know Jack Tebbel. He’s a good friend of mine.” He didn’t explain the connection, and I didn’t ask; I was dumbfounded at the incredibly lucky coincidence.
George Brown arranged an 18-month apprenticeship for me with the Writers Guild of America East. My salary was low, $125 a week ($1,000 today), but it would improve. I wouldn't be doing any on-air work. Newsmen were on the scenes for on-the-hour, 15-minute newscasts.
All reporters, along with program hosts and other on-air “talent,” belonged to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. I learned more about unions the first day I joined Stanley in the TV control room for “New York Report,” featuring political newsmakers.
When I heard someone complain about a studio mike, I reached for the relevant dial. I was quickly informed that all equipment was the province of the engineers’ union. Laughter accompanied the question: Did I want to precipitate a walk-out?
Stanley was producing a history of New York’s governors. I became happily absorbed in the tapestry of documentary production, weaving stills and moving pictures together with music and voices.
Our next project focused on Times Square, with news personality John Wingate on camera,. I selected historic film of the area’s glamorous past for dramatic contrast to scenes of current decline. When Stanley told me to explore the outlook for Times Square real estate, I went to see Irving Maidman, who owned a lot of it. He was struggling to bring in more office buildings.
Maidman couldn’t have been too happy at airtime when he saw our title: "The Great Blight Way." A reviewer for the New York Times wrote, “The creeping dry rot at the heart of fun city was interestingly diagnosed.."
Stanley Friedman might have been the only man in New York who did not expect a female subordinate to get coffee; we took turns. My determination to assert a professional, rather than secretarial identity gave me a sharp edge.
One day I was joined in an elevator by an executive who reminded me of Cary Grant. He favored me with a smile and asked, “Whose secretary are you?” I replied, “I work with Stanley Friedman.” Then the devil made me follow up. “Whose secretary are you?” I asked.
The man exited the elevator in frosty silence. The only feedback I received was Stanley’s remark, “Well, Susan, you’ve certainly made an impression on the 25th floor.”
My final requirement for full status in the Writers Guild (and a nicer salary) was to produce a radio documentary. It was another hill to climb with consequences. Drawing from my background in psychology,, I focused on clinical research with LSD and legitimate studies that were shut down by government backlash against Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” movement. It was an even-handed treatment. Most important, it sufficed to give me full-fledged membership in the Writers Guild.
Right away, I became the producer of a new program hosted by John Wingate: the “Early Edition” of Radio New York, a 3:15-4 p.m. lead-in to the well-established drive-time Radio New York, which had won dominance with the city’s first-ever helicopter traffic reports.
Wingate had a wonderful flair for satire and calling out absurdities. He was a natural for “improv” and a highly skilled writer. To my delight, he liked my work.
We were newsy, but with a different slant. For example, with the 1968 garbage strike dominating newscasts, we ran a series of reports on the superiority of European waste management technology. I scripted the shows and selected guests from the broad spectrum of newspaper stories, magazines, book publishing, and show biz.
Our audience ratings must have been good because we were expanded into "rush hour" Radio New York. So from 3:15 to 7 p.m. I presided in the control room with an audio engineer as Wingate rolled through a mixture of tape recorded interviews, helicopter reports and interaction with WOR personalities who covered sports and theater.
I still like to brag about my last-minute decision one evening to attend a play with a ridiculous title, “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” I left after the first act, having decided Wingate would interview the young man who was portraying a psychotic drug addict.
A day or so later, when the actor arrived at the station, he corrected my pronunciation, “It’s Al Pa-CHEEN-oh — not Pa-SEEN-oh.”
In spring of 1971, my husband completed his doctorate, and chose a position in Texas. Wingate flattered me by asking what it would take to keep me at WOR. I loved the job, but even after six years, we hadn’t learned to love New York City. I saw a promising horizon ahead.
Even now, recalling that decisive moment at the J School bulletin board, I wonder. What would' have happened If I had squelched the impulse for an afternoon escape?
It was the proverbial fork in the road. but I couldn’t see it. I can only be thankful for plain dumb luck.
Susan Briggs Wright teaches in Houston after a career in news, documentaries, public relations and corporate communications
The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York was established in 1912 with funds provided by Joseph Pulitzer, a leading newspaper publisher. It administers the Pulitzer Prizes and other awards for outstanding work in the field of journalism.