What do I think of Mary Schmich's Pulitzer? | Bleader

What do I think of Mary Schmich's Pulitzer?

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Mary Schmich
  • Mary Schmich
I'm good with it.

My tersely worded blog post Monday announcing her award reflected the wire-service-era pressures of blogging (gotta put the word out, no time to think) rather than a lack of enthusiasm. But the request from commenter Eric McCarthy is a reasonable one:

"Umm, Mr. Miner, so could you maybe elaborate a bit more in this post (or another one) about Mary? As in, what you like (if you do) about her work? You're noting her win, but you're not exactly bending over backwards to praise her contribution to Chicago journalism. Why not? This is a rare and important event—a Chicago journalist winning a Pulitzer. I'd expect a little more from you about what you think of Schmich's work."

Not as rare as all that, fortunately, though a far cry from Chicago's heyday of the 70s. When I heard Schmich had won a Pulitzer I was surprised—she's not the columnist the Trib makes the most noise about or gives the biggest play to. For the first time, entries were submitted electronically this year, and if you look at the pdfs of the ten stories that composed Schmich's winning entry, you'll see they were published in all shapes and sizes, some given handsome play and others wedged in like moss edging a sidewalk.

And if you read the stories, you'll discover they're all over the map. One way of approaching the Pulitzers is to assemble ten columns thematically linked to demonstrate (sometimes spuriously) the columnist's relentless commitment to a high-minded cause. Schmich is not that kind of columnist, and did not make herself out to be. There's a column on a troubled younger sister, and another that remembers her father out of work. Schmich has never been afraid to write about her family and her childhood, and she usually gets away with it. There's a poem written as a tribute to Richie Daley when he left office. (She writes two or three poems a year. She's got a knack.) Another finds her ringing a doorbell in Englewood to talk to the mother of a kid arrested for mugging tourists in Streeterville. Not many columnists hit the bricks and ring doorbells anywhere.

There are a few touching human interest stories. There's cultural criticism—the column ripping the huge Marilyn Monroe sculpture that went up outside Tribune Tower last summer as sexist crap. There's a column that, if she'd asked me, I'd have told her to leave out of the entry, the one wagging her finger at Rod Blagojevich, just convicted of 17 felonies, and letting him know it's never too late to grow up. My view is that if you think someone could actually profit from your words of wisdom, write a letter; and if you don't think that—and columnists never do—don't posture.

But that's just me. I wasn't a judge, and the seven journalists who were surely had their own issues. Nonetheless, they passed along the names of three finalists—unranked—to the Pulitzer board, and Schmich was one of them. The board chose Schmich over Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times and Steve Lopez of the LA Times. Jurors are told not to discuss their work, but my experience is that whenever they're unhappy with the way things went they find a way, and the four jurors I contacted expressed no complaints.

Journalists as protean as Schmich don't often win Pulitzers. That was my first reaction—it was an award for the journeyman, the kind of reporter most reporters are when they are young and first come to town and want to stick their noses into everything. Commenter "original IAC" is right that her citation hailing her "wide range of down-to-earth columns that reflect the character and capture the culture of her famed city" is mostly babble, but it's on target in this respect: Schmich doesn't sound like Chicago, but she reports like someone looking for that sound and wise enough to know she'll find it everywhere. I'm partial to Schmich because for years she wrote Brenda Starr, because the last time I mentioned her in a column the reason was her love for the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, and because seven years ago she wrote about a friend of mine with such grace and acuity that I finished her story thanking God she'd written it instead of me.

But let's hear from the jurors.

As I said, they're not supposed to talk. But Tom Waseleski, editorial page editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette told me, "I was delighted that Mary won." And Patricia Calhoun, editor of Denver's Westword, said more than that.

"All I will say is that the poem was the subject of much discussion," Calhoun told me. Then she went on.

Calhoun grew up in Chicago, left for Denver in 1977 but kept reading the Tribune, and she was willing to tell me that Schmich "exemplifies exactly what a great columnist is. I appreciated her incredible range and skill. We all appreciated how fearless she was. She didn't pigeonhole her topics."

This is a virtue another journalist is probably the most likely to notice and appreciate. Writers find their comfort zones. They figure out what they can do well and what not so well, and they don't stray far from their strengths. Journalists see that in each other. But the jurors didn't see it in Schmich.

However . . .

"I'm not a fan of the poem," said Calhoun. Because it praised Daley? I asked. "It was the poem," she said.

But other entries had their own shortcomings.

"If I read one more gratuitous joke about Anthony Weiner’s wiener . . ." Calhoun said. "I can't believe it." How many Weiner jokes did you have to read? I asked. "Oh, dozens. I'm guessing dozens. Many of them were probably very funny at the time."

I thought I was picking up on the dynamic of the judging. Schmich losing ground because she turned in a poem. Gaining ground because she didn't stoop to a Weiner's wiener joke. Well, maybe, said Calhoun. "There were seven judges in my group and I was the only one concerned about penises.

"She was not the only poet. I will say that, too," Calhoun volunteered. But there surely weren't as many poems as wiener jokes. "Oh, no, definitely not," she said.

"I just didn't happen to be a fan of her poem," Calhoun repeated. "But I was a big fan of her columns."

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