Schmich, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2012, attributes her longevity to the way she interprets the column. There’s a long legacy of metro columnists as testosterone-fueled, Scotch-swilling men who covered City Hall with a swaggering “put up your dukes” style. When Ann Marie Lipinski, who would go on to be editor of the Tribune (and now curator of the Nieman Foundation), offered Schmich the position in 1992, the reporter envisioned her mission differently.
“I wanted to write about my place — Chicago — and how it connects to the world. On most days, people are not thinking primarily about politics — or at least they weren’t before Trump. They’re thinking about the people they love, their health, the things that make them happy or sad. So I wanted to write about the issues that are at the heart of how we live. That is probably more of a female way of approaching things…but I was redefining this genre for the way I needed to work.”
Schmich grew up in Georgia, the oldest of eight children. She was in the fourth grade when she first realized that she might have a flair for writing. The teacher assigned the class to write something amusing that happened in their households, which, in young Mary Theresa’s case, included five younger brothers: “I wrote about how my brothers thought it would be hilarious to take all the fuses out of the fuse box. I called it ‘Fuse Confusion’ and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Now isn’t that fun?’ There was this recognition of the play that could exist between words.”
After moving to Phoenix, Arizona, for high school, she attended Pomona College in California, where she co-edited the newspaper. In 1980, as a student in Stanford University’s master’s journalism program, she interned at the Los Angeles Times, followed by jobs at the Peninsula Times Tribune in Palo Alto and the Orlando Sentinel in Florida before arriving in Chicago in 1985.
Schmich may be the only Nieman Fellow (class of ‘96) whose resume also includes a comic strip. For 26 years, she wrote Brenda Starr until the intrepid girl reporter hung up her press pass in 2011.
But it is her thrice-weekly column that is the core of her identity and the place where she weighs in on big issues (poverty, sexual harassment, violence) and small ones (college reunions, email salutations). Perhaps her most famous is “Wear Sunscreen” — written as a commencement address, erroneously attributed to Kurt Vonnegut and turned into a recording by Baz Luhrmann. But whatever the topic, her voice is sure to find the common thread that will pull us all together.
According to Mark Jacob, the former metro editor at the Tribune and Schmich’s editor for seven years, including the year she won the Pulitzer Prize, it isn’t just the wide range of subjects that keeps her relevant, but her meticulous writing.
“She’s so darn thoughtful about every word. She doesn’t try to convince the audience that she’s a fine writer…she doesn’t use a dozen adjectives to describe something. She uses one or two, giving those words more power. And because she picks such compelling subjects, her spare style lets the subjects of her columns come through clean and strong,” said Jacob, who is now an editor of the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
Jacob has several favorite columns that he says should be taught in journalism school. He singles out one as a contender for the best story written in Chicago during his 34-year tenure at both the Sun-Times and the Tribune: The saga of 10-year-old shooting victim Tavon Tanner.
“After Mary filed that story, I printed it out and took it with me when I left the office. I started reading it on my train commute and ended up crying on the Red Line.”
These days, like everyone else, Schmich is working from her home, which is on the city’s North Side. Since the start of the pandemic, she’s been back to the newsroom a couple of times describing the scene — with its wilted plants, dusty Kleenex boxes and TVs droning on to no one — “like Pompeii after the big eruption.”
She misses the banter with other journalists, which helps get the creative juices flowing. “I’m a big newsroom schmoozer. Most people in other professions don’t have that same engaged conversation with colleagues. I think that’s one thing that draws us to journalism.”
So, we schmoozed — on writing, aging and other topics. Our conversation has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
You’ve been writing a column since 1992. How do you keep it fresh?
It’s a combination of profound curiosity about the endlessly fascinating world — along with a fear of failure. I get up so many mornings and say “This will be the day I can’t do it.” I have been in that place many times and it still scares me. As I get older, I can’t help but wonder: Is this level of dread healthy for me? But then I do it again and I’m always glad I did and that keeps me going.
You have reported on some very sensitive subjects. How do you make sure that your story subjects are OK with what you’ve written?
When I’m writing about someone who has suffered a profound loss, I check in with the person a fair amount. I let them know it’s important to me to represent them correctly. For example, I spent several months talking to Joan Lefkow, the judge whose husband and mother were murdered in her basement. It was an emotional, complicated topic for her and for me, too. It was the most profound sense I’ve ever had of carrying someone’s life in my hands. I decided before it was done that I would go over to her home and read her every single quote so that nothing surprised her. She was fine with almost everything but asked me to change one thing because she worried it would hurt her kids. We talked it through and I ended up keeping it.
Running quotes by a subject who’s suffered — especially someone you’re writing about because they’ve suffered — feels respectful and it feels like a way of deep fact-checking, a way of insulating me and the Tribune from error and misunderstanding. Generally, I’ve found that people are OK with what you’ve written as long as they’re not surprised. If you can help them through the shock of seeing their lives in print, it’s better for them and for you.
How do you feel about anonymous sources?
Again, if you just show respect for people’s feelings, you can usually get them to come around and be on the record. If someone’s reluctant to give their name, I explain that readers might not believe what they’re saying if their name is not attached. Of course, in some circumstances, like stories involving violence, being named might be dangerous to them or their family so it might not be fair to persuade them to go on the record. But my inclination is to avoid anonymous sources. There’s just so much mistrust of the media right now and we have to be very careful to be as clear with readers as possible.
You’ve shared your own family stories with your readers, such as growing up poor and your dad’s alcoholism. How do you decide how much to divulge?
My feelings on this are still evolving. When I first started writing, I was more cavalier about it, and I mostly wrote about my mother, who seemed to like it. But I would never have written as candidly about my father and the difficulties he caused for the people who loved him if he were still alive. A couple times, I’ve said out loud “I’m sorry, Dad” because I feel like I betrayed his trust by writing about him. But I think it’s important to tell my Dad’s stories.
He had a very old-fashioned rigid Catholic moral code and believed that if he failed to live up to it — or if his children, for whom he felt responsible, did — he could go to hell.
He could be harsh, mentally and physically. When I wrote about him on this Father’s Day, I was flooded with mail saying, “We had the same father. Thank you for reminding me that I could still love him.” The older I get, the more I realize how many people are struggling with both a love for their father and recognition of the damage that he inflicted.
I was moved by the story about taking your mom to Paris and her crawling to the top of Mont St. Michel because of her physical disabilities. How do you feel about your own aging?
Sometime in my early 60s, I realized that this was an entirely new phase of life. Through your 50s, you can look in the mirror and still look like a version of yourself. But in your 60s, even if you stay very active, you change, physically, emotionally. Your people start to die. In the last 10 years, I’ve lost a sibling, a parent, two best friends and a generation of aunts and uncles.
Still, I don’t mind getting older. In some ways, I find it exciting, fascinating, which is good because it’s inevitable. By the time you’re 67, you can see your own ending on the horizon. It’s unproductive to pretend it’s not happening. Though I have yet to achieve my mother’s saintly level of acceptance.
You don’t see a lot of older people in the newsroom anymore. Have you thought about what comes next for you?
I get asked if I’m going to retire all the time. You get to a certain age and you just can’t escape the question.
I stay in this work because I love it and I believe in it. I also think it’s important for women my age to stay in the game so younger women can see that working and staying publicly engaged is an option. Because if you don’t see it, it’s harder to be it. I do feel some responsibility to show younger women that just because you’re 67, it doesn’t mean that you have to step aside, little lady.
That’s a good segue to diversity of all kinds — age, gender, race. Do you think newsrooms are doing a better job of recruiting women and minorities?
In some measure, newspapers have gotten better for women and minorities. There’s a much greater awareness of the need to bring a wider variety of people into the news process. But newspapers are shrinking. There’s a huge financial squeeze that complicates hiring people and keeping them. People coming into this business now, with the exception of a few papers, are poorly paid. I was able to make a good living, but that is not the case anymore for most young journalists, which further complicates getting a wider variety of people into this work.
Finish this sentence: If we in the news business want to move forward, we need to…
Among other things, we need to find a better way to deliver our digital product. At the Tribune, we always talk about delivering relevant content but, like a lot of newspapers, we struggle with presenting it in a user-friendly way. A lot of that has to do with the financial pressures — mind-numbing ads and other money-driven clutter can overwhelm the story. Readers won’t stick with you if you make it hard for them to read.
Finish this sentence: You don’t know hate mail until you write about…
Trump. Or anything involving race.
What column has generated the most outrage?
After 28 years of columns, all the outrage blurs into one big lump of outrage in my brain. In general, the columns that generate the most vitriol involve — no surprise — politics. The outrage has been particularly vicious during the Trump era, but it’s not new. One thing I’ve learned from column-writing is that almost anything — even just a word choice — can drive some people to crazed, insulting anger.
I often think the most outlandish outrage comes from people who aren’t really mad at me. They’re mad at their spouse, their boss, the universe. They see a name, a photo and an email address on a column and think that’s an anonymous place to vent, failing to understand that columnists are people, too. Some people, of course, respond with legitimate disagreement. And more people write to say nice things rather than to express outrage.
I tell myself that the way people respond to what I write is an education in how people think, and that’s a form of reporting. But the true hate mail does get exhausting.
Trump frequently has used Chicago as the poster child for violence. After almost 30 years of writing a column, what would you want him to know about Chicagoans?
Chicago contains the world — the people of the world, the tragedies and struggles and beauties of the world. You can’t sum the place or the people up in a word. Poverty, segregation, trauma and violence are the city’s deep, enduring, confounding troubles. The people of Chicago haven’t figured out how to fix those problems, but one thing I love about this city is the ways so many people keep trying. I’ve noticed through the years that most of the nasty mail I get about Chicago is from people outside Chicago. Real Chicagoans try to help.
Well, that lets us end on an uplifting note. Who do you read for inspiration?
When I want nourishment, I generally read fiction or poems. Books I’ve read recently and love include “Deacon King Kong” by James McBride and “This is Happiness” by Niall Williams.
I think often of this quote from Susan Sontag: “The wisdom of literature is quite antithetical to having opinions… Furnishing opinions, even correct opinions — whenever asked — cheapens what novelists and poets do best, which is to sponsor reflectiveness, to pursue complexity.”
Schmich’s columns are now collected in a book: “Even the Terrible Things Seem Beautiful to Me Now: On Hope, Loss and Wearing Sunscreen.”
Bonnie Miller Rubin is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She spent 25 years at the Chicago Tribune, mostly as a metro reporter. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and other publications.