A columnist at the Chicago Tribune since 1992, Schmich won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. She writes about politics, the personal, and the culture of Chicago
When I left for my Nieman Fellowship in the summer of 1995, several colleagues told me I was nuts. Walk away from a column for that long, they warned, and it won’t be there when you come back. My inner heckler said: Good. You’re not cut out to be a columnist. I’d been writing a column at the Chicago Tribune for three years by then and felt it had aged me 20. The relentless deadlines, the public exposure, the real-life hecklers. I’d begun to think legit columnists were hardier people than I was. Or they drank a lot more. It was in that frame of mind that I signed up for Robert Coles’s class, The Literature of Social Reflection.
Once a week the class was divided into small seminars led by “real” people. The leader of my seminar was Jacqueline Novogratz, who helped guide philanthropy at the Rockefeller Foundation. One afternoon, she invited me for coffee.
Sitting on the patio at Au Bon Pain, Jackie asked what I did at the Tribune. I told her. What an honor, she said, what an opportunity: to write a column, to be a woman who wrote a column, in Chicago.
When she said it, I heard that truth more clearly than I ever had, and so when she asked what I wanted from my Nieman time, I heard myself say something I’d never articulated about the job: “Courage.” I meant the courage to express my opinions, and to refrain from an opinion when I didn’t have a clear one. The courage to write the column I had in me, even if it wasn’t what certain people thought a Metro column in Chicago was supposed to be. It was OK not to be Mike Royko.
Looking back, I think courage is too grand a word. What I meant were the less exalted attributes of confidence and stamina. But whatever it’s called, by naming what I needed that day, I began to claim it. I kept it in mind as I studied American history and women’s history and poverty, classes that have guided my columns in all the years since.
When I went back to my job, which was still there, after all, I carried the word “courage” with me like a lucky charm, and to this day I’m fortified by the people who during my Nieman year helped me find it.