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Connie Schultz Steps Away From Cleveland Column

NEAL CONAN, host: Connie Schultz, for 18 years, wrote a nationally syndicated column for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She won a Pulitzer Prize and wrote two books, one of them called "And His Lovely Wife" after she married Sherrod Brown, who would be elected to the United States Senate. Her dual roles of political wife and newspaper columnist collided from time to time. Two weeks ago, she decided they could no longer coexist and resigned her position at The Plain Dealer. She continues to write a column, not for the local paper, but for the Creators Syndicate.

What do you expect or want from your local columnist? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Connie Schultz joins us today here in the studios of WOSU in Columbus. Thanks very much for being with us today. Nice to meet you.

CONNIE SCHULTZ: Well, thank you. Welcome to Ohio again.

CONAN: I know the column you're working on today is on Fred Shuttlesworth, of course closely associated with Birmingham, but a man with an Ohio connection as well.

SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm. It's not the column I'm writing because I was already writing my column when I found out about his death. I suspect I'll be weighing in soon on it. I first met Reverend Shuttlesworth in 2006, and it was at this big retirement ceremony for him in Cincinnati. He had lived there for decades. A lot of people - it's interesting, I was just talking to one of your producers earlier. A lot of Americans aren't as familiar with his name, even though Martin Luther King, at one point, described him as, I think, the bravest civil rights worker in the South. He had several - multiple murder attempts on his life. One time he was mobbed when he tried to enroll his two children in an all-white school in Alabama.

So he's a very brave man. He was not the PR - what's the word I want? He was very blunt, and he would be blunt with fellow supporters, fellow crusaders. And so he didn't have the graceful style, perhaps, of some. He used to make fun of those so-called flowery speeches, but he was certainly a well - still on his game when I met him. And we actually took a tour with him of all this - he had a back room - I seem to recall it was at a back room. It was a room full of mementoes and photographs and letters from his time in the civil rights movement.

CONAN: He was a man who was on the other side of - literally, on the other side of Bull Connor's fire hose.

SCHULTZ: Yes, he was. And, in fact, I recall - I think AP reported today - no, there was actually a New York Times story from the '60s, a profile of Reverend Shuttlesworth, where when he heard that Reverend Shuttlesworth had been hosed down, he said it was unfortunate that he hadn't died. Yes, he was not a fan of Reverend Shuttlesworth.

CONAN: You did spend some time with him. What - we read the stories. We read about his bravery. What was he like?

SCHULTZ: He was very smart and opinionated. Humble, though. You know, one of the things I have found over the years - I'm sure this is true of you as well because we interview so many people who others think of as heroes - a true hero is never going to start the conversation about his bravery. And I really had to ask a lot of questions to get to, for example, the bombing of his home, where, miraculously, nobody was killed. But it was just feet away from his head - by his bed when the bombs went off. I think it was 16 sticks of dynamite. He would never have volunteered any of that information hadn't I - had I not really worked to pry it out of him.

So he was humble, but he was smart, and he was a walking history book. It was really something. I have talked to John Lewis a number of occasions. But this was a man who chose to come to Ohio, to Southern Ohio, in Cincinnati, which has certainly seen its share of issues revolving around race. And he was particularly an advocate in his later years for the homeless. He was tireless in that, and that was one of the first things he wanted to talk to me about when I met him.

CONAN: And what did you write about him?

SCHULTZ: I don't recall - I think at that point I was on my leave of absence because that was in 2006, and I took a lot of notes. It's interesting how it all came back to me as soon as I heard the news today. I sat down and I just started thinking about my time with him. I would be curious also to hear what John Lewis is going to have to say. I hope that somebody gets to him today and lets him talk about him. I'm hoping some of the civil rights leaders who are still alive will share those sorts of stories that perhaps they didn't feel they could share until he was gone.

CONAN: And yet in modern-day Birmingham, the airport is named for Fred Shuttlesworth.

SCHULTZ: I love that.

CONAN: There's a statue of Fred Shuttlesworth...


CONAN: ...in Birmingham, something that would have been beyond unthinkable when he was a young man.

SCHULTZ: I was just re-listening to an NPR interview on my, you know, I have one of those little podcast things from a couple of years ago, the author of Martin Luther King's speech. And one of the things he was talking - as he was talking, he's referring to what is now the museum that was the hotel where he was shot and you start...

CONAN: The Lorraine Motel.

SCHULTZ: Yes. And you start to think about how - again, you can't imagine these things being in existence at the time when all that was happening. But now, they become museums. And Reverend Shuttlesworth, I think it was 2008, wasn't it, when the airport was dedicated to him. Imagine that.


SCHULTZ: That makes me feel so optimistic about our country.

CONAN: Want to get back to the column. What was it that made you decide that you and The Plain Dealer could no longer coexist?

SCHULTZ: It was - really, it was the same thing that was - had happened in 2006. Sherrod is back in cycle, as they call it. He was running for re-election now to the Senate. But I was in a - I'm in a very different place this time. I am nationally syndicated, and I'm in a lot of newspapers. In fact, a number of newspapers picked me up the day after they found out that I had left The Plain Dealer, and I really appreciated that show of support. And I'm in a number of Ohio papers still.

But I couldn't keep working for the largest paper in the state of Ohio that has a duty to cover Sherrod's race on a daily basis. I write for Parade magazine, also I do essays for them. I've got a couple of other things in the works I can't talk about yet, and I'm also working on a book. So I was in a different place. And I did not - what I couldn't stand was watching what it was putting my editors through because they're - they really believe in me.

Debra Adams Simmons and Ellen Stein Burbach in particular were so supportive having, you know, we had to keep having one meeting after another because all it takes is a rumor and then they're false. But all it takes is one rumor and you got to go back in and have another conversation about what I am and am not doing related to the campaign. And I just thought, this time around, I don't want to put anyone through this, and I want to be unleashed. And that's how I feel.


SCHULTZ: But I love The Plain Dealer. I love The Plain Dealer and so many people who work there.

CONAN: We're talking with syndicated columnist now Connie Shultz. What do you want from your local columnist? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Larry(ph), Larry's on the line from Jacksonville.

LARRY: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'd like to know about local columnists and syndicated columnists and how - in the market that I live in, which is Jacksonville, local columnists seem to cater more to, say, their immediate social market, which is, you know, a little more conservative than perhaps I would like. And I wonder if that's not sort of deceiving the whole populace in a way by not taking the poll for the entire nation, sort catering to what they already have established as a market, and I see that as a problem. And I'll take my call off the air. Thank you for the time.

CONAN: Larry, thank you.

SCHULTZ: Larry, I think what you're speaking to probably more directly is who the paper chooses to hire as columnists because you're either - most columnists are fairly - you know who you are and you know what you stand for. I do see more and more of a trend, and I've written about this for Columbia Journalism Review where newspapers want their columnists to focus more and more on local issues. That certainly was not being asked of me.

I think it's a mistake, to some extent, because we are living in a global economy, in a global neighborhood these days. And I worry that if we focus too much on local issues, we lose sight of the big picture, which may be contributing to the polarization in our country right now. If you don't have to know what other people think, you don't have to really consider it and you could just hate them.

CONAN: But do you lose something when you go from being the local columnist to being national?

SCHULTZ: I think you can do both because I've been nationally syndicated since the spring of 2007. And the way I look at it is most things that are happening locally also have ramifications nationally or they resonate with readers nationally. The column I just filed today is - you may have seen it if you're on Facebook - there's this picture that's been going on with this two-week-old baby nestled on his father's camouflage uniform between his boots and a photograph of him, and the father was killed in Afghanistan. And I wanted to find out the backstory on that. And I talked to the mother. She's a 22-year-old widow, Neal, 22, and a photographer.

And that column is now up online at creators.com. It's going to be running on papers this week. As it turns out, she never meant for it to be a big statement about the sacrifices in general. She wanted to have as close as she could get to her husband embracing his son. But she also now sees the bigger picture. Surely, that's a story we should be telling all around the country because there are so many widows and so many children who have lost a mother or father in these wars.

CONAN: And it would be wrong if you couldn't write that column unless you happen to be from Cleveland.

SCHULTZ: Yeah. Right. I, I mean, being from Cleveland, I'm very proud to come from Cleveland, love being from Cleveland, but I know my readers well in Cleveland and they, too, care very much. You know, Ohio ranks fifth in the number of men and women we've lost in these wars, just like Vietnam. We care deeply what's happening over there.

CONAN: As you look at the work you've done, you got the Pulitzer Prize for being a crusader. I think that's fair to say.

SCHULTZ: Yes, I don't deny that.

CONAN: And that's part of the role of the columnist too.

SCHULTZ: Oh, I absolutely agree with you on that. I mean, I've often been accused to having an agenda, and I readily embrace the agenda. I come from the working class. I was the first in my family to go to college. I, you know, I got a good college education because of my dad's union benefits. I lived through severe asthma because of my dad's union health care benefits. I'm a feminist out of gratitude. Because of the women who were before me, I got to write a column on op-ed pages around the country instead of the so-called women's pages. And we should have an agenda. And I was raised by a mother who said don't marry him till you see how he treats the waitress. And that drives my work.

CONAN: When did you - who were your role models when you started? Whose columns did you read? Who made you say I want to do that?

SCHULTZ: Well, there was one in particular, Anna Quindlen, and I've always told her - Anna has become a friend. I have such high regard for her. And I told her, when I finally got my column, she was my gold standard because she was the first columnist in The New York Times pages who would weave personal tales from her own life and make - to help explain why some issues mattered to all of us.

And, you know, that was a very brave thing to do when she was doing it, and you still get attacked for doing it. But I consider her certainly the person I was aiming to be.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Let's go to Joan, and Joan with us from Andover in Ohio.

SCHULTZ: Andover.

JOAN: Yes. Your neck of the woods, right?

SCHULTZ: My home county, Ashtabula County.

JOAN: Absolutely. Keep it on the map.


JOAN: You know, I just want to, first of all, Connie, I totally miss you in the Plain Dealer.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

JOAN: But I just want to say that I agree with you. I think it's really important that the local columnists take local issues but give us a broader, national perspective because until you just said that, I think that's why we're diving into red and blue and no one's listening to each other, or understanding other's perspectives. And I just really appreciate how well you've always done that. And...

SCHULTZ: Well, that means a lot to me. Thank you, especially coming from my home county, Ashtabula County. You know, we were talking earlier about the war. We lost 29 boys in Vietnam. We paid a high price in that war. So thank you. Thank you for weighing in. I appreciate it.

CONAN: And, Joan, other than Connie Schultz, who do you read and admire?

JOAN: Oh, gosh. I mean, first of all, I love The Plain Dealer. I - and you know what? I have to tell you. You know, I'm drawing a blank right now. I probably shouldn't admit this. I like George Will from time to time, you know?

SCHULTZ: He does great.

JOAN: Yeah. Who's - is it Parker? The...

SCHULTZ: Kathleen Parker. Kathleen Parker.

JOAN: Yes. I like her. I like looking at all the perspectives. It always just challenges me to think differently, and it's challenged me to realize I don't have the corner on reality and what the answers are. It's very, very complicated, and we're all - my concern is we're all starting to think in soundbites and...

SCHULTZ: Oh, Joan, I wish we could clone you.


CONAN: Joan, thanks.

JOAN: Thank you. Yeah.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call.

JOAN: I take that as a compliment.


SCHULTZ: I mean it as one.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Joan. We're talking with syndicated columnist Connie Schultz. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And when you say you work for the Creators Syndicate, it's different though then, I mean, I assume you write a lot of your - did a lot of your work at the Plain Dealer from various places other than the newspaper.


CONAN: But having an office at the newspaper means something, doesn't it?

SCHULTZ: You know, it does. I would say being affiliated with an institution is something that's - not being affiliated now is something new for me. The Plain Dealer, you know, they took a little chance on me back in 1993. I was a 36-year-old single mom who had never worked for a daily newspaper. I had been a freelancer, so my roots are in the untethered world of typing wherever you find, you know, a place to squat. So I'm still doing it that way.

And I have a wonderful editor at Creators, David Yontz, a young man, very smart, and he's been a keen eye on my column ever since. He would always have another look at it after I filed it with the Plain Dealer before I'd send - you know, I would send it to him. So, in that way, I have real continuity working with him, and I'm very grateful for that.

CONAN: And could not the Plain Dealer pick up your column?

SCHULTZ: They could. One of their competitors in the area already has.


CONAN: And that old market exclusivity, you can't do it. You - there is something about the newspaper columnists. I go back to reading, oh, "1,001 Afternoons in Chicago," Ben Hecht's wonderful book about the assignment he gave himself as a young reporter before he went off to Hollywood. But that local columnist that becomes so identified with their town, the Jimmy Breslins, the people like that who can, in some ways, speak for an important part of their community, give that a voice that, in some ways, nobody else can do.

SCHULTZ: I would love to see what that Jimmy Breslin or (unintelligible) column would look like with the Internet now, because I guarantee that far more people would be weighing online, saying, well, he doesn't speak for me, you know, because you get that now more than you ever did before you had the online comments.

But you're right. I mean, I - the thing I - you know what really moves me, and actually it was the only time I started to cry after I decided to leave, was I started getting emails and calls from people like waitresses and factory workers, saying how could you leave us? Who is going to fight for us now? And then it really hit me, and I turned to my husband and I said, oh, no. What have I done? He said you're still fighting for them. They're not going to see you in the Cleveland paper, but you're not giving up on them. But that's when it hit me, Neal, what you're talking about that that identity you have with your community and how some identify with you. They feel, you know, they've got you on their side.

CONAN: And your success is their success.

SCHULTZ: Oh, I remember that. The day I won - the call I remember, out of all the calls the day I won the Pulitzer, was a factory worker who called. He started talking. He had to hang up because he started to cry. He called me, and I hope I don't cry telling you this. He called me a half-hour later, and he was - he the leaves this message. He goes well, I'm that factory worker who called you. I kind of lost it there, but he said I just want to tell you something. Every morning, I tell my three girls they got to read your column, and I tell them, see? Her daddy was a factory worker, and look how she turned out.

And that both lifted me sky high, but it broke my heart because it said what he thought of himself, you know? Because my dad was a factory worker, and that one - I will never forget that call.


CONAN: Let's go to Ed. Ed's on Interstate 5 in Oregon.

ED: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please, Ed.

ED: Well, I use columnists to help me shape my own opinions because I tend to be cast in granite when I shouldn't be.


ED: And everyone once in a while, I'll read somebody, it's like a slap between the ears. It's just wake up. Look around. I particularly like - I read Connie Schultz when I can get her. I don't necessarily have access to the same papers every day.

SCHULTZ: Thank you.

ED: The - I just find so many good points will help me in conversations with my peers, particularly those on the opposition's side.


ED: And so I think good columnists tend to maybe bring us all towards a consensus (unintelligible).

CONAN: Ed, thank you very much. I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. But drive carefully, Ed.

SCHULTZ: Thank you. Yes, drive carefully.

CONAN: And, Connie Schultz, good luck with your new projects, whatever they may be.

SCHULTZ: Thank you. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Connie Schultz is syndicated columnist with the Creators Syndicate, joined us here in the studios at WOSU. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.