A Blue-Collar Columnist
Connie Schultz, the Plain Dealer’s Pulitzer Prize winner, loves to tell the stories of regular people.
By Robin T. Reid
Connie Schultz likes to tell stories. She can't help it, she says, she's part Irish.
Robin T. Reid (email@example.com) is a former AJR associate editor.
And the columnist for Cleveland's Plain Dealer can indeed spin a good yarn, good enough to score her a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. It was her first, and the first for the paper in 52 years. She beat out fellow finalists Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times and the Charlotte Observer's Tommy Tomlinson. In an e-mail exchange, Tomlinson told Schultz he was a fan.
"Those kinds of notes just rock you," she says.
The whole experience of winning so much in one year has rocked her. In addition to the Pulitzer, Schultz won the Scripps Howard and National Headliners awards for her column writing.
On the morning of April 4, the day the Pulitzer winners were announced, a Plain Dealer reporter interviewed Schultz. A few hours later, she walked into the newsroom and her interviewer began to clap. In a flash, the rest of the staffers were on their feet, applauding. One placed a plastic tiara on Schultz's head and another gave her a large bouquet of flowers--humorous nods to her frequent gripes about what it was like growing up as the only woman in her family who was not homecoming queen. Schultz cried.
Over the next few days, she got 4,500 e-mails from friends, colleagues and readers. "I'm humbled by the whole thing," she says.
That's Schultz, says her editor, Stuart Warner, the paper's deputy features editor and writing coach. "She's very down-to-earth, blue collar. She's never forgotten her Ashtabula roots."
Schultz was born in that city in the northeastern corner of Ohio 47 years ago. Her father was a factory worker, and her mother was a nurse's aide. Schultz was the oldest of their four children.
Growing up in a working-class household, Schultz explains, meant that you never thought about doing something you loved for a living. "I remember playing with my brother in front of our house one day and seeing my father sitting on the step with a can of Schlitz. He looked upset, and I asked him what was wrong. He said, 'You could teach a monkey to do what I do.'"
As high school graduation approached, Schultz told her guidance counselor she wanted to be a social worker. "He said, 'You're going to burn out.' He then looked at my grades and said, 'You're really good in English. Why don't you go into journalism?'"
She went to Kent State, where she became editor of the school paper and was a stringer for the New York Times. After college, she went to law school, but dropped out after two years because she hated it.
She married, assumed the care of her husband's young son and soon had a daughter. She also began to write, turning out essay after essay sitting at the kitchen table. She'd written about 40 cover stories for the Plain Dealer's Sunday magazine before she joined the staff as a reporter in December 1993. (She became a full-time columnist in the fall of 2002.)
"I knew there was a good chance that I was going to be on my own," Schultz says of her decision to quit freelancing. "Sure enough, three months later, my divorce was under way. It was my first newsroom job. I felt defensive, quietly defensive, because I'd been a stay-at-home mom."
"Her path was not easy," says Warner. "She started late in life... She gets detractors in the newsroom because she is gregarious. You'll never meet a more outgoing person. And she loves to talk."
Schultz blends that love with empathy. She says she's not afraid to discuss her own foibles, and people pick up on that. "If people feel like you're going to commiserate, they're going to talk," she says. "I don't want to be the voice of God waving my finger, telling people what to do. I want to tell stories that show them that there may be a better way to do things. I think, 'How would I want to hear this lesson?'.. I love the relationship I build with readers."
One of those readers became her second husband. A few years ago, Schultz received fan mail from U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who represents the 13th District near Cleveland. "He said, 'You remind me of my favorite writer, Barbara Kingsolver,' and signed it 'Sherrod Brown, Lorain, Ohio,'" she recalls. They eventually met for dinner and were engaged almost a year later.
Brown's work is pretty much the one subject Schultz cannot cover in her twice-a-week column. Her personal edict is that she truly care about her subjects. And she finds them everywhere: in a trailer park, in a department store where a cranky woman berates a store clerk at Christmastime, in the tip jar at a coat check. What unites them is her concern for the little guy. Don't look down on someone who lives in a trailer park, she urges. Don't whine when the frazzled saleswoman forgets to wish you a happy holiday when you're Christmas shopping. And always ask who gets the money collected in a tip jar, because very often the cash goes to management instead of the employees who actually earn it.
"I see people mistreated because they can be mistreated," Schultz says. "I saw what happened to my parents because of what they did for a living and what they didn't earn.
"I'm a scrapper," she continues. " 'No' doesn't work very well with me. I'm so used to proving myself over and over. It toughens you up, but it also softens you to other people's vulnerabilities." ###