Jody Glynn Patrick Comes Full Circle — as a Writer and a Colleague
In 1960, Mrs. Wilson penned on my second-grade report card:”The class is learning how to write paragraphs and how to get along on the playground. Jody skips recess to stay at her desk and write stories. It’s too early to know if this is something to celebrate or something to raise concern.”
I admit that I lost myself (and found myself) in a passion for writing at age seven. For me, pen on paper was what sign language was for Helen Keller: It opened the door to a world of organized thoughts and reflection. Math, on the other hand, caught my interest only when phrased as word problems… or when I could see the relevance.
It is ironic that perhaps because writing came so naturally to me, I never considered it as a career path when in college. There, I tested out of required writing courses and skipped journalism classes, more interested in learning psychology and statistics. But maybe that was for the best: Little did I appreciate at that time that it was probably the exact education a publisher should pursue!
Statistics is about relationships, and it helps people better understand the difference between event and outcome. Later, this would prove helpful to really understanding financial reports. But when I was in college, it most helped with regard to professional research. At that time, I loved writing long research papers and ghostwriting for English professors who had to “publish or perish” when seeking tenure. (Though I didn’t fully comprehend it, writing already was paying the bills.)
My “real” career soon became hotline crisis counseling, death counseling and police crisis work. But on the side, I wrote articles for Women’s Day, Guidepost, and Elements magazines because I just couldn’t resist the desire to write reflective pieces. Writing was better than meditation; at the very least, at the end of a tough day at my unpredictable “office,” it was a form of meditation.
When I needed extra income for my kid’s school uniforms, I hoped to be able to turn that sideline into a steady paycheck — albeit writing assigned copy or obituaries, which is usually how a newspaper journalist begins. I was less than enthusiastic, actually, when I approached a Milwaukee chain of 22 suburban newspapers to see if they had any opportunities for a “stringer” writer. But I really, really needed the money and it was something I was sure I could do.
The Ups and Downs of Grabbing Brass Rings
Miraculously (if you read my blogs, you know I LOVE miracles!), two days after submitting a sample column, I was given the cherry opportunity of writing a personal (i.e., “reflective”) column for many of the group’s 22 weekly newspapers. At minimum, the column would appear in six papers. But when space allowed, it would be printed in all of them. I could write about anything I wanted, so long as it was turned in on time and met the editor’s standards for reader interest.
It was the best I ever could have wished for, and more than I ever expected. I felt like I had won the lottery and the two week lag between being hired and seeing the first column in print seemed to be an eternity. I couldn’t wait to send copies to my family and coworkers! The pay at the time — $40 per column — was also considered good money for that genre (if that gives you any idea about why I didn’t yet think of writing as a “main career”).
About that same time, I met Joe Vanden Plas, a sports and news features writer for the same newspaper chain. It was a chance meeting at an awards dinner, where he won one of the coveted trophies. I remember that we were introduced and exchanged chit chat for a few moments and then went our separate ways. It was idle chatter; my old lady editor had given him a ride in her hot new red sports car — or some such thing as that. Little did we know then that that silly introduction would turn into a lifelong cycle of hiring each other.
When I asked for more work (tuition was raised for my kid’s schooling), my editor agreed to try me out on feature stories. Lorraine Ritchards was a newspaper veteran known for eating writers for breakfast, and while I had wowed her with an ability to write down my own thoughts, writing news stories was a whole ‘nother thing. The next few weeks she really kicked my asterisks. The difference between columns and news stories, I quickly learned, is journalistic instincts. Lorraine listed omissions — people I should have thought to interview, and didn’t — in red pen. And she also taught me about split verbs. Her lesson: Don’t split them.
“If you make the same mistake twice, you’ll be interviewing widows and covering town hall meetings for a dime a word,” she warned. And she meant it.
Initially, my manuscripts bled like the Red Sea. But my greatest critic became my greatest teacher. Lorraine set expectations high and never deviated from her standards. That was fine by me. I was used to professional crisis work, where bad decisions could mean someone died. If I screwed up a feature story, I could only be fired or quit, so I didn’t have the stress that the professional writers felt. And that freed me up emotionally to soak up her advice and learn from it without feeling overly defensive or worried.
As a result of her tutelage, “Person to Person” won the National Suburban’s Newspaper Association’s top award for column writing, topping over 800 other columnists in the U.S. and Canada, and “Death Aboard an Amtrack Train” took a state award for investigative news reporting.
Eventually, however, my “real” paycheck caught up with my needs, and crisis work and family demands consumed my time. I did about 300 death notifications as a police crisis interventionist over the next several years, and later served as a supervisor of a Colorado child abuse/neglect unit. In those jobs, I learned that if you want to burn out in social work, head a child abuse investigative unit in remote mountain regions.
It isn’t the children you remove from their homes who keep you awake nights: it’s the ones you can’t remove — those you’ve promised to help, when interviewing them. Such promises come easy to adults when they are trying to get information from a desperate child, but it takes a lot of trust for an abused child to confide in you. And then (too often it seemed), a court decided to let the parents have yet another chance. Oftentimes, I found, that meant the parent was free to take the child to another region where they weren’t as well known yet as abusers. Forget monitoring — we didn’t have the staff or the time, with our workloads, to look for people who moved out of our county jurisdiction.
Suddenly it isn’t the parent who was the one that ultimately the child couldn’t trust … it was the one who promised to intervene.
Writing was looking pretty good by comparison. When I started snacking on Tums every day, I also put out feelers again in the writing community. This time, however, it was for a career instead of a gig.
Which Brings Us Back to Joe
Joe Vanden Plas, by then the group editor of a different group of six papers, invited me to come back to the Milwaukee area to write a column for them. We titled it Closer to Home, and again I could write about whatever I wanted. It didn’t take long to realize that I was where I belonged. Within a year, I leapfrogged him to become the Administrator and publisher-in-training for those six papers. It wasn’t a contest: Joe loved writing more than being a boss, while I definitely preferred being the boss of myself (being boss of everyone else was just a promised bonus). Then, as soon as I was ready to be named publisher (and promised the chance), the papers were sold … to a new publisher.
Within a week, I was hired to create a new editorial department (and to write a column) for a group of 17 suburban Chicago papers. (Yes, another miracle). And suddenly I was in a position to hire Joe as the editor! I was ever so grateful when he said yes. My success there would be, I was sure, predicated on his talent. And it was.
If you’re an IB reader, you know he also accepted my invitation to come to Madison as editor. Twice. (Between positions, he was a work-at-home dad so he could spend more quality time with his family in Whitefish Bay).
And Now We Again Circle Back to Reflective Writing
Both Lorraine and Joe taught me a lot about journalism and greatly influenced my career, as has Bill Haight. I was mindful of that while traveling to the State Department in Washington, D.C. in June, 2007, to accept the honor of being the SBA’s U.S. Journalist of the Year. No one wins an honor like that without great training, and I will forever be indebted to all three of them.
It has been an incredible ride and everything has come full circle with my blog, “After Hours,” created for IBMadison.com. I’ve reverted to the style of writing so enjoyed in second grade — reflective stories — and already posted an invitation to you to write a 60-word story (with examples written by some people you might know). In a three-part series about miracles, I’ve admitted sorrows, talked about a priest angel, and shared lovable Uncle Gene.
My blogs at IBMadison.com don’t belong in a traditional business magazine, but very much belong in a web portal that brings a 360-degree perspective. We all have multi-dimensional lives, after all, and I’m just lucky enough to make a living writing about mine.
Following my lead, Bill Haight will also migrate to the Web. He’s likewise drawn to the “post as much and as often as you want” fluidity. However, Bill won’t challenge you with a new writing style; he’ll give you more of what you have admired from IB for more than 30 years. He’ll continue to serve you with stories relevant to your work day. Watch for his blog to begin later this summer.
Meanwhile, please continue to join me after hours for a late night or early morning read!