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How Mary Schmich ’75 became a journalist and the voice of Brenda Starr is a story of seized opportunities.
Accidental Choices

By Mark Wood

Wear sunscreen.

When Mary Schmich ’75 typed that innocuous phrase one afternoon at the Tribune Tower in
Chicago, she had no way of knowing that she was writing what might well be the most
widely quoted words of her career. Known to Tribune readers as a thoughtful columnist
with a witty turn of phrase, and to funny page aficionados as the writer who breathed
new life into the tired old Brenda Starr comic strip, she certainly never suspected
that—a bit like a soldier stepping onto a landmine—she was about to stumble into a
veritable explosion of instant fame.

“It was,” she says now, “the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me. And yet, one of the most deeply satisfying, ultimately.”

The “weird” part is easy to understand. The column she wrote that afternoon, which
would be published in the Chicago Tribune on June 1, 1997—her third column of the
week—consisted of an imaginary commencement address in which she doled out such epigrammatic nuggets as: “Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living
room,” “Floss” and “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with
people who are reckless with yours.”

Who could guess that this 650-word piece of wise whimsy, dashed off in a single
afternoon, was destined to become perhaps the most widely disseminated
e-mail chain-letter in the history of the Internet? Or that, somewhere down the
cyber-line, it would take on the guise of an actual speech—purportedly delivered at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology by author Kurt Vonnegut, no less—and become symbolic of the power of the Internet to deceive.

Without warning, Schmich found herself at the heart of a media frenzy.

“All of a sudden, people are putting make-up on you and pointing TV cameras at you,
and you have to become concerned about how you look,” she says. “I hated that aspect of
it. You’re here on national television, and you’re here in these national magazines,
and people are responding to your hair? Oh my God!”

But of course, that wasn’t all that people were responding to. Aside from the obvious
moral of the story—the unreliability of information in what Schmich has called the
“cyberswamp”—there was the undeniable fact that the words she had written had resonated
deeply with millions of people. Just how deeply wouldn’t become clear until a couple of
years later, in 1999, when Australian moviemaker Baz Luhrmann decided to include a
reading of the column on a CD album. Spoken in fatherly tones by Australian actor Lee
Perry against a musical background, the track, titled “Everybody’s Free (to Wear
Sunscreen),” quickly climbed the Billboard charts.

And suddenly, Schmich was back in the spotlight.

“My phone number was out on some radio DJ communal list,” she recalls, “so I would get
calls every morning waking me up, saying, ‘He-e-ey, this is Buff and Jeff in Kansas
City, Mar’, how’s it goin’?’”

But if those calls infuriated her, there were thousands of other messages that touched
her heart. Even now, years later, they haven’t stopped coming.

“I would say a day does not go by, still, that I don’t hear from someone, somewhere in
the world, saying, ‘I just read that, I just heard that. Thank you.’ Every single day!
It’s astonishing. I’ve lost any sense of what that piece actually says, but people have
these incredible testimonials.”

Her voice, as she speaks of this, becomes small and hesitant, as if she is a little
reluctant to bare her heart on what is obviously an emotional subject.

“It was one of those things that I couldn’t talk to anybody about, because nobody
understood it. Even now, nobody knows what it felt like to have thousands of people
making these testaments. People in jail, suicidal 13-year-olds. I can’t tell you how
many near-suicidal people have written to me. It just breaks my heart. You take that
stuff in, and you may joke about it to people you know, but they don’t really hear it,
and they just think it’s cool that you got to be in People Magazine.”

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the
power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded.

These days, it’s hard to find any trace of Schmich’s Deep South roots in her speech,
except perhaps for that soft lilt that comes into her voice when she reflects upon the
past. “I’m this weird mix of Southern, Californian, and some Midwestern because I’ve
lived here for so long,” she says. “But the South still feels like the right place to
me in a way no other place ever has. I mean, the color of the grass is the correct
color in Georgia, you know?”

That’s not to say, however, that her childhood in Savannah, Decatur and Macon was
idyllic. In fact, it was something of an old-fashioned upbringing, with an emphasis on
household chores. The eldest of eight children born over a span of just 10 years, she
learned to change diapers at the age of 5 and to cook at the age of 6. She grew up
feeling more like a third parent than one of the kids.

“As my mother once said to me, ‘You didn’t have much of a childhood, did you, honey?’”
she says.

But if her childhood left her with a deeply engrained work ethic, her high school years
taught her a darker lesson, one about the thin line between good luck and hard luck.
After her father—ever ambitious—lost all his money, Schmich’s family moved to Phoenix,
where her father tried his hand at real estate, with a brief measure of success. “But
then he lost all his money again, and by the time I was a senior, my family was living
in a motel room,” she says. “When I went to Pomona, they were living in the Motel de
Mañana.”

In future years, Phoenix would become more symbol than city, representing hard times
and limited horizons. As much as she loved her family, from the moment she left
Phoenix, heading for Claremont and better things, she was determined never to have to
go back to stay.

Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your
choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.

“It’s very easy for me to tell my life story as if I never had a clue what I was
doing,” Schmich says, “and I honestly feel that way sometimes. And yet, I must have.
Somewhere along the way, a pattern starts to emerge, right?”

The pattern she’s referring to is one that’s hard to miss—a series of seemingly random
choices that have led her unerringly toward the work she loves.

For example, with her senior year at Pomona winding down and no idea what to do next—“I
just didn’t know how to arrange a life”—she heard about a job in Pomona’s Office of
Admissions. In fear of having to go back to Phoenix, she applied. To her amazement,
then–Dean of Admissions Jack Quinlan hired her.

“Jack was the son of a Milwaukee cop, and he understood something about me, and I think
he just decided he was going to give me a chance,” she says. “And really, the three
years I spent in Admissions at Pomona were my transition years. It was the beginning of
my coming to understand how the world works and how I might insert myself into it.”

Though a classmate had convinced her to co-edit the student newspaper her senior year
at Pomona, journalism as a career simply wasn’t on her radar screen. And yet, looking
back, she believes the work she did during those three years in Admissions—particularly
interviewing students and writing up notes—made a perfect prelude to her
profession-to-be. “I became famous for my interview notes,” she recalls. “It’s what I
loved to do. My notes, they had quotes, they had scenery. They were short stories.”
After three years of interview notes, when she finally felt confident enough to leave,
she set her sights on a Rotary fellowship, to spend a year studying in France, where
she’d spent a semester during her junior year. Journalism still didn’t appeal to her,
but as a pretext, she decided to feign interest.

“On the application they asked why you wanted this,” she says, “and I explained that it
was because I was thinking of becoming a journalist—which I was not—and I felt it was
important as a journalist to know another language and to see more of the world. It was
one of those things where, even though I was kind of making it up, obviously there was
something in me that meant it.”

A year later in France, as the clock ran down on her fellowship, she applied to
Stanford University’s school of journalism, again for lack of anything more definite.
Still convinced that she didn’t want to be a journalist, she looked the prospect of
returning to Phoenix in the eye, turned and fled to Stanford. There, she faked it for a
couple of quarters. Then a remarkable thing happened.

“It turned out that I had ability for this. And that took me a little by surprise. And
it turned out that I really, really liked it.”

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as
trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.

Schmich’s college friends still find it hard to believe that the student who never
finished a paper on time became a big-time journalist. Schmich, however, sees no
contradiction. She simply discovered the power of real-world deadlines.

“I have these two little mantras I’ve invented for myself over the years,” she says.
“One is: ‘Deadlines crowd out doubt.’ The other is: ‘Panic is my muse.’ Somebody just
watching me work would think I’m extremely aggressive and confident and quick. In
my mind, I’m just quivering with doubt all the time. But if you give me a deadline, I
forget the doubt. There is no room for doubt on deadline. You just
do it.”

After leaving Stanford, her career in journalism led her from the Peninsula
Times-Tribune
in Palo Alto to the Orlando Sentinel, and finally, to the Chicago
Tribune
, which offered her the job of her dreams, writing feature stories. On her first
visit to Chicago, in 1985, she fell in love with the city. To her surprise, however,
she didn’t fall in love with her new job. Writing features soon began to feel a bit
extraneous. Her body, accustomed to the urgency of a reporter’s life, was in adrenaline
withdrawal. So when she was offered a job on the national staff, with its network of
bureaus around the country, she said yes. By luck, the bureau job that came open was in
Atlanta.

“I couldn’t think of anything more thrilling than to go back to this place where I’d
grown up and that I still missed and yearned for,” she says. “To go back and try to
understand it in a different way and write it for an audience that didn’t understand
it—that was prejudiced against it. I felt this sense of mission that up until that
point I hadn’t felt. I’d enjoyed what I was doing up until then, but somehow when I got
into that particular job, the sense of mission came in. I needed to write about race. I needed to write history, I needed to explain the South to anybody who would bother to read it.”

She remembers the next five years as the most intense of her life. If she had been
missing the adrenaline highs of real journalism before, now she lived on the stuff.
Based in Atlanta, she covered 14 states across the South, covering all the big Southern
stories of the day—from crime to hurricanes. She covered the trial of televangelist Jim
Bakker and was the first national newspaper reporter to profile Aileen Wuornos, whom
the press would later hype as the nation’s first female serial killer. But at the end
of those five years, she was worn out and ready to move on.

“It’s like a lot of things in your youth that were very pumped up,” she recalls. “You
can remember how good that felt, but you can’t imagine doing it any more. There was so
much adrenaline. I lived on adrenaline. It was like being drugged.”

So when an editor at the Tribune called, once again out of the blue, to offer her a
chance to write a column, her immediate response was: No.

“Once I got beyond no, which took me a few days, I said, ‘We have to talk about what
this will be.’ I said, ‘I’ll come write this, but it has to be really a column. I have
to be able to use first person. I have to be able to have an opinion.’”

Satisfied by the answers she received, she returned to Chicago in 1992 to become a
columnist. More than 1,000 columns later, she still loves the immediacy of what she
does. “Still, 12 years into it,” she says, “you get up three times a week and think,
What’s in the air?”

Do one thing every day that scares you.
The story of how her column was born is typical of Schmich’s approach to challenges.
First she says no, then she analyzes herself, wondering why she said no, then she says
yes, and finally she obsesses over proving she can actually do it.

Take running, for instance. One day, while working in Pomona’s Admissions Office—a
sedentary time in her life—her boss, Jack Quinlan, told her she needed to get more
exercise. “I was horrified,” she says. “He was a runner. There was a whole group of
guys there who ran. So I started running secretly. Then one day, the guys were running
at lunch, and I said, ‘Can I run with you guys?’ And they looked at me like, ‘What?
You?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to run with you.’ So I went out and ran five with them.
Then I started running 10 with them.”

During her last week in Admissions, she ran the Palos Verdes Marathon, finishing in
three hours and 36 minutes.

In the early ’90s, when her knees began to go, she switched to yoga. “My friends
thought I’d joined a cult. They thought I’d become a Hare Krishna. I just took to it
immediately, and became, as I do when I get onto things, rather obsessive.”
After a few years, someone asked her to teach a yoga class. She said no. Then she said
yes. Now she teaches four classes a week.

Or consider the weirdest case of all. During her last year at the Orlando Sentinel, her
editor walked up to her one day with a strange proposition.

“He asked, ‘Do you read Brenda Starr?’ And I said, ‘Oh Dave, not since I was a kid.
It’s so stupid.’ And he said, ‘Do you want to write it?’”

Of course, she said no. Then she agreed to a meeting with the editor of the syndicate
that published the 45-year old comic strip.

“It’s the only time in my life I would say I truly bluffed,” she says with a laugh.
“The guy said to me, ‘Well, have you ever written a comic strip?’ I said, ‘No.’ He
said, ‘Have you written plays?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘What makes you think you can do
this?’ I said, ‘Because it’s obvious that I can.’ He said, ‘Okay, go write me a sample
script.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And I did. And they hired me. And 19 years of plots later, I’m
thinking, ‘Oh no, not another one.’”

Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s
only with yourself.

Schmich never expected her greatest written legacy to be something that began with the
words, “Wear sunscreen.” But then, she doesn’t expect to have much control over her
legacy. She has always been willing to meet life on its own terms.

“The positive side of not having a specific goal,” she says, “is that if you just keep
leaving yourself open to stuff, a lot of stuff actually comes to you.”

It’s a bit misleading, however, to say she doesn’t have specific goals. Though it’s
easy to focus on her wittier writings, Schmich has also spent a great deal of time
delving into the lives of Chicago’s poor and disadvantaged and telling their stories.
Earlier this year, she spent two months reporting on the demolition of the infamous
Cabrini-Green housing project, resulting in 11 columns. Those, too, will be part of her
written legacy.

As for the life she has built—whether by accident or by unconscious design—Schmich is
content.

She says, “Sometimes it does cross my mind that people look at me and wonder, ‘Why
doesn’t she cut her hair? She is just weird. Why isn’t she raising children?’ All the
things that people think of as being normal. But one of the things people ask me is,
‘If you were going to write that “sunscreen” thing again, is there anything else you’d
say?’ I usually say no. But if you press me, one of the things I would say is, ‘There’s
more than one way to live.’ I just feel that we all get so trapped into believing in
the standard way to make your life appear, and for many people that’s great—it works
just great for them. But there are ways to not do that and still have it work out.”

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a
form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping
it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.
But trust me on the sunscreen.

 

©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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