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Bertha González Nieves (MSJ97): CEO & Co-Founder of Tequila Casa Dragones

What is your current role?

I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Tequila Casa Dragones. As Chief Executive Officer, my main responsibilities are to create, develop and manage a portfolio of sipping tequilas, and lead our entire team in the U.S. and Mexico.

What led you to start a tequila company? Did you always have that interest in the food or alcohol business, or was it a sudden inspiration?

While completing my undergraduate program in Mexico City, I was studying business administration and was selected by the Japanese government to represent Mexico in a program in Japan. As part of my training for this program, I was invited to travel all over Mexico, visiting many different, top industries of the country in order to learn about them and be able to speak eloquently about Mexico’s economy.

As part of those trips, I was invited to go to Tequila, Jalisco, for three days to visit agave fields and different distilleries. At the end of the trip, I called my parents and told them, “I know what I want to do. I want to go into the tequila industry.” I was really taken by the beauty of the plant and the whole process.

When I had the chance to go to Japan, I began to truly understand how tequila serves as a window into Mexican culture. Meaning, when you ask people from around the world about Mexico and you ask them to name five things that represent Mexico, tequila is almost always part of that answer. The idea that tequila is truly a part of the social fabric of Mexico really captivated me. So I began to prepare for a career in the industry. 

I worked in management consulting after finishing my undergraduate in Mexico, and then I did the Medill IMC program. I also took as many courses as I could at Kellogg, to complement my experience. When I graduated, I went and knocked on the doors of the tequila industry thinking that with my background I could get a pretty good job. And that’s how I got started.

After working for a decade for the oldest and most established tequila producer in the world, I realized that I have the heart of an entrepreneur.  I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and when I was younger I embarked on many small entrepreneurial ventures. So, after a decade of working for someone else’s company, I realized that I wanted to run my own business.

I started obsessing about the opportunity of becoming an entrepreneur in the tequila category, producing my own tequila, and really having the opportunity to deliver the best possible product. That’s where my journey to build my own company started.

How did your experience at Medill shape your approach to entrepreneurship and to the whole marketing aspect while building your company?

I can’t just attribute it to one thing or another specifically.  However, I definitely think that having the opportunity to go through the IMC program and take other important classes as well, such as entrepreneurship, gave me more ammunition for my career. The opportunity to go to the top marketing school in the U.S. really gave me a very wide perspective of not only marketing, but also of public relations, advertising, direct marketing statistics, consumer behavior, and entrepreneurship, which completely opened my perspective. I would say it’s really a combination of factors. I believe that having had the opportunity to go to Northwestern was and will forever be a turning point in my career.

When you came to Medill, did you envision a future plan, and once you graduated, did you still have that same vision in mind or did Medill change your perspective?

Medill confirmed my interest in going into brand management. When I graduated, I began looking for a role in brand management in the tequila category. I think the classes that I took and how I approached what I was learning helped, and as my career progressed, I was able to keep many of these learnings   as real anchors and real support for my own experience.

I didn’t know that I was going to be able to become a successful entrepreneur. Coming from Mexico City, having had  the opportunity to go to Medill, and to receive a scholarship, was in a way very entrepreneurial for me, and gave me valuable experience to become an entrepreneur. 

How has the Medill network helped you throughout building your career?

I did an internship in an advertising agency, and that was really interesting because it was a window into the world of advertising and marketing, and ultimately brand building. Then, when I graduated, it was very helpful to be able to leverage many of the different companies that had come to Medill. I knew I wanted to go into the tequila industry, and I had to use my own network to accomplish that. However, I tried to stay close to the university because I believe that the impact that it had on my career was truly important.

Can you speak of a time that stands out to you from your time at Medill?

When I graduated, they gave me the Arthur E. Tatham award, which is given to a student with a standing promise in marketing communications. That was a pretty big moment for me. Plus, it was a monetary award that enabled me to actually have a little bit more money to be able to wait for the right job, which was incredibly helpful.

Other things stand out as well, such as the impact from some of Medill’s excellent roster of professors, such as Stanley Tannenbaum, who is no longer with us. His role in the advertising world was really incredible, the way that he taught us and the way that he inspired us was a great experience. We also had the chance to work with the speech writers that had worked with Bill Clinton, for example. It was always so exciting to be able to be sitting in front of such experienced professors, whether in media, writing, journalism, or in advertising.

Finally, what still stands out to me were the people that I met there, the richness of the program, the beauty of Chicago and Evanston, and the high academic level of Northwestern. Since then, I’ve been back to both Medill and Kellogg for different invitations. It’s really an extraordinary school and I feel very proud and grateful to have a connection to it.

How has your work at Medill made a difference in your career?

I immediately went into brand management and it helped me find my passion. Of course, tequila is my passion, but in the end, it’s all about building a brand, a successful product, and a very high-quality product. So, I think that my experience at Medill helped me understand that there was a real passion for me in this field, and it gave me the tools to get there and actually do it.

If you could give advice to someone who’s entering Medill or thinking about joining Medill, what would you tell them?

The university has so much to offer that it is up to the student to make that really work for you. You need to be truly curious about what you’re learning and be proactive and interactive with your professors and accept the challenge. If you do, you’re going to get so much out of the experience and gain valuable skills for your life.

For me personally, Northwestern also awakened an interest in academia; it infused me with the idea of constantly looking for new courses. It’s up to you to really stay curious.

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Kelsey Ogletree(MSJ10): Founder, Pitchcraft, and Independent Journalist

1. What inspired you to go to Medill?

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications from Carroll College in Helena, Montana, but my true love was in magazines. After researching Medill’s magazine journalism program, I told myself I was going no matter what, if I got in. I moved to Evanston to start the MSJ program a few months later not knowing a soul, and it was the best decision I ever made.

2. What did you specialize in at Medill, if anything?

Magazine journalism.

3.What is your favorite Medill moment(s)?

Two stick out to me. The first was doing man-on-the-street interviews during Methods class at the start of the program. Hitting the streets of Chicago in the dead of winter and trying to convince strangers walking by to do an interview with us, while getting our equipment set up and functioning in single-digit
temperatures, was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It was a turning point for me not only in my career, but in my life. I’d always been considered shy and one to stay in my lane, but that exercise helped me to gain the experience and confidence I needed to break out of that shell.

The innovation project was a highlight of my time at Medill. Our class, which graduated in December 2010, chose to create the first digital magazine designed for the iPad, which had come out that spring. Building this product from the ground up —for a medium that had not been done before — provided me with a breadth of new skills that I use to this day, more than a decade later. That included navigating through tough challenges with a team, delegating, managing technology failures, understanding design
and UX, defining your audience, negotiating, business planning and even pitching to venture capital firms.

4. What did you do right after Medill?

I started my first post-grad job as an assistant editor with McKinsey & Company, working on the firm’s McKinsey Quarterly business journal, in downtown Chicago a month after graduation. I spent several years there before moving to Atlanta to become managing editor for Jezebel, a print magazine published
by Modern Luxury. Next, I moved through a series of editorial roles at Connect, overseeing print and digital magazines for four individual segments of the meetings and events industry, before being laid off unexpectedly from my role as editor-in-chief there in fall 2017.

5. How did you go about launching your freelance career?

I’d always viewed becoming a freelancer as my ultimate goal, dreaming of working for myself but imagining it would happen further into my career than it did. Jobless overnight after my layoff, I decided to try freelancing for a while to get me through the holidays, after which I figured I’d apply for new jobs.
The first person I reached out to was a friend who’d graduated from the magazine program with me at Medill, who was then working as an editor with Real Simple. She gave me the opportunity to write a couple digital stories for her (I still recall, it was best holiday gifts for parents, and for brothers), and I
earned my first national media clips because of her generosity. It gave me the confidence to begin pitching other national publications, and within a few months I was writing for Shape, Cooking Light, Reader’s Digest and others. At the start of my freelance career, I would write about anything, for any publication I could. Over the past five years, however, I’ve worked to develop a strong personal brand as a writer covering topics I enjoy. Now, I’m known for my writing about travel, food and golf, and my top outlets include Travel + Leisure, AARP The Magazine and Southern Living, among others. To this day, I find how strong a Medill connection goes. Before pitching a new editor, I always check their LinkedIn page to see where they went to school. I’ve found that when I reach out to a fellow Medill alum and mention it in the first sentence, the response rate is nearly 100 percent.

6. How did you then launch your own business, Pitchcraft? Can you summarize what it is in a few

Pitchcraft is a technology platform connecting independent PR professionals and small PR agencies to freelance journalists and editors in the national consumer lifestyle space. We put the “relations” back in public relations through a series of resources designed to foster relationships among writers, editors and
PR — including weekly personal interviews with freelance journalists, weekly calls for members only, monthly workshops with freelancers and editors. Our business model includes paying all our journalists and editors, showing we value their time and expertise.

It began in March 2020, when I decided to host a Zoom meeting to bring together writers and PR pros to discuss pitching during the pandemic. It evolved into monthly paid workshops that regularly sold out. I decided to roll it into an ongoing membership with resources our members could access at any time, and that would build community. My husband, Derrick, left his corporate job in May 2021, and together we built Pitchcraft and launched in December 2021. Together with our growing cohort of members and network of journalists, we are working to shift the transactional nature of the media industry into one that’s relationship based. Being journalist-led sets us apart from any other PR software company. We have big things planned for 2023 to continue to grow and spark foundational change.

7. How did your Medill training help you in your career, either as a writer or business owner, now? 

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the skills and connections I developed through my time at Medill. One thing I’ve come back to time and time again is the program’s journalism ethics course. We live in a time where anyone can call themselves a freelance writer if they’re able to pitch and get an assignment from an editor, but not everyone has the foundation of what being a journalist means, from an ethical standpoint. That’s of increasing importance in a world of fake news and much noise in the content space

The connections I established through Medill have been invaluable. It’s amazing to see where my fellow classmates have ended up in their careers, and to keep in touch with them and turn to each other as resources years later. There’s also an unspoken bond among alumni, even if we didn’t go to school together, that establishes trust and camaraderie from the start. For instance, I’ve had many writers and editors who are Medill alums join Pitchcraft as guests, who’ve immediately said yes after learning of our Medill connection.

8. What advice do you have for incoming MSJers? 

When you start your MSJ program, clear out any extraneous noise or distractions in your life so you can focus 100 percent on the work. You get out of it what you put into it. Yes, it’s going to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Yes, you’re going to be forced into situations that make you uncomfortable. You’ll learn from them. Yes, you’re going to make mistakes (I once wrote a headline that was read aloud to the class that was so embarrassing, I can’t bear to think of it do this day). You’ll get through them and never make them again. Also, spend time getting to know your classmates personally. These will be your lifelong friends, colleagues and peers whom you can always turn to for advice and support.

My Medill Story

Michael Raphael (BSJ93): How I Turned A Passion for Listening Into a Veterinary Staffing Startup

Investigative journalism takes you to lots of unexpected places—everyone who enters the field is prepared to meet adventure. What I did not imagine is that my particular journey would lead to the boardroom of a startup, focusing on improving the lives of veterinary healthcare professionals.

After graduating from Medill in 1993, I returned to my hometown and worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Associated Press and The Star-Ledger. I had many different beats, but my favorite work always involved listening to people who were unheard and giving voice to their stories. One of my proudest moments came when I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series exposing racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike. 

It was while working at The Star-Ledger that an old friend and I began talking about starting a company. It was the height of the dotcom era, and the startup didn’t last. But the experience proved to be an important one because it showed me that I enjoyed the process of building a company from the ground up. 

I knew enough to know I needed more training, though, so I went back to school to get my MBA at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. While I pursued the degree at night, I interned at a private equity firm called CMS Companies. I worked my way up to managing partner while investing in small companies in a variety of industries. One of those businesses was a group of veterinary hospitals. It was the idea of working in an industry that helped animals that ultimately led me to leave CMS and co-found a company to buy veterinary hospitals and help them operate better.

At the time a nationwide veterinary staffing shortage was just beginning to impact animal hospitals. Vets were leaving in droves because the hours were long and brutal. They came into the profession with high rates of student debt but got very little support from managers at their clinics and hospitals. Add to that a highly emotional job with lots of stressors. For those that stayed, there were high rates of burnout, anxiety, depression, and increased suicide risk. 

It was clear to me that If we wanted to continue to value the health of our animals, we needed to place a higher value on the wellness and happiness of the doctors that treated them. Thus, the idea for IndeVets—a relief (locum) veterinary staffing company that made working conditions better for vets—was born.

What made IndeVets different from my previous startups is that from the very beginning I was guided not just by a problem that needed solving—the labor crisis in the veterinary industry—but also by a sense of social purpose: to improve the experience of practicing veterinary medicine, and by extension, uplift the lives of veterinary professionals. 

If I could bring veterinary medicine more in line with the way today’s vets wanted to work, I knew I could help build a better future for the embattled industry. But as IndeVets grew from a hopeful concept into a full-fledged operation, the biggest challenge was convincing veterinarians that this new model wasn’t too good to be true. 

Today, IndeVets serves a nationwide network of veterinarians and hospitals and my Medill background continues to provide me with critical tools for success. Editing, writing, and asking questions – I use these foundational skills every day. Storytelling is an important part of being an entrepreneur – you have to convince people to see the potential where you see it, and you have to gain their empathy, trust, and loyalty. It’s also a critical part of running a business. Hearing the stories our doctors talk about their challenges – the long days in the clinic, the inability to manage their own lives – drives new ideas for the company. 

At Medill, I set out to write stories that would move the needle in some way and open up dialogue about important issues. Entrepreneurship hasn’t changed that ambition—it’s simply given this journalist-at-heart a new way to work toward change.

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Christine Brennan (BSJ80, MSJ81): An Industry Trailblazer Dedicated to Serving the Next Generation of Female Sports Reporters

By Myles Gilbert

When Christine Brennan was 10, her father would often find her in their living room, school books pushed aside, intently listening to the Toledo Mud Hens broadcast on public radio. Brennan followed the entire 1968 season of the Detroit Tigers Triple-A affiliate in a scorebook she received for her birthday.

“Not only were many 10-year-old girls in America not doing that,” Brennan said. “I dare to say very few 10-year-old boys were doing that.”

That’s who Christine was, and is. Infatuated with scores, stat sheets, and storylines.

Now, at age 64, Brennan has spent more than 40 years covering professional sports and the Olympics for the Miami Herald, The Washington Post and now USA Today. She is also a commentator for ABC News and CNN. Brennan became the Miami Herald’s first female sports reporter in 1981, the Post’s first woman assigned to the Washington Football Team beat in 1985, and the first president of the Association for Women in Sports Media in 1988. A trailblazer in the industry, Brennan is dedicated to help blaze a trail for the next generation of female sports reporters.

“I would be mad at myself if I didn’t give back,” Brennan said.

Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, sports surrounded Brennan, and it became her passion. She and her father dedicated fall Saturdays to college football, attending University of Toledo games just across the street from their home.

Brennan was enthralled by the action. Growing up, she wrote game previews for NBC’s nationally televised baseball games with information she gathered from her own bank of baseball knowledge and her hometown newspaper, the Toledo Blade. She scanned the headlines and box scores of the night before, craving the scoop.

On April 6, 1981, after receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Brennan became the first female sports reporter at the Miami Herald and covered the University of Florida Gators football program, a coveted beat in South Florida.

Brennan attributes her early success in a male-dominated profession to her editors at the Herald and coaches in South Florida, including legendary Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, because they brought her into the newsroom and locker room and allowed her to thrive.

In 1984, Brennan moved to The Washington Post, where then-sports editor George Solomon was inspired by her presence on his team.

“I was impressed with her professionalism and how she cultivated sources,” Solomon said. “She knew it wasn’t easy, but she was respected.”

Grateful for the opportunities she was given to live out her dream, Brennan was inspired to give back, recalling a saying her father often quoted from the New Testament: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

In 1988, Brennan was elected president of the Association for Women in Sports Media, beginning her mentorship and support of female journalists. She helped found a scholarship-internship program, which has impacted almost 200 women, according to Brennan.

Michele Himmelberg, one of the organization’s founders, commends Brennan for championing women’s rights in her reporting.

“She is a strong, fair and righteous voice on important issues that need to be called out,” Himmelberg said. “She forces all of us to think about how wrong these issues are outside sports.”

For 13 years, beginning in 1999, Brennan pressed officials at the Masters Tournament, hosted at the Augusta National Golf Club, about the club’s lack of female members, returning every spring to ask the same question.

“I was public enemy number one of Augusta National,” she said. “But you can ask tough questions and still admire the event.”

Finally, in 2012, Brennan broke the news that Augusta National had admitted its first two female members, a scoop she credited to her friendly relationship with Billy Payne, then chairman of Augusta National, dating back to his days as the head of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

“You treat people right and they treat you right,” she said.

Brennan said she wants to be remembered for looking to the future and helping others, especially those without the same opportunities she had.

“Christine is incredibly generous with her time,” said Charles Whitaker, who was a classmate of Brennan’s at Medill and now serves as dean. “Whether it’s for career advice or just to find a mentor, I always direct students to Christine.”

Himmelberg recalled crowds of young female reporters huddled around Brennan at Association for Women in Sports Media conventions to introduce themselves.

“They flock around Christine because she’s so positive and they soak it all in,” Himmelberg said. “She’s always ready to actively mentor young women and give them hope, direction and guidance.”

What has been most gratifying for Brennan is her activism and compassionate reporting.

“If I were remembered at all,” she said, “I would want to be remembered as someone who gave back, and someone who had an unquenchable thirst to motivate and encourage those coming after me.”

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Telling George Floyd’s full story

By Marc Zarefsky (BSJ07) for Spotlight on Storytelling

Robert Samuels watched footage of George Floyd’s murder like millions of people around the world, but when Samuels, a journalist for the Washington Post, first traveled to Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, he wasn’t interested in Floyd’s death. He wanted to write about Floyd’s life.

“As much as I read about him, I had no sense of his soul,” Samuels told me. “That’s what I wanted to show the world.”

Samuels earned the trust of Floyd’s family and closest friends — many who previously refused interview requests — and crafted a powerful tale of hope and horror as part of the Post’s six-part series on “George Floyd’s America.” But Samuels knew there was a far bigger story to tell, a story of systemic racism that ultimately left Floyd gasping to breathe.

“As time went on, his humanity risked being reduced into simply a face that was associated with pain,” Samuels said. “Fellow Post reporter Toluse Olorunnipa and I thought we could help restore it.”

Now, nearly two years to the day since Floyd was killed, the two are trying to do just that. Samuels and Olorunnipa co-authored “His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” which is available for purchase today.

Samuels talked with me about the challenges of crafting such a complex story involving a person most people know of, but few know about.

As you were writing the book, who was the audience you were writing for?

The first person is my mom. Because she immigrated from Jamaica to this country, she had to learn about racism in America. She came to this country in 1973, the same year Floyd was born, and she wondered how her life would be different if her family experienced what Floyd’s had. So in my mom, I think of the person who might not have the complete depth of understanding of the issues, but enough of a baseline that you can’t take certain thoughts or feelings for granted.

Honestly, a part of me wrote it for the 16-year-old version of myself — the skinny, somewhat self-effacing kid who could not fully articulate why teachers underestimated him or why he could sometimes feel so out of place in the country he loved. I imagined him picking up this book in an airport and being empowered with the vocabulary and the historical knowledge about race and racism that he did not previously have. And I thought of how empowering it would be for him.

How, if at all, did your approach to interviews change depending on who you were attempting to speak with?

The pitch we made wasn’t that different for anyone — from any of Floyd’s loved ones to President Biden himself, who also answered our questions. We thought we had a great opportunity to help open people’s eyes to the invasive force of systemic racism, and we told everyone how humbling it would be if they could help join us on the journey. And so many people, including people who were with Floyd on the day he died who have not spoken publicly about the incident, said “yes.” More than 400 did. And every “yes” we received felt monumental.

Profile stories can sometimes have a formulaic pattern to them, yet the story you tell weaves George Floyd’s story into the larger story of systemic racism in this country. How challenging was it to piece those stories together?

Floyd’s presence actually helped us focus the story. We knew any issue we discussed had to relate to him and the movement that followed his death. The tentacles of systemic racism in this country are wide-ranging, so embedding these ideas inside the narrative allowed us to introduce them to the reader in a way that feels organic. A lot of biographies tell the “what happened” part; We wanted to put his life in the proper context and answer the “why” questions, too, because his death became such a symbol of how racism operates in America. But we wanted the reader to understand that systemic racism did not come pressing on Floyd solely because of his last interaction on earth.

What did you learn about storytelling from this project?

The benefit of planning ahead. We wrote a pretty big book — twice as many words as our publisher asked — that had many different threads and characters, so it had the potential to be a train wreck. There was no way we could have done the book and finished on time if we did not build the architecture for chapters before we started writing. We had to have a sense of building up to important scenes, make conscious decisions about when the narrative should begin to speed up and pray, pray, that we could get characters developed over the chapters. There was little about the structure that was happenstance.

What advice would you give someone looking to become a better storyteller?

Listen and learn. I think a lot of journalists go into stories with the wrong attitude that you are doing a community or a person a huge favor. No. They are giving you the privilege of trust and candor. So, listen to them. Let their answers breathe and try to interrupt them as little as possible. Ask smart follow-ups. And then, at the end, mirror back what you thought you heard them say.

What do you hope readers learn from your book?

That George Floyd’s battle to breathe in America started long before he met Derek Chauvin. He spent his life trying to navigate systems that carried the legacy of racist laws that rarely showed him any grace. I want readers to see how systemic racism works and how consuming it can be.

But ultimately, this story is about the persistence and optimism of black people in this country. Floyd, for example, never stopped trying to be a more productive member of society — and always believed it was possible. The activists who take up the fight for justice protest because they believe the country can have a better tomorrow. And even when legislation fails and their tactics get maligned, they seem to hold a brighter outlook for the country’s future than so many of the lawmakers who represent them. It is the black people of the country who are the holders of American hope in the book — and I found it to be a profound response to the structural issues in this country. When I asked why they refused to think things don’t get better, the answer was always the same: If we lose hope, the alternative is far too bleak.


That’s it for this storytelling spotlight. If you know someone who might enjoy this newsletter, please pass it along. If you want to know more about “His Name is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice,” don’t miss these reviews:

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Centennial Remembrance: Medill Network Led to New Career Path

by Dr. Norma Fay Green (MSJ72)

Seven years after earning my MSJ turning an internship recommended by Ray C. Nelson (MSJ55) into full time Crain Communications editorships and becoming president of the Women in Communications Inc. Chicago Professional Chapter, Dr. Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita (MSJ59, Ph.D.69) recruited me to return to campus to teach an undergraduate Basic Writing course. She saw something in me that I hadn’t considered.

I thought I would spend my career writing for invisible readers. I didn’t appreciate the visceral and immediate challenge that attempting to share information with a live (and lively) audience would elicit in me and those Medill students in Spring 1979 at Fisk Hall. Despite encouragement from course supervisor Emily Soloff, teaching initially felt like “trial and terror.”

When I told my father, who taught night school business classes at Wayne State University and University of Detroit that I’d be teaching an evening section, he said. “Oh, you’ll be teaching people in their sleep.” Actually the class was alert, eager and sometimes knew more than I did– apparently having memorized Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style” in high school! They kept me on my toes and most recovered nicely from my evaluations of their narrative, descriptive and expository writing assignments. I surprised myself by discovering I enjoyed the face to face feedback and decided to commit to a full-time career in academia.

So I commuted to Michigan State University, for an interdisciplinary communication program, where future Medill faculty Donald E. Schultz and Martin P. Block were among the first graduates of its new doctoral program in Mass Media. In 1995. Peter Jacobi (BSJ52, MSJ53), one of my Medill professors in the magazine sequence, became my instructor (again) in a week-long Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication/Freedom Forum Teaching Workshop at Indiana University.

Eventually I was hired full time at Columbia College Chicago and soon became its second Graduate Journalism Director succeeding former Medill faculty member and alum Eric Lund (BSJ49) who retired. I became the journalism department’s first full time Ph.D., first faculty member to successfully complete a newly-established tenure process and later became its first Full Professor. Along the way I continued to publish (more scholarship, less journalism) and garnered teaching, curriculum and research awards from Lilly Endowment, Ford Foundation, Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Poynter Institute, National Endowment for the Humanities, and, in 2000, my first Fulbright. That latter award attracted the attention of my fellow WICI member and Medill alum Marilyn Moats Kennedy (BSJ65, MSJ66) who recruited me for NU’s alumnae mentors, The Council of One Hundred.

In 2017 I took a buyout from Columbia after 29 years of teaching 24 different courses but have continued my academic research including chapters in “Political Pioneer of the Press: Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Transnational Crusade for Social Justice” (2018), “Curating Culture: How Twentieth Century Magazines Influenced America” (2021), co-edited by Medill Dean Charles Whitaker (BSJ80, MSJ81) and my Columbia colleague Sharon Bloyd Peshkin and the forthcoming “Gandhi, Advocacy Journalism and The Media” (2022).

Years ago at a party someone asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a college teacher and they quipped, “Oh, so you’re an idealist.” I laughed and said “Yes, I am and proud of each student courageous enough to pursue their dream to go into journalism. After all, I learned from the best.”

Photo: Dr. Green’s 1979 Basic Writing students

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Congressional correspondent Nikole Killion brings a Medill mentality to Washington

As a congressional correspondent for CBS News, Nikole Killion (BSJ99, MSJ99) spends her days following stories on Capitol Hill and keeping viewers up-to-date with the latest in Washington. But her current role with CBS News, which she started in 2021, isn’t the first time she has covered the nation’s capital. 

Killion’s history covering news in Washington dates back to her time as a Medill student, first in summer internship programs with the Institute on Political Journalism and CNN and later through the politics specialization in Medill’s Accelerated Master’s Program. Decades later, she says the skills and experiences central to her time at Northwestern have been pivotal in establishing her career.

“Having those experiences made me very interested in politics,” Killion said. “While I didn’t set out to be a political journalist at the time, those are experiences that help give me that foundation to be able to see things up close for myself in terms of being able to cover the Capitol at such an early stage, to now say I’m a Congressional correspondent for CBS News.”

Killion’s interest in journalism blossomed during high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. through a program at a local community cable station. At first an occasional guest, Killion eventually became a co-host and used her platform to tell the stories of difference makers in her community. 

“Once a week, we would get to interview different teens in the area, so I had the chance to interview people, talk to people, and it really piqued my interest,” she said. “I decided, hey, this journalism thing isn’t too bad, maybe I should do a little bit more of it.”

With its Midwest location and strong reputation for journalism, Northwestern became one of Killion’s top choices when it came time to pursue her new interest as a profession. 

The fit turned out to be a strong one and essential to launching a career in journalism. Killion refers to professors Ava Greenwell and Charles Whitaker as two mentors that made a difference in her career and highlighted Medill’s emphasis on the fundamentals of journalism as a focus that still pays dividends years later.

“It comes back to the fundamentals, the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why,” Killion said. “That attention to detail, that attention to accuracy, that attention to getting both sides of the story are fundamental journalism practices that have been ingrained in me in my journalism career.”

Along with her experiences in D.C., Killion fondly remembers her Teaching Television residency, which she spent in Lexington, Ky. with the local CBS affiliate. The residency gave her the opportunity to develop her reel and build on-air skills at a top TV market. Living in Kentucky during a Kentucky Wildcats championship run and the Kentucky Derby was an added bonus, showing Killion the best of the Bluegrass State.

Killion found her way back to a professional newsroom after graduation, though she initially started out helping behind the scenes in news coverage. She covered 9/11 and other major events as an assignment editor and field producer at NBC News, then decided to pursue her on-air aspirations and moved to a station in Hagerstown, Md. in 2002. After stops in local television and as a Hearst regional correspondent, Killion took on a role at CBS News covering Washington, D.C. for its various platforms.

While Killion considers her own path to be traditional, she sees the journalism industry today as full of opportunity for young journalists. 

“Every path is different, it’s just a matter of utilizing your skills, honing your skills because it comes back to those foundational things from strong writing to storytelling to accuracy,” she said. “If you can do all those things well and on a platform of choice where you can get that attention and exposure, it provides so many more opportunities than the more traditional paths that I had coming out.”

Washington has rarely been easy terrain to navigate. Killion points to two recent events, the coronavirus and the January 6 attacks, as changing the dynamic of how the broadcast journalism industry operates and how she approaches her own role. 

“It makes it an even more challenging environment to cover than in years past, so that is something that I’ve tried to be mindful of in my coverage,” she said. “There’s always that desire and nostalgia to get back to the days of old and truth and bipartisanship, but it feels over to a certain extent in terms of journalism because things have gotten so partisan.”

From her time at the Lexington CBS affiliate to programs in Washington to the groundwork of journalism fundamentals, Killion’s time as a Medill student has a wealth of connections and “full-circle moments” to her current role as an on-air correspondent for a national news outlet. 

Even with her prominent platform, Killion’s motivation to report the news remains the same.

“Being able to witness history up close, whether it’s a positive part of our history or a negative part of our history, has been the fire that is in my belly and that drives me to keep doing what we do every day. You always have to be ready and willing to cover that next event because it could turn out to be something monumental.”

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Medill or bust: My journey to becoming a storyteller

By Darren Zancan (MSJ12)

During the sixth grade, my class had the opportunity to write and submit a story to the Young Authors’ contest. While most of my class was writing about fictional characters, I focused on real life experiences. Up to that point I had already lost several people – one being my childhood best friend to a tragic accident.

Chicago Bulls’ star Michael Jordan had just released his autobiography, which inspired me to follow suit. My story was selected to move on in the competition, and during the award ceremony a publisher approached me. She wanted to publish my piece. I looked at my mom, looked back at the publisher and said no. Writing was never about an award, it was about telling a story.Darren Zancan looking up.

At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do in life – be a storyteller.
My dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. Up to that point, I had essentially wasted away most of my life, never taking anything – except for writing – seriously. I had dropped in and out of college many times. In one of our last conversations, I looked at him and said I was tired of failing. Losing my dad pushed me to live life to the fullest, and I looked at this as a second chance in life.

I went back to that moment in sixth grade and knew what needed to be done – finish my degree. I ended up graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from EKU. In the two years at EKU, I was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, president of the EKU Society of Professional Journalists chapter, and was selected as the 2011 commencement speaker. My goals were bigger than just a bachelor’s degree. Reggie Beehner, my undergrad advisor at the time, is a Medill graduate. Almost weekly, I expressed to Reggie my dream was to attend Northwestern, be a storyteller, and graduate from Medill.

I remember going to dinner with my mom around the same time to fill her in on my future goals. She looked at me and said, “What’s your backup option? And your third option?”

Northwestern. And Northwestern. It was Medill or bust.

A few months later – after what felt like years – I called my mom. I started the conversation with, “Do you own anything that’s purple and black?” I could tell my mom was initially confused. After a few seconds, she screamed in pure joy. The dots connected – I was a Medill master’s student (A big thank you to Donna Wang Su).

I commuted every day from Northwest Indiana to Evanston or the newsroom on Clark Street. My professor, Susan Chandler, was walking with me to the train station after class one day, and she asked why being at Medill meant so much to me. It was more than an education for me. I have always lived by the moniker that if you believe it, you can achieve it. Dreams are meant to become accomplishments. In this life we can be difference makers. If I learned from the best, I could take that and pass it on to the generations after me. Medill is a difference maker, and that is what I told her.Darren Zancan at his production studio.

Medill continues to be a difference maker in my life. At its core, Medill thrives because of the faculty and staff that have paved the way since the school’s inception. The passion runs deep, which is something I witnessed from the moment I walked into Fisk Hall. Yes, these professors and editors laid a solid foundation (along with striving to never get a Medill F), but it was always more than that. The intrinsic value to push us, make us better human beings, curious truth seekers, and unique storytellers stands above all.

Most importantly, they cared.

They cared not because they had to, but because they wanted us to go out into the world and strive to be the best at what we do.
Because of Northwestern and Medill, I’ve accomplished more than I could have ever imagined. Four days after graduating, I started teaching video, sports reporting, and journalism at three colleges and universities. I witnessed firsthand professors like Jim Distasio, Joe Mathewson, and so many others invest in us. I wanted to keep the ball rolling and do my best to inspire the next generation of storytellers. Heck, I am just a few months away from graduating with my doctoral degree.

While teaching, I was simultaneously planning something more; something deeper and creative. In 2013, I founded DMZ Productions, a video production company. The inspiration came from Distasio, my first Medill professor. The way he told stories through a camera lens was the push in the direction I craved. Years later, a company thatDarren Zancan teaching. started with one now has a full staff. We’ve created corporate videos for universities and companies across the country, and in 2021, we introduced a new division to the company – DMZ Films. During that expansion, we penned a Christmas full-length feature screenplay, wrote, and started filming a workplace comedy called “The Home,” developed “History Alive,” a historical/paranormal docuseries, and just finished a documentary about The Kentucky Theatre called “The Heartbeat of Downtown.”

Recently, I’ve been in a bit of a creative rut. Maybe a little stuck. I felt as if I needed some sort of sign that things would open up. I looked at social media and saw a memory Jan. 2, 2012. It was my first official day as a Medill student. I looked at my watch and chuckled. It was Jan. 2, 2022, exactly 10 years later to the day. It was the sign I needed. I hopped in my car and made my way to campus for the first time in seven years.

I meticulously made my way up to every floor, remembering very specific events during my time at Medill. I stopped at Mike Greenberg’s Hall of Achievement photo and thought back to the sixth grade. In those few moments I noticed something. I was smiling. I felt that energy starting to flow through my veins. The rush, the excitement, and imagined such a wide-open future in front of me.

I sat on the steps in Fisk Hall, closed my eyes and let it soak in. I no longer felt like the person who worried about failing. I grew up wanting to be a storyteller, and because of Medill, the dream is becoming a reality.

Medill laid the pathway for my future.

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Next Avenue’s Managing Editor Richard Eisenberg (BSJ78) Says Goodbye — But Not Farewell

Reprinted with permission from Next Avenue. Photo credit: Richard Eisenberg 

Reflections on a 10-year run, plus parting advice from what I learned as the site’s Money and Work & Purpose channels editor

by Richard Eisenberg

After a wonderful lunch in New York City a few weeks ago with Next Avenue writers Kerry Hannon and Chris Farrell, I needed to buy a bus ticket for the trip home to New Jersey. The ticket booth clerk had posted a sign reading “Today Is My Last Day Before Retirement” and was wearing an “I’m Retired” sash, along with a huge smile. I’m about to retire, too (from my job as Next Avenue’s managing editor and editor of the site’s Money & Policy and Work & Purpose channels). Although I don’t have a sash, I did want to share a few reflections and advice as I sashay out.

Although it may seem to some Next Avenue readers that our site has been around forever, truth is that my fellow launch team members started working here just over 10 years ago — in November 2011. I was brought on as editor of the site’s Money and Work & Purpose channels.

Our small team — then split mostly between St. Paul, Minn., and the New York City area — tinkered quietly for six months, mostly to figure out what Next Avenue would be; the site went live in May 2012.

How Next Avenue Started
The idea for this journalism nonprofit was hatched by two visionaries at Twin Cities PBS (TPT): the station’s then-CEO Jim Pagliarini and his Next Avenue co-founder Judy Diaz. I was told they felt PBS should do something for boomers (then roughly 50 to 65) the way it had created “Sesame Street” for kids.

They felt PBS should do something for boomers (then roughly 50 to 65) the way it had created “Sesame Street” for kids.

I’d been a personal finance writer and editor for decades (Money, Yahoo!, Good Housekeeping, CBS MoneyWatch) and was 55 in 2011, so I felt the job was a perfect match. I was right. Over the years, my job broadened and I also became Next Avenue’s managing editor and copy editor. At a small-budget journalism nonprofit with big ideas and plans, you often wear several hats.

These days, our audience now includes Generation X, since some of them are 50-plus, too.

For the personal finance and career channels at Next Avenue, I’ve written pieces that were highly personal (“Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff” after my father died), exclusive (parts of our annual Influencers in Aging list) global (how the oldest people in the world make their money last) and arcane (everything you didn’t want to know about backdoor Roth IRA conversions). I’ve edited pieces on topics ranging from starting a business after 50 to the importance of end-of-life financial planning, too.

After turning 65 in July and realizing I was nearing my 10-year anniversary at Next Avenue, I thought the time was right to retire. At Next Avenue, we really prefer not to use that word, though, because it connotes the 1950s version of no-work/all leisure. Instead, we talk about “unretiring” — a term popularized by Chris Farrell’s 2016 book, “Unretirement.”

Why I’m Retiring Now
My decision wasn’t about the pandemic or about The Great Resignation. And I’m ignoring The Motley Fool article I just read, “3 Reasons Why 2022 May Be a Bad Year to Retire.”

I’ve just decided it’s time for me to begin the journey on my next avenue, even if, in the words of the late Stephen Sondheim, “Everybody Says Don’t.”

My retirement will be what Bruce Feiler, author of “Life Is in the Transitions,” calls one of the biggest transitions people go through. When I interviewed him for Next Avenue about his intriguing book, he told me there are three phases of transitions: The Long Goodbye, The Messy Middle and The New Beginning.

I’m now at the Long Goodbye stage, where, Feiler says, “you say goodbye to a life that is not coming back.” I’m hoping to zip through The Messy Middle (where you figure out the new transition) and quickly head into The New Beginning where, as Feiler explains, “you are unveiling your new self. It’s time to update your story and tell other people.”

Here’s how I see my New Beginning: Freelancing for Next Avenue and other sites; continuing to write book reviews for People and co-hosting the “Friends Talk Money” podcast; volunteering; mentoring; traveling with my wife and seeing our L.A.-based sons Aaron and Will and their wives (COVID-19 permitting), learning pickleball (I think it’s the law now, isn’t it?) and seeing what else comes my way — as well as what strikes my fancy.

I realize I’m enormously fortunate to be able to choose my retirement date; many others can’t, due to financial or health circumstances.

I know that, along with some boomers in their mid-60s, I’m in the last generation who’ll receive one or more employer pensions; in my case, I’ll receive two: from years working at what was once Time Inc., and Hearst.

What I Did to Help Make Retirement Possible
Following the advice I’ve offered to readers for years, I saved furiously for college bills through 529 savings accounts, mutual funds and U.S. savings bonds; I have socked away money diligently for retirement since my 20s, in 401(k)s and self-employment retirement plans; been serious about keeping an emergency savings fund; paid off our mortgage; lived pretty frugally (my wife and I drive 2010 and 2012 Mazdas, also paid off), and been cautious about debt.

My traditional Medicare, Medigap and Medicare Part D prescription drug plans will take effect in January (that’s been a hassle). I expect to delay claiming Social Security until I’m 67, taking advantage of the larger benefits I’ll receive by postponing them.

My health is mostly good, with one gigantic caveat: my kidneys are pretty lousy, due to decades with diabetes. It’s possible that I’ll eventually need a kidney transplant or dialysis, but I’m doing my best to avoid either.

My late mother had dementia and I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that I worry I will get it one day, too. Here, I’m following the advice Next Avenue has offered — trying to stay healthy, challenging myself mentally, continuing to engage with others, working part-time and volunteering. But I also have a long-term care insurance policy, just in case, and hope the insurer will pay up if it comes to that; not all do.

Speaking of advice, I couldn’t conclude this farewell address without sharing a few personal finance and career tips for people in their 50s and 60s that I’ve picked up at Next Avenue:

Save for retirement and for emergencies. I won’t belabor this, since you hear it all the time from personal finance writers. I know it isn’t easy, and sometimes isn’t possible. But the more you can put money aside today, the more you’ll thank yourself tomorrow — whether that’s in six months or in six years.

Consult a financial adviser and an estate lawyer. My wife and I met with one financial planner when our sons were small, for tips on paying their future tuition bills (the takeaway: fund a 529 college savings plan and start when your kids are young if you can).

A few years ago, we started working with a fee-only, fiduciary Certified Financial Planner who has taken a more holistic look at our finances, offering wise counsel and recommendations on investing, insurance, taxes and debt.

We also hired an estate lawyer to ensure our final wishes will be met; that was no fun and took too much time and money, but it needed to get done.

Get lucky if you can — and make your luck, too. My luck was finding a wonderful partner in my wife Liz (married 36 years), having two fantastic, loving sons and living during years when both the stock market and housing markets soared. There were also years when both markets crashed, but I didn’t panic and waited them out.

I’d say I made my luck in my career.

After getting a journalism degree at Northwestern University and landing a job as a fact-checker at Money, I worked hard and learned all I could to allow me to move up the ranks and then land jobs at other media outlets, ultimately winding up at Next Avenue.

Part of my ability to get these jobs, I think, was networking frequently — on LinkedIn, through phone calls, emails and meet-ups — to be in the right place with the right skills at the right times.

I’ve written often, and published Next Avenue articles by experts like Nancy Collamer, about how age discrimination by employers can make it difficult for people in their 50s and 60s to get hired. I’ll always be grateful to Yahoo! for hiring me at 53 (a recruiter found my LinkedIn profile) and for TPT for taking me on at 55 (a freelancer who’d written for me told me about the job).

Brilliant experts — from AgeWave’s Ken Dychtwald to’s Marc Freedman to authorities on elders Chip Conley and Bob Blancato to retirement gurus such as WISER’s Cindy Hounsell and Transamerica’s Catherine Collinson (all Next Avenue Influencers in Aging) — have helped let me keep my Next Avenue job by sharing their wisdom in articles I’ve written, assigned and edited.

I’m grateful, too, to Next Avenue’s fabulous freelance writers and especially to my collegial Next Avenue colleagues, current and former, who have made Next Avenue the leader in our field — including Kristi McKinney, Julie Pfitzinger, Kathy Ritchie, Emily Skoblik-Diallo, Sabrina Crews, Megan Germundson, Bryce Kirchoff, Sue Campbell, Shayla Thiel Stern, Donna Sapolin, Emily Gurnon, Liza Hogan, Susan Donley, Grace Birnstengel and Colleen Wilson.

In one of my favorite Sondheim tunes, the star of “Company” belts out the song “Marry Me a Little” saying: “I’m ready! I’m ready now!”

Today’s my last day at Next Avenue. Retirement: I’m ready!

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Babysitting dilemma helps carve career path for S.F. Chronicle writer Ruthe Stein (BSJ67, MSJ68)

Story by Myra Krieger
Photo by Pamela Gentile

Published in San Francisco Senior Beat

Ruthe Stein’s parents unwittingly imbued her with a love of the movies, a romance that would lead to a lifelong career. Her dad, beleaguered with the responsibility of caring for his daughter on Saturday afternoons, would drop her off at one of Chicago’s giant movie houses.

“The movies were his babysitter,” Stein said. “He never checked what the film was about or if it was appropriate for a 12-year-old, so I saw a lot of adult fare.”

When she went with her movie-loving mother, ticket takers would argue that Stein was too young to be admitted. Her mother argued back:“`Well, she’s not going to understand it.’” Stein recalled. “I was five.”

By the time she was 25, the youthful movie lover had become a professional movie critic, reporting for the San Francisco Chronicle for 50 years. Along the way, she was a reporter for Jet and Ebony magazines, taught journalism, and wrote a self-help book for singles.

It’s easier to make up a roster of A-listers whom she hasn’t interviewed than one that she has. Of course, there are ones who top the queue, like Cary Grant, Princess Grace, George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Paul Newman and Matt Damon. She’s interviewed about 300 movie stars and directors.

She earned her master’s degree at the Medill and graduated in After a jaunt to Denver, where she taught journalism to community college students for about a year, a serendipitous event reshaped her career.

Headstart at Ebony magazine

“The publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, John Johnson, wanted to diversify the workforce. I’m white and a woman, both of which were missing from his organization. Plus, I had chutzpah and good credentials.” Stein joined the staff as a reporter.

She hung out in the company cafeteria where she never allowed herself to become intimidated in casual conversations with stars like Sammy Davis Jr., James Earl Jones, James Brown or Lou Rawls, she said.

“Initially, I wasn’t taken seriously; I was the token white girl.” she said. “But my experience in interviewing, writing stories for this nationally known African American publication helped open doors.”

Stein started as a feature writer for the women’s section of the Chronicle in 1970, writing about movies and interviewing movie stars and celebrities. She became a movie editor in 1989 and later, a film critic.

Stain managed to eke out more time than many other journalists to talk to movie stars and produce unique, in-depth stories. How did she do that?

“Movies get released and A-list actors are under a binding contract to be interviewed by the press. Lots of times, as a Chronicle reporter with a good following, I was ahead of the queue. I was allowed 20 minutes; I took more and usually nobody minded.

“I tried to get different things from people because I’ve read so many interviews where they’re saying the same thing. I try to think of questions that other people haven’t asked.”

Her latest book

Getting different things from people is Stein’s specialty. Her latest book, ”Sitting Down with the Stars,” a peek into the lives of 100 Hollywood legends, provides subtle but provocative stories about each actor: Who knew that Nicholas Cage’s uncle is Frances Ford Coppola or that Steve Martin is an accomplished playwright or that Antonio Banderas’ words would be so wise?: “There has to be an acceptance that we get older, and that is not good or bad but it is a fact. There is much more of a universe I am living in now, partly because of my heart attack.”

The new book is her second offering; the first was “The Art of Single Living.” She wrote a singles column that was syndicated in 30 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada but stopped writing about the single life when she was no longer single.

She didn’t hesitate when asked about the worst and best films of recent times. The worst: “Basic Instinct 2.” The best: “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Her gauge is like that of most moviegoers: “A good film is one I enjoy, can get lost in for two hours. A bad film is when I keep looking at my watch. It’s a lot of fun to write a bad review, especially of a big Hollywood movie when you know what you write has zero impact. I’m more careful about what I say when it’s a small indie film; a very bad review can put a kibosh on everything.”

In 2006, Stein co-founded the “Mostly British Film Festival,” which shows English language movies made outside the U.S. in places like New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa. The post-pandemic revival of the festival begins in February at the Vogue Theater.

Preserving small film houses

The festival is the revenue generator for the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which helps rescue small, single- to three-screen movie houses like the Vogue, Opera Plaza, Presidio and others from extinction. Stein works closely with Jack Bair, co-director of the Mostly British Film Festival, and Alfonso Felder – both senior vice presidents of the San Francisco Giants – who help raise money for the foundation.

How does one become a movie critic? It’s a question Stein hears often. She said she isn’t certain but added: “I am curious about people. At parties, I’m always a good person to bring along because I can make anybody start talking about stuff. Either you have that ability or you don’t.”

Discipline and productivity count as well. “I have never missed a deadline in all 50 years. While at the Toronto film festival, I interviewed three actors in two different hotels in one hour, and I was not late for a single one of them and I got all my questions answered.”

Since retiring, teaching and lecturing at the Fromm Institute is a big part of her life. Over the past five years, she’s covered a wide range of topics, including Melodrama in Film; Jews and Film; Romance Movies. In the spring, she plans to focus on women directors, the careers of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, and inside looks at directors Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

Enjoying getting older

There’s little hard luck in Stein’s story. She grew up in middle- to upper-class Chicago with an older brother and sister. Her father was a boxing promoter who also managed fighters.

“I got to know them when I went to Miami Beach, where he trained them. He got pushed out in the ’50s when fights went on TV and the Mafia got involved,” she said. “Later, he owned and operated clothing stores on State Street.

“I think I get my energy from my mother who was a schoolteacher; she eventually took over the library also. In the ’50s, when the TV networks included movies in their programming, we would be sure to make a night of it, reflecting on the story afterward.”

As this septuagenarian approaches her 77th birthday, she said, “I don’t mind being older as long as I stay healthy. In fact, I’m kind of enjoying it.”

She exercises and walks a lot in her Russian Hill neighborhood and is a voracious reader. Not surprisingly, she watches plenty of movies with her husband, Dean Macris, the former director of the San Francisco Planning Commission.

Her current datebook is filled with talks and events promoting her latest book.

Stein says that by the time she was in eighth grade she knew she wanted to be a gossip columnist. She never had that title, but she came as close as anyone could expect.