Kutsche Office of Local History
Sonya Bernard Hollins
Interview with Sonya Benard-Hollins
Becoming a Journalist
Challenges of Being a Woman
Challenges of Being an African American
Growing up in Kalamazoo
The Objective of the Merz Tate Biography
Advice for Young Women
The Hardest Part of the Job
The Perception of Women in the Working World
Okay, the first question is for you Sonya. Hello, glad you’re here and thank you so much for coming.
Thank you for having me.
I’m sure that my class is very excited to have a chance to sit in on our conversation. The question I thought would ask is for you to think back on your childhood. Try to describe for us how you think your brothers and sisters would talk about you.
Oh my gosh. Well, I’m the oldest of four children and my brother who is under me would probably describe me as bossy because I was in charge of making sure they were doing what they were supposed to do. That was my job. So to him, I’m bossy, even now. To my younger sisters, they’re both graduates of Ferris State University and the University of Michigan, they would probably describe me as a bookworm because I was always reading. Even when I was washing dishes I had a book propped up sometimes. My youngest sister says she learned to hate books because of me. But, the other sister said she learned to love them. So, at least I got one. My sister Latoya is a researcher for the VA. She worked in the library from high school all the way through college. Going to the library when we were younger paid off. The other sister hates libraries because of me, but she is coming around.
So obviously you were a good student in elementary school and high school.
No, I was not a good student at all. I was a good reader, a great reader, an excellent reader. [However,] I didn’t know how to comprehend that [skill] into what I was supposed to be doing in my [class work]. I could read a book a day, but I wasn’t reading my school work because it was boring to me. It wasn’t as exciting as these stories of people I [read] and [learned] about. It wasn’t until I got to fourth grade…I had a teacher named Tom Hansen and when we walked into class there were no desks [or tables], there was just a big carpet. [The students wondered] what is this classroom? He taught outside the box. From that point on, I really learned to love learning and to use reading in accordance with what he [taught] me. [On field trips,] we went to the nature center in Kalamazoo. We visited there at least once a month to learn different things about the animals. We would track the animals and their footprints. We [also] learned about constellations and the stars. Through all that, he always incorporated [what we learned] back to a person or someone who invented [or created] something. [Because of] my love for biographies, [I found] that exciting. I would be excited about the things that were developing and the things we were learning in class. After that, it just really sparked [in me] the interest of learning and being a part of a classroom instead of being in my own world reading a book. BACK TO TOP
You decided to become a journalist at a in your certain point in your school career, when was that?
It was in elementary school. Our teacher actually taught fourth, fifth, and six grade so it was an unconventional type of teaching. We had three grade levels [in one class], so the younger kids were learning from the older kids. We were able to keep up with one another and learn together. It was a different method of teaching and one of the things he often taught us to do was interview each other. When we would interview each other in front of the class, he would always say, “That’s boring, find out something else.” He [taught] us to probe into each other and learn different things about each other. After that, I [realized] I could do that. I’m nosy. I can talk to people and find out things about them. At the same time, [there was a woman] named Jane Kennedy. Jane Kennedy was an African American news anchor. A beautiful woman. I saw her on television. This beautiful African American woman and she is a news castor. I think she did sports too at one time. One interview I saw her [conduct] was with the grand wizard of the KKK. I [thought], Oh my gosh, she’s actually going to interview this guy. After that, I said I want to do this. That’s what I want to do in life. I want to be able to talk to people, interview people who I can learn things from and share their stories with other people.
"Jane Kennedy was an African American news anchor. A beautiful woman. I saw her on television. This beautiful African American woman and she is a news castor. I think she did sports too at one time. One interview I saw her [conduct] was with the grand wizard of the KKK."
From then on, I could not think of anything else I wanted to do. I wrote for the little school newspaper in elementary school. In junior high, they started a school newsletter and I was editor for that. In high school, I was editor of the year book and newspaper. It was just something I always wanted to do. At my high school reunion kids would laugh. [They would say], “You always had a pencil behind your ear.” I saw journalists do that so I did it too. People saw me as wanting to be a journalist or writer because I always portrayed that. Everywhere I went I had a pencil [and] a notebook. I was constantly in that mode. I grew up saying I want[ed to be a journalist].
Well, like I mentioned earlier with the school work, [at the time] I didn’t connect the importance of grades to getting to [the] next level. My mother was a single parent and went back to school to be a nurse when we were young. So we learned that education was important. My mother and her sister were the two people who had gotten a college education, so it was new to our family. I didn’t really prepare for that while I was in high school. I didn’t prepare my grades. I didn’t prepare for those types of things in order to say that college is the next level. When high school was over and I had a 2.7 [GPA] and no one was letting me into their college, I [wondered] what was going on? I was an editor of the yearbook and news paper, I did all this. [The colleges] said you need at least a 2.8 [GPA] and one school even sent a letter. It recommended that I go to a trade school. It was devastating. I wanted to be a journalist. Are you serious? Everyone else in my school was going off to college: Grambling State, Howard, Hampton, all these fancy colleges. I wanted to go away too. I joined the military.
So I joined the military and did something totally opposite of journalism. I became a medical specialist. I learned to intake patients and that type of thing. That was something to do to get out of town because everyone was going away. I did not want to be there myself while everyone was gone. I did that and met a young man. I never had a relationship [before] because I was so focused on writing and I was [also] in plays and that type of thing. When I went to the military, I met this guy and my life turned around. We eventually went over to Germany and I became pregnant. Being 21 years old in Germany and pregnant and not married was not in the plans. I came back home, had to suck it up, had to move back with my mom and eventually had my son. [I] worked at Meijer from ten at night to six in the morning and I had to do that because we had to eat and have food. One night, I was working at Meijer and they had me working in lawn and garden. I saw a mouse running through. I [thought] you know what, that’s it. I can’t do this. I’m going back to school. So I signed up and went to Kalamazoo Valley Community College. And when I signed up [someone working there I knew from high school] said, “I remember you. You used to write for the high school newspaper, weren’t you the yearbook editor?” I told her yes and said, “Well, we have a scholarship if you worked for the school newspaper.” I was like yes! So, I received a scholarship to work on the school newspaper which was called the Tower Times at that time at Kalamazoo Community College. I became opinion editor and things just started rolling. I was back in my element.
I started moving toward a degree in journalism. I received an associate’s [degree] from KVCC after two years and transferred over to Western Michigan University. They did not have a journalism major at the time. They had an English major with an emphasis in journalism. So, I was like whatever, if journalism is in the program then I’ll take it. I worked for the Western Herald Newspaper, did a lot of writing, and received a lot of scholarships. I received a scholarship from the Michigan Press Association. They asked for someone to write an essay on why do you feel community is important in journalism. Four of us around the state [from different colleges] received it. I was getting built back up again, I [wanted] to move forward and do this. BACK TO TOP
When I was in high school, go back a little, I contacted the editor-
You are wonderful because I don’t even have to ask any questions.
I’m so used to—you can fill in the blanks later. [Back] when I was in high school, I went to the editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette and asked if I could have an internship. He said we don’t give internships to high school students, but I’ll give you a chance. So, he put me on an assignment to write a story about what students in my graduating class were looking forward to in the future. [The story] ran front page. I was like, that’s it, that’s it!
In the meantime, remember I didn’t get accepted into college, and went to the military. All this stuff fell into the background [until] I went to Western. I got an internship at the Gazette again. I worked there for the summer after I graduated and two days after I graduated from Western Michigan University, I started an internship in Acron, Ohion at the Acron beacon Journal.
That was awesome because that year they were working on a big story, a big series on race in Acron. Because all these reporters were placed on these assignments, they had us interns taking up the slack for other reporters. We got to cover crime, and all these different types of stories. They wanted me to do a story on professional doctors who had not paid their student loans. And I’m like, I haven’t paid mine either, but okay. I’ll do this. They sent me to a doctor’s office and told me to go in there and interview him about why he hadn’t paid his student loans because there was a list that had come out on doctors who had not paid their student loans. I went in there, and said, “I’m a reporter with the Acron Beacon Journal. I’m here to see such and such, is he available?” They asked why I wanted to see him and I said we’re writing a story on doctors who haven’t paid their student loans. Of course, he’s not going to come out. So I’m sitting there and sitting there, and he doesn’t come out after an hour. I called my editor, and this is before cell phones so I had to go to a corner store. I told [my editor] he’s not coming out and they said, is there a parking space for him there because you know most places [reserve] a spot for the doctor. [The editor told me] to go back and see what kind of car he has. So I went back, saw his parking space and he had this beautiful jaguar car parked in the spot. I wrote it down and described how the office looks and what kind of clients are going in and so I got all the information and wrote the story and it ran on the front page.
[The doctor] called, upset and the [newspaper] said that I gave him an opportunity to give his side and he never met with me. So this story describing his lavish office, car, and he didn’t talk to me so that made him look even worse. That was my first experience getting the dirt. I was like okay, I like this. I can do this. They started teaching me a little more about that, digging into different situations and investigating. Well, in the mean time, as you can recall, I’m a single parent. Someone said there was a job offering in Battle Creek, Michigan, would you like the job? I need a job. I’m a single parent [at the time], I can’t hold out on this internship and there were six of us there and only one was going to get the position. I needed to go where I knew I was going to have a job. And it was an excellent group of candidates that year. One guy ended up going to work for the Boston Globe, and another ended up going to work for the Washington Post. [There were some] excellent writers. I’m not even going to put myself up, I’m going to go where I have a job. I took the job there and the rest is history. That brings you up to where I became a professional writer. BACK TO TOP
I’m going to ask my students if you have any questions written out at this point, you can send your questions around, but keep thinking. Okay, what do you think were some obstacles in your way to becoming what you wanted to be?
I think the obstacles in my way were just not being prepared to the next level of where I needed to go. A lot of the time, we tell kids to dream of a dream, but we don’t give them those steps to get there so anything can knock you off the path if you don’t have focus. Like I said, not preparing my grades in high school could have knocked me off a little. Had my grades been better, I could have gotten in [college] right away. Going into the military and then becoming pregnant are some things that could be seen as obstacles. Those things that we see as obstacles are because we haven’t prepared ourselves to get on line with what we should be doing.
Has being a woman created any unique challenges or opportunities for you?
I think it was challenging being a woman because when I would apply for a job or internship, and they found out I was a single parent—I think that kind of [influenced their perception of me]. Even though it was against the law to ask people those types of things, they kind of knew my situation and I think that held me back from a lot of positions, particularly jobs I applied for out of state where I didn’t know anyone. I [thought] had I been a male and a single parent, they would say oh well the mother will take care of the child. But, being a single woman, I think that influenced me from not receiving so many jobs because they were excited about it until they found out certain things. Well, we need someone who can just jump right in there. I think me being a single parent may have been more—
--than just being a woman.
Being a parent.
And being a young single parent. I always looked younger than I really was.
You asked in that picture if I was in high school. I was 27, 28, in that picture. But people always saw me as being younger and I think that dictated it a little bit too, which is why I talk so loud because people saw me being a small person when they first saw me. I had to totally turn that around. I always talk, any time you’re in a room, you would hear me because I speak very loud. It’s because people look at me and they would have that stereotype of me being a small and quiet person. I had to totally turn that around. BACK TO TOP
Has being African American created any challenges for you?
I believe so. When I was at the Enquirer, when I first came in ’93 there were three African Americans there. Before I left, I was the only one and many left because people were getting passed over for promotions. I received a lot of awards for writing and I would get passed over as well. So, I do believe that definitely was an issue. People [who worked there] even told me later that they realized there were some issues.
But, how do you respond to issues like that? Of course it must be discouraging, but how do you keep going when you face those kinds of challenges?
It was hard. When people see my resume, they see I worked at the Battle Creek Enquirer from ’93 to ’96 and came back in ’99 to 2004. They wonder why that gap was there. The gap was there because I was upset about what was going on [and left]. I went back [to school] to work on a master’s degree. I still need to go back. Sometimes you need to do things, and you need to do things the right way. When I left, I still kept in touch with everyone at the paper. Editors and publishers left and things started changing and started becoming a little bit better. One of the women, who was a mentor to me, had cancer and she died. I attended her funeral. This one woman came up to me and she was a new editor and she said, “I don’t know you, but I heard a lot about you. I know this is not a good time, but do you want Leslie’s job?” I told her I had to think about it. That just didn’t seem the right thing to be doing at the time. I’m grieving for her and then, okay, someone asks if I want a job. I did want the job. It didn’t seem cool at the time. I eventually went back and took the position and it was a blessing because when I was first there in 1993, there was a gentlemen who died and his name was Wayde Flemings. This was the first couple months of my working there. A lot of Motown artists and musician came to [Wayde Flemings’] funeral. I never heard of Wayde Flemings, who is he? They [the musicians and artists] told me he wrote the song Here I Stand when he was in high school in Battle Creek. He became a VJ records recording artists and was at the top hits list. This guy told me we had many family people here in Battle Creek. They named off people like Junior Walker and the All Stars and different musicians who started in this little town. Well, I started interviewing these musicians and finding out about this. When I left in ’96, that whole project was pushed aside and when I came back in ’99, one of the musicians asked about the book I was going to write. I just hadn’t had time to work on it. [He said] a lot of us are dying, you need to write this book. So, I started up the research again. Eventually, the book came out in 2003. It honored many musicians who had not been recognized. They were Blue Note recording artists, Stack Record recording artists, Motown and no one in this community knew that these guys had hits. I really believe it was God that brought me back to the job. If nothing, to complete that project. We had a big event to debut the book. One of the guys said, “I can die now. I know people will remember me because of what you did it.” That there was like woah. It was all worth it. Sometimes, we see things as stumbling blocks and we say doors close because you’re African American. You just have to look at the bigger picture and say, God, where do you want me and why? Because I didn’t know why I was offered that job after it was so tense when I left the first time. Sometimes things are bigger than us and we just don’t recognize it because we are so close to it. BACK TO TOP
You grew up in Kalamazoo?
Do you think that living in Kalamazoo shaped you in anyway?
My community did have a big influence on me. There were some positive things and some negative things that helped me as I grew up.
It’s funny because I was always a reader. I grew up on the north side, and there’s always one side of town in a community that supposed to be the bad side of town. Well, the north side was the bad side of town. I don’t care how bad it was, I always sat on the porch reading. There would be people coming by and ask me what I was reading about. I would start telling them and they would walk away like that was boring. To me, my neighborhood was something I looked at, and I looked like I was a character in it because I was such a reader. I saw myself as a character in my neighborhood. I would always write about the people in my neighborhood as characters in different things. One day, I am going to create a book about my neighborhood. It really did influence me because some people would say, “Have you talked to your kids about sex, alcohol and the harm of drinking?” I saw that every day. I saw the effects. I saw what was going to happen just by watching people. My mother would say, “If you don’t finish school, that’s where you’ll end up. If you drink, that’s what’s going to happen to you.” We had right in front of us what would happen if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do. It was a really big influence on me just to watch the people in my community. Not to say they’re bad, just watch, take a look and watch them. You see this guy who is 40 years old and riding a bike. Why? He doesn’t have a license, he can’t keep a job. My mother would point out things like that to us and she would say, “Do you want to be like that?” No. Needless to say, when I became a single parent, my mind started flashing to all those people I used to see. I was not going to be like that. Sometimes, people want to run from their community, but I learned a lot by growing up in my community. Many things that I used when I went to other communities. It helped me accept people. I would take kids on trips to Chicago or Detroit. People would come up and ask for a dollar. The kids wouldn’t know how to react. Just say no and walk away, don’t make eye contact. It’s because of the things I learned when I was growing up that helped me when I would go off and travel by myself as a young person. My father would tell me not to put my money in my pocket, put it in my sock. Those types of things. My community did have a big influence on me. There were some positive things and some negative things that helped me as I grew up. BACK TO TOP
Who do you think are some of the most important influences on you? People.
Well, my mother first of all. Being a single parent of four kids. She was on welfare and off that system entirely and became a nurse. It was something she always wanted to do. She said she always wanted to become a nurse because of the little hats they wore. The year that she graduated, they banned the hats. We felt so bad for her because she graduated, and had this little hat on, and she was so excited. She came home from work and told us that she couldn’t wear the little hat anymore. We asked her why and she said it was no longer a uniform requirement. I felt bad for her because that had been her motivation. She was a big influence.
My elementary school teacher, like I said, Tom Hansen. To this day, we keep in touch. He’s a photographer now and he’s taken pictures of my family, my kids and things like that. He gave my son a piano. My son is a classical piano player, so he gave him a piano. He was a really big influence because some people would say if I hear one more thing about Mr. Hansen and what he taught you, I’m going to scream. He really saw us group of African American kids without seeing us as African American kids. He didn’t treat us like that. This is a white guy in a van taking black kids to Niagara Falls. You just didn’t see that. Now a days, I don’t even think you would trust people. This guy took us to Chicago to see Jessie Jackson. He took us to places no one else would have taken inner city kids and he just asked our parents. It influence a lot of us. As we grew up, we kept in touch and everyone says if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where I would be if we didn’t have that influence. Between my mom and my teacher, that really kept me going. BACK TO TOP
Did you have any teachers in college, professors that you remember that made an impact?
There was one professor. She was one of the only Journalism professors in the department. Her name was Jonina Avbrun. She was a Journalism instructor at Western [Michigan University]. I did really learn about her and respect because I’m such a history person. I found out she was a journalist for the Black Panther movement. Before, I was just kind of like, she’s just… but she always had this aura about her, and I didn’t know what it was. One day we sat down after I won the award, the scholarship. We sat down because she had to turn in the paper work. We were just talking and she said, oh, I used to be with the movement. The Black Panther? I heard of the Black Panthers, but I didn’t know it was called the movement. We started talking and I was like wow. It was interesting to see the stereotype of what I heard of the black panther and now you this woman as a professor. It was like night and day. This was awesome. She had this impact on students, black and white, as a journalist and have that history in the movement also.
What about books? You said you read a lot. Do you have a favorite author? Even today.
The thing about that is, people ask me this question and because I read so many books, I don’t have a favorite. I love biographies, anything about someone’s life. One of the most exciting books I read was Quincy Jones’ autobiography. If you haven’t read it, you need to read it. I learned a lot about him. You see people and you don’t know what they’ve been through. Learning about Quincy Jones really inspired me because I saw some of the things he went through and the obstacles you have to go around. I learned that Quincy Jones’ mother was a Schizophrenic. Back then, they didn’t know about the term. She tried to kill herself. One of the parts of the book that stood out to me was when Quincy Jones and his brother went to visit their mother at the mental hospital. When they were there, she pulled down her underwear and defecated in her hand in front of them. He said that was the most devastating thing, it burned in his mind. He knew something was wrong with his mother. And to see the things he had to go through over the years; eating rats and it was just different things he went through that really makes you look at a person differently when you see what they’ve accomplished. You can appreciate it. You can’t say Quincy is always getting awards. No, when you see his background, you should say he needs more awards than that. [His mother] even came to some of the clubs as he started to become famous. She would come to some of the clubs and embarrass him in front of everybody while he was playing and say crazy things. I don’t have a favorite author or book because I love learning about people's lives and their struggles and to me, that is inspiration. They say good fiction reads like nonfiction and good nonfiction reads like fiction. I hardly ever read fiction because to me, nonfiction has so much excitement. You would not believe the things that happen that you would think someone made up, but they are real instances from peoples’ lives. BACK TO TOP
So, as you conceptualize writing your biography of Merz Tate, what is it you want to accomplish with that?
I’ll tell about how I learned about [Merz Tate]. As a reporter at the Kalamazoo Gazette, I wanted to write a series for black history month on the first African Americans of Western Michigan University. I contacted the Alumni Department and they sent me a list of African Americans with just dates. On the list was Merz Tate. It said First African American distinguished alumni. I [wondered] what did she do become the first African American distinguished alumni? No one really had any [information] on her. They said she left a million dollars to the university. That would do it. She was a history professor at Howard University. Being the nosy person I am, I found out she was Blanchard, Michigan. I contacted the library at central Michigan University and their history department to see if they knew anything about this woman. One women said that they knew one of her nephews, Marvin Let, lives in the area and he might be able to talk to you about her. [Marvin Let] asked why I wanted to write a book about her? I told him I was learning a lot of things about her. I just feel that people need to know more about her. He started telling me some things, invited me to the family reunion up in Mecosta County. I started asking family members about her and they didn’t know much about her at all. They [said] well, she would come to our reunions and she would kind of sit there and wouldn’t talk much. I started doing a little more digging. When I realized she graduated from Western Michigan University, I contacted the local history department there and asked if they have anything on her.
This is where it gets scary. When she died, she left three big boxes of stuff [to WMU] that no one went through. I went and they pulled out these boxes with dust on them. I brushed the boxes off and inside, they had thousands of pictures in there of her travels around the world. Some of the pictures are the ones you saw in the beginning; her in front of the Eiffel Tower, in front of the pyramids in Egypt. This was all in the 1930s.
And no one had opened the boxes?
No one had opened boxes [before]. She just left them. She left millions to Harvard because she was the first African American to graduate from Harvard in political science. She left a million to Western Michigan University and money to Howard [University]. But, she left her scrapbook and person documents to Western Michigan University. All of the things she left, I just thank God that she left those dusty boxes.
[The University] hadn’t gone through them. So, I started going through the boxes and there was so much in them. As I began to go through them, Sharon Carlson, who is in charge of the archives, was looking like: what is going on with this girl over here.
I saw a picture of [Merz Tate] with Mary McCloud Bethune. I saw a ticket to the White House to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. I saw a ticket to the 1930 Olympics where she went and took pictures. I saw all this stuff and [couldn’t believe] nobody ever went through these boxes. Are you series? I saw a letter from Dorothy Height saying, “I’m the secretary for Mary McCloud Bethune. We want you to be a part of [this event] in Washington D.C.” I didn’t know Dorothy Height was a secretary for Mary McCloud Bethune. All this history in these boxes, and I’m the first person to look through them. It was just awesome. Where do I start? It’s so much stuff here. [The archive staff] said they kind of have a log of some of the stuff that’s in [these boxes], but it’s really not organized.
I started coming there and being more excited each time. The more I got excited, the more the [archive staff] started wondering what was in these boxes. I was away for a couple months and when I came back, they had organized the pictures into 13 different boxes. [This was a blessing to me because it was so much there and it was overwhelming]. I didn’t even know where to start. They did me a gigantic favor by going through all these boxes and putting them into photo safe boxes. I wore gloves now, because before I was picking them up with unprotected hands. They went through and put the pictures in order and organized things. I was able to find so much more. I went through and found a guest book for the funeral. I started finding people and calling them. They’re [were probably wondering] who is this girl? I told them, “You were at Merz Tate’s funeral and I just want to know a little bit about her. They asked me why.
So people started talking to me and telling me what they knew about her. One woman said, “Don’t tell anybody this, but I think she [was] with the CIA. I was like, are you serious? She traveled all over the world and we’re wondering why she traveled with the government. What was her purpose? I started thinking that this was interesting and I contacted our congressman’s office. I asked If there was any way to find out information about Merz Tate and her involvement in the government. I found out she was active with the State Department. She traveled around as an ambassador to all these countries with the State Department. She was one of the only African Americans and one of the few women. I think there were only 14 [women] at the time.
From 1940 to 1971 there were not that many women doing this. What made her so special? What made her standout? She did some awesome, incredible things. She helped get a road built in Zimbabwe. She just did these awesome things that no one ever knew about.
BACK TO TOP
And she never married?
She never married or had children. I asked one of her distant cousins who said that she would say: I don’t have time for that. [Many] women back in those days were either focused on being a family person or they were focused on their career. Men just weren’t interested in a woman like her. She traveled all over the world and you know, who does she think she is? One thing I thought I was going to find out about her was her involvement in Civil Rights. But, she didn’t do much with the Civil Rights Movement at all. She did more [work] overseas. She stayed overseas a lot and did a lot of work helping people there. She took thousands and thousands of photos. There are pictures of things that I’m just shocked how they looked back then compared to how they look now. She was an awesome woman and a journalist [as well]. She was a representative for the African American Press. If you remember back in the 1930s and 1940s, African Americans didn’t write for newspapers. [The Black Press] would have correspondence with her when she went overseas. She would send back stories about things going on and put them in African American newspapers. One of the things I learned that she was responsible for was the break in desegregating the military because it started in Europe. She sent back reports on how well it was working and it spread to other branches of the military. She was instrumental in breaking that story. If desegregation worked overseas, why can’t it work in our own country?
Anybody have a question you want to ask? This is a question about writing, the process that you go through for writing and the question is: What was the revision process like for your book? How did you make choices about style, citations, organization? This person has read your book and wants to be a writer.
Okay, awesome. Thank you. The funny part about it… I should have brought the original book because there was no style or anything with it. I just started writing because these guys wanted this book out. I received permission from the Heritage Battle Creek Historical Society that they would pay for a big event if I release this book on a certain day. The book has actually had three different revision processes. The first edition was almost like a paperback. My husband did all of the layout and design. We learned a lot about publishing. We really were not focused on indexing, and style. We just wanted to get these oral interviews of these people together in some type of format to have during this event. Well, everybody bought this book, and they [pointed out] misspelled names and incorrect dates. They said, “We made a song and we weren’t in that.” That all started a whole new revision process. People said James Kelly was in our group and me being a journalist, Kelly is spelled K-E-L-L-E-Y. Yes, but when James Kelley finds out. He says no, it’s K-E-L-L-E-Y.
[Throughout the revision process] I went back and fixed some things. Some things that I put in the first book, I didn’t put in the second one. Some of the things in the second book, I didn’t have in the first book. That book was my very first and it was basically a book of oral histories from Battle Creek, MI that hadn’t been put in one spot before. Everyone was craving to have something like that. So that first project was more like trial and error. Now that I’m working with the Merz Tate project, I’m using different things I learned like: have an editor, have a outline, what about the index, do I need a professional indexer? Have readers for my book and those types of things. There were some things that you pointed out in my book about Adam Crosswhite that I had backwards because of where I got the information from. Double checking and triple checking facts when you’re writing non-fiction is something I had to learn the hard way as I went along. The good thing about it was that everyone was so in love with the book, they weren’t too hard o me. They were like, “That’s okay baby, just make sure you spell my name right next time.” You know, that type of thing. As I grow and begin writing more and more books and starting other projects, the things I learned in that first book will help me. I don’t want to make the same mistakes again. BACK TO TOP
Here’s another question: From interviewing people, what would you say was the greatest story that influenced your life from your interviews?
It wouldn’t be a famous person. Some people always think it’s a famous person, but one of the stories that influenced me [was about] a woman in Battle Creek, MI who always wanted to work with kids. She had worked her whole life and her kids had grown up. She wanted to start an afterschool program to teach kids about nature and she didn’t know how to do it. Someone told her to write a grant to the Kellogg Foundation. She wrote a grant to them in long hand. She didn’t know the grant writing process. Someone saw her grant application, and said, well this is a good idea, but she needed to rewrite the application in proper grant form. Because she didn’t know how to do that, it took her years to finally get the process together. The Kellogg Foundation gave her a lot of money for her program. All along, she had been doing it on her own anyway. The Kellogg Foundation called me to do an interview about this woman. I learned a lot about determination from her. I learned about not letting the system or the rules stop you from doing what you want to do. Your passions should drive you, and not the requirements of certain things that need to be done a particular way. She said, “If you have a dream to do something, someone’s going to help you out. If you have a dream and you feel that I can’t do this, or do that, then you just stop. The dream stops. When the dream stops, you’re not helping the people you’re supposed to be helping through that dream.”
So, by exposing kids to nature and all those types of things, she taught them a lot especially about safety. One of the things she did with them, which I thought was dangerous, was she took them out in those little boats [called kayaks]. I saw those kids on those things and I was about to have a heart attack. She taught those kids how to safely use kayaks, which is something those kids would have never done.
She stands out to me as one of those people who really taught me about preserving, seeing your dreams and moving towards them no matter how late in life, no matter who you know, no matter what your fiancés or resources are. If you have a dream, and you’re dedicated to it, then you can do it. You just have to work toward it. BACK TO TOP
That brings to mind another question I just thought of. We have a group of young women here in this class. What advice or words of encouragement would you give to them about getting where they want to go? They are in various majors beyond women and gender studies.
I would say one of the things I had to stop doing was telling people what I was going to do. I had friends and I would say, I’m going to write a book about such and such. They would say, yeah right! I had to stop telling people what I was doing because it would kind of take you down somewhere inside. To me, I would give you the advice to find some allies. Find people who have the same interest as you. But, if you don’t have those people, find other people who will inspire and encourage you. For instance, Veta and I were talking so long the day I met her, my kids were starving and kept asking when are we going to eat. Because we had so much in common, and it fueled me to keep moving on some things that I was doing. I told her some things I learned about Grand Rapids history. My suggestion is to find people who fuels your excitement. Find people who like to do what you like to do. Nobody in my family understands me. Why do you like to write? That’s not fun. Writing is not fun, reading books is not fun. But to me, it’s fun and exciting.
Find people who have the same interest as you. But, if you don’t have those people, find other people who will inspire and encourage you.
You know, Merz Tate’s family have no clue about the things she has done. They were so uninterested at me being at their family reunion. [Her life] is a gold mine. Why didn’t she share more with her family? Maybe because a lot of the time our family doesn’t understand our dreams and goals and they discourage us. So I was like, I’m not going to talk to them about that anymore and just keep moving forward. I would definitely encourage you to find some allies. And if you don’t have allies, read some books, visit places, travel, to where you get that inspiration. There are people who inspire who don’t even know me. I’ve just watched them. I want to do that, or I want to be more like that. Just find that fuel, that excitement, and someone who is going to bring out that passion in you. It’s okay to get into something and say that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Sometimes we feel like we don’t want to fail. Failing is just finding your way to the next step to me. You haven’t totally lost. It’s like that didn’t work, so let’s get on to the next thing or let me use that to learn what I need to do for the next level. Always find allies, find some motivation, keep moving.
This is a good question. It says, what is the hardest part of your job, day to day?
This [gestures to her daughter].To me, writing comes easy. It’s second nature. Reading, all that is easy, but being a parent and a writer is the most challenging thing. I’ve read Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, all these people and they don’t have a lot of kids, do they? They must not have a lot of kids, they keep writing books. They might have one or two children, and they’re all grown up now. How do people write with a family? My oldest son is twenty-one now and he plays music. He played in the band at Western Michigan University. He’s a musician. My next son is seven and my daughter is six and she’s three.
So when I got married, not too long after I started being at the Enquirer again in 1999, I was fine with having just one child, but my husband didn’t have any. He wanted a big family and I didn’t. I was right in the middle of my career, my dreams. So to me, the biggest challenge of knowing how to balance family and my writing and knowing what is supposed to be first. Which is why I think people like Oprah don’t have kids because they need to stay focused. They might not be devoted to their family like they want to be. And Merz Tate never got married or had any kids because she had to have focus. To me, having your focus and then having yet another to concentrate on is the most challenging. I just can’t leave my children home or in the car. Being a parent is the most challenge part of anything. Writing is simple. You know, I could go to Tahiti and sit back, and kick out a book in a month without kids. But, when you got the kids running around and all that, it becomes a challenge.
How does your marriage work out? What kinds of arrangements and how do you work that out so that you get the time you need?
Well, that’s the hardest part. My husband has his own business, he’s a graphic designer. He does printing and layout. He did all the design and layout for the books. We do self-publishing workshops now. So, we work with other authors who want to get books out. He and I do a lot of things together. When we’re doing things together, the kids are there. They know how to be quiet or sit there. When we conduct workshops, they hand out the papers. They are just part of the crew now. Because he is the sole bread winner right now, and no one is really hiring in newspapers… the whole movement is kind of slowing, I know I will be able to get my flow back and work more once my kids are older and in school full time.
One of the women I interviewed, she was on the video, Sandra Brown. She does mystery writing. I interviewed her and she said, she used to work for one of those shows like Access Hollywood and one day she went to work and they fired her because she didn’t have that young look anymore. She was like, what am I going to do now? Her husband bought her a computer and he said, you always wanted to write a book, well, start writing. How can you write a book with kids around? When they got older and they were in school all day, that was her writing time. From the time they went to school, that was her writing time and when they came home, she was mom. She’s written these wonderful, awesome books. Even now as they are older, she still keeps that same schedule. The school day is her work schedule. I interviewed a lot of authors, and I asked them the same thing; you’re a parent, how do you do it? Some people have it easy. Their mom lives with them or they go away a couple times a month. Oh wow, I didn’t want to hear that. We’re not at that point because we’re not financially there. They are getting older, my youngest daughter will be the last one to go to school. We’ll be able to get that flow going again.
What did I miss? What haven’t I asked? I’m sure there’s lots.
The very last question. If you could trade places with anyone, who would you trade places with and why?
Oh goodness, you know they always say I wouldn’t change anything about my life. That’s a lie. I would, man… it’s a lot of people I would like to trade places with, but it’s because of the things they are doing, not because of who they are. I would to be in Michelle Obama’s shoes right now. You know how many books I could write?
What would you do?
I could write many books about the people, the places… They would not want to talk to me. They would say, don’t talk to his wife, she’s going to write a book about you. I would love to just be exposed to the people and things she’s been exposed to at this time in history. I think that is just awesome. I hope she is writing it all down.
Somebody’s writing it, she won’t have to write it herself.
She won’t have to write it. I hope she hires me one day. I’ll do it. But I’d love to trade with her and I would also love to trade places with Hillary Clinton too. Oh my gosh, all the traveling around the world and learning about the different people and places. Being bale ot help and influence some things that are going on around the world. That is awesome. To me, people are able to be outside our traditional norms, who are bold, confident and still feminine and beautiful, to me, those are the people I would like to change places with. They are themselves and they grew up in themselves. They are comfortable with who they are and now the world has to be comfortable with them and who they are. The world bows down to that because they respect what they’ve been through, they respect where they are going and they respect their education. There are a lot of women I see that I’d love to be in her shoes for a day. I look at different situations people are in and how they’re able to influence and make a difference. That’s what I would like to do. BACK TO TOP
Okay, one more question. If given the opportunity, what would you change about the world’s perception of women in the working world?
That is kind of what I’m doing now with the travel club with young girls. My focus was to teach young girls about the world they’re in, not only the world, but also their community so they can understand it, learn it, and respect it. When they go out into this world, they’ll be more confident about themselves, who they are, and where they’re at. When they go into the work force and go difference places, they can be bold. To me, by having this travel club, my goal is to teach young women writing and mass communication skills so they can put together those presentations, they can put together articles and magazines. If you’re a doctor, you could write for a physician’s magazine, or if you’re a photographer, you can write for a photography magazine. Writing and technology is always going to be a part of this next generation. By influencing young girls now, I will be able to influence the corporate world because I am getting them skills they’re going to need later on. It is going to put them on top, ahead of those guys. They’re going to come in with some awesome presentations. Some guys might have PowerPoint, well, they’ll have an iMovie. I just want to get those kids prepared to write, to interview people and to talk to people so they know how to take what they’ve just talked about and make it into an article that someone’s going to be interested enough to want to read. That’s how I feel I can help contribute to women in the workplace or in the corporate world. In order to change current views, I work with young girls and let them know that they don’t’ have any limits unless you put them on yourself.
There was something I was thinking about, being interested in literacy. I wanted to know what your opinion was in the general sense of literacy and illiteracy on the influence of writing. What is the importance of being literate. Not only knowing how to read, but actively reading and applying it with skill. What are your thoughts?
People ask me that a lot because I’m such a big reader. I think sometimes, people make reading scary for kids. They make it overwhelming and they make it seem like it’s hard. What’s an adverb? What’s a pronoun? What’s an adjective? What’s a dangling participle? You make kids want to stay away from reading because you’re adding all these things in; instead of just reading to them. I think, to me the thing with literacy is that people put too much of a stigma on making people think it’s a bad thing if you’re not a reader instead of focusing on how to make reading fun and interactive.
There is one thing I did with a bunch of guys, I called it Flip and Flick. We took a book, read it, and watch the movie at the same time. There is a book called Pursuit of Happiness, which Will Smith played in, and there’s the book by the gentlemen, the real character. So we read and discussed the chapter, then we watched a part of the movie and did a comparison. It gets them to ask what is going to happen next. They start seeing that certain things didn’t happen in the movie, but then something might have happened in the book. It makes reading fun. Tell me what you learned most about this? They’re just thinking and having a conversation with me. I didn’t say write me a ten page essay on the symbolism. You have to get kids into reading and understanding, and then you can sneak the other stuff in. Then, literacy is going to come so easy. They’re going to say, what’s the next book we’re reading?
They haven’t said that yet.
You haven’t said that yet?
My students don’t say that. Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me. BACK TO TOP
Page last modified February 21, 2014