In fifth grade, children’s author Madelyn Rosenberg wrote a short story ‘How the Raccoon Got His Mask’

Rosenberg in fifth grade, the year she wrote the short story.





Madelyn Rosenberg has written books for children of all ages.

For middle school readers, she’s co-written two books with fellow children’s author Wendy Wan-Long Shang about a 12-year-old half-Jewish / half-Asian protagonist in the 1980s, a boy and a girl: David in This Is Just a Test and Lauren in Not Your All-American Girl.

For high school-aged readers, she co-wrote the supernatural romance Dream Boy with Mary Crockett. For picture books and elementary school readers, she wrote Cyclops of Central Park and Nanny X.

In fifth grade, she wrote a short story titled How the Raccoon Got His Mask. Below is Rosenberg’s story as she originally wrote it, including her cover with every word shaded a different color, as well as a typed version that’s slightly easier to read. But first, this intro from Rosenberg, where she recalls her fifth grade teacher, the original writing assignment, and the nascent career idea that the project sparked.

In fifth grade my teacher, Mrs. Sinha, asked us to write what I guess would amount to an origin story for the animal of our choice. How the Porcupine Got Her Quills, for instance. Or How the Skunk Got His Stink. I decided to tell the story of How the Raccoon Got HIs Mask. If I were telling it today, the mask would cover his nose and mouth. But this was the late 1970s and anthropomorphic animals had other concerns.

I liked fifth grade. I liked the teacher. And I loved the assignment. Mrs. Sinha stapled the pages together and I had a book. I don’t recall the writing of it as much as I recall my parents’ reaction when I brought it home. “You should write children’s books when you grow up,” they said. When I made a map of Virginia out of salt dough, no one told me I should become a sculptor. When I hung with my chin over the pull-up bar for 55 seconds, no one told me I should become an athlete. Or maybe they did and I just can’t remember. Maybe I received encouragement for every project, and their words about the book stuck because I allowed them to stick. Anyway, they never left my mind.

I became a journalist, and still in the back of my mind I heard, “You should write children’s books.” “Remember that story? About the raccoon?” My mother kept the book in the side table in the living room until I became an adult and had my own desk in which to keep it. The plot (raccoon wears mask to Halloween party, bobs for apples, mask shrinks) showed some promise, I think. The raccoon’s name (Randy) was a little less imaginative. But I stand by that story. And I did actually go on to write children’s books, the mantra “you could be” in my mind, piercing through the rejections that would come.

When I visit schools and the students ask about the first book I published, I still pull out that one, the first book that felt real, the first book of mine that other people read. I show my illustrations as part of my slide show, because I want them to know what kitchens looked like in the 1970s. But I also show them because I want them to know that what they are dreaming about at that particular moment? That could become their future.


How the Racc🦝on Got His Mask

Written + Illustrated by: Madelyn Rosenberg


Once on a crisp October night, Randy, a ring-tailed raccoon started on his evening walk toward Crayfish Pond. Randy scampered down the sandy banks of the pond, washed his paws, and settled down for a feast of crayfish, his favorite food. On his way home, Randy decided to check on his blackberry bush to see if the blackberries were ripe yet. Suddenly, it began to rain. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed. Randy took out his May-apple umbrella. Then, he saw a piece of paper fluttering in the wind. Randy picked it up. The paper read:


715 Pine Lane



Randy folded the paper and put it in his pocket. Then he went home, took out a thorn (which was used for a thumb tack) and hung it up inside his tree. Randy pulled down his blanket and went to bed.

He awoke bright and early the next morning and scurried down to the General Store. The store was run by a bird named Bernie. “What can I do for you today, Randy?” he chirped in his squeaky little voice. “I’m looking for a costume,” Randy answered. Randy tried on costume after costume but none of them seemed to fit him. Finally, Bernie suggested, “Why don’t you just wear a mask?” This seemed like a good idea, so Randy chose a nice black mask. Bernie rang up the price with his beak and put it in a bag. Randy picked it up and hurried home with his purchase.

Finally, the night of the party arrived. Animals from all over the forest were heading towards 715 Pine Lane. Randy put on his mask and followed the procession of animals to the party. When he got there, the party was already in full swing. Randy decided to go bobbing for apples. When he put his face under water to try and get hold of an apple, his mask got smaller and smaller.

Now Randy never realized his mask was shrinking so it came as a surprise to him when it came time to take off your mask to show who was who that his mask was stuck. When Randy found out he tried to think of a way to get the mask off his head. Finally, he thought of an idea. He went into the kitchen where a porcupine was preparing some refreshments. Randy strode towards the stove where a big pot of butter, that was going to be put on some popcorn, was simmering. Randy had read in a book that butter and grease would remove things that were stuck, so Randy stuck his head in the burning hot butter.

Yow! Randy jumped so high that he hit his head on the ceiling. “You ought to know better than to stick your head in a pot of hot butter,” the porcupine scolded. Feeling foolish, Randy went back to the room the party was in. He asked his friend, a monkey, if he would help him pull his mask off. The monkey tried to pull it off, but he couldn’t, so the monkey asked his friend to help, who asked his friend, and so on. Soon, all the animals at the party were all trying to pull Randy’s mask off. When none of them succeeded, a snake that had been sitting in the corner uncoiled its long body and slithered up to Randy. “Would you like me to get the mask off?” he hissed with an evil look in his bright red eyes. Randy cautiously backed away (and so did many other animals) and told the snake “No,” for Randy was thinking how much snakes like raccoons for supper. So Randy’s mask never came off, and he was stuck with it — and that’s how the raccoon got his mask.

Check her out at, follow her on Facebook at Madelyn Rosenberg Books, and on Twitter @MadRosenberg.

Former Hartford Courant opinion editor Carolyn Lumsden’s first-ever interview was legendary artist Christo in 1978

When Carolyn Lumsden got her first-ever journalism article pitch accepted, an interview with the writer Christo, there was one catch. “The problem was, I hadn’t done any such interview,” Lumsden says. “I’d never met Christo.”

Carolyn Lumsden. Photo: The Hartford Courant.

A 26-year veteran of Connecticut’s largest newspaper opinion section, Lumsden has won not one but two Sigma Delta Chi Awards in Editorial Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.

In 2017, her four-part editorial series “Crumbling Foundations” spotlighted tens of thousands of Connecticut homes made with pyrrhotite, a little-known material that causes foundations to easily deteriorate. In 1995, her three-part editorial series “Justice in the Dark” helped convince the state to reform the confidentiality laws for trials involving juveniles.

But before that job, before her job as a reporter for the Associated Press, Lumsden’s first-ever journalism interview — her first ever — was with Christo. The experimental artist, who died in May 2020, spent decades attempting among the most audacious and largest-scale art projects in memory, including 1995’s wrapping of the entire German Reichstag building in fabric and 2005’s installation of thousands of bright orange gates in New York City’s Central Park.


2005’s “The Gates” exhibit in New York City. Credit: Wikimedia user Delaywaves.

Here’s what she remembers about landing that first interview, and how it set her on the decades-long journalism path she eventually pursued to great success.

The artist Christo was my first interview ever.

It was the spring of 1978. I had a lowly job in New York City. Tired of that and desperate to get my name in print, I called Soho Weekly News, a chic paper in lower Manhattan. [The publication existed from 1973 to 1982.] An editor there said yes, he would look at my interview with Christo.

The problem was, I hadn’t done any such interview. I’d never met Christo.

I then called Christo. It was easy to find phone numbers in those days. I told him that Soho Weekly News wanted a story on him. He said OK.

A few days later, a thin, shaggy-haired Christo opened the door to his loft. He looked and sounded like an intense professor. His loft was hung with photographs of his mammoth projects: Wrapped Coast in Australia, Valley Curtain in Colorado, and Running Fence in California.

Of course, there was a large mysterious package in the living room. Christo called it Wrapped Canvases.

I offered him the expensive bottle of wine I could barely afford. He ignored it. He set to work, dictating ideas and opinions.

“We live in the most political, social, economic century of human history,” he lectured. “I think that any art that is less than political, less than social, less than economic, is certainly less than contemporary art.” And so it went for an hour.

He talked about clashes over his projects, including one dustup involving wrapping walkways in Kansas City. “We have so many problems in trying to get the permits! … Some people around the community think that doing the project will create a fantastic traffic jam … And that the park will become the place of marijuana smokers and drunkards. And who will collect the garbage?”

The projects usually ended up making people happy and giving them great memories.

After an hour, [Christo’s wife and artistic collaborator] Jeanne-Claude came home. She also had shaggy hair, but she looked more like a fashionable art curator, and she praised my gift of wine. It was a moment of triumph.

The story ran in April 1978. When Christo died earlier this year, I went looking for the article online and found that the Whitney Museum of American Art had excerpted it for the exhibition catalog called “Surveying the Seventies.”

I’m grateful to Christo for taking me seriously and giving me such a wonderful first-ever interview.

Here’s an excerpt from the actual article:

I think we live in the most political, social, economic century of human history. It is unprecedented… I think that any art that is less than political, less than social, less than economic, is certainly less than contemporary art. We cannot stop that concern, we cannot stop that dimension of art…

Of course, all the activity created the momentum of the project [Running Fence]. Without that, the project would not have had its impact. The project created forces for and against. All my projects have that same character because they are built outside of the art system. The art system is anything from the National Endowment for the Arts to the private galleries to the museum collector who dictates what is avant-garde and contemporary art. Because the project was put outside of that system, it was in subversive relation to the structure of perception of what is art, what is permitted. That is the source of energy of the project.

From Carolyn Lumsden, “Christo: ‘I Am a Political Artist,'” Soho Weekly News, April 6, 1978, p. 20.

Follow her on Twitter @CarolynLumsden. And do yourself a favor and read the series of editorials and op-eds she spearheaded in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting.

On a personal note, Carolyn repaid the favor that the Soho Weekly News first paid her, by greenlighting my own first-ever “real” journalism experience outside of my high school newspaper, with my 2010 op-ed about competing in a hot dog eating contest:

“Testing Limits at Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest” was published in the Hartford Courant, on June 9, 2010. Click the above image for a larger view.

Before he was a major pop music analyst and critic, Chris Molanphy reported on an Irish folk music radio show

“We must have that banjo,” Ernest Shackleton commanded his 1914 Antarctic expedition’s crew, forced to abandon ship and cross the frozen continent on foot. “It is vital mental medicine.” If music is vital mental medicine, then today Chris Molanphy ranks among the topic’s most vital writers.

He may not write for GQ, but this suit looks like he models for them.

Though he’s appeared in such prestigious publications as Rolling Stone and Billboard, he’s most known for his writings in Slate. Every time a new song reaches the top spot on the chart, Molanphy writes an installment of his regular Slate series “Why Is This Song No. 1?” analyzing which factors — social, cultural, even political — contributed to the song’s ascendance. He’s now penned dozens of these articles, every single one a fascinating and educational read even if you hate the actual song. Even if you haven’t liked any new music since 1974, you’ll find Molanphy’s contemporary analyses fascinating nonetheless.

On a personal note, he was also gracious enough to include me on a June installment of his podcast Hit Parade, in which we took turns trying to stump each other with music trivia. And he did stump me! On one question, at least. Listen to the episode here or by searching on your favorite podcast app under the title “Music Trivia: The MTV and Alt-Rock Edition.” (Listen to the whole thing, but my appearance starts about nine minutes in.)

But decades before he was writing about the highest-selling music, Molanphy was writing about some of the lowest-selling music.

As a freshman at Yale in the fall of 1989, Molanphy contributed his first-ever piece for the college newspaper, the Yale Daily News. It was about music, alright, but quite the opposite of the genres he would come to specialize in during his subsequent career. An image of the article is below, along with a transcription.

Check out his website, follow him on Twitter @ChrisMolanphy, and check out all his Slate articles and podcasts — including his regular article series “Why Is This Song No. 1?” and monthly podcast “Hit Parade” — here.

[Yale Daily News: 11/8/1989]

Traditional Irish Folk Music Show Wishes Top O’ the Mornin’ to Yale

By Christopher Molanphy

Contributing Reporter

Students who tune in to WYBC on Sunday mornings expecting to hear the station’s usual mix of modern and classical music may be surprised to hear Sean Canning playing traditional Irish folk songs.

Canning has been the disc jockey of his own “Sounds of Ireland” program on Sunday mornings since 1975. The show was featured on various radio stations in and around New Haven until June, 1987, when he began broadcasting on WYBC.

He joined the Yale station after his former station cancelled his program due to a format change.

Asked why he chose to come to Yale, Canning said, “It was available… and they gave me the time I needed — time to blend in, as well as the Sunday morning slot I wanted.”

“Sounds of Ireland” is a 9 to 11 a.m. broadcast of strictly Irish music, sung mostly in English. “We play very few Gaelic songs,” Canning said. “We try to keep it universal, so everybody can enjoy it.”

Canning attributed his popularity to a faithful legion of listeners who tunes in every week for his unusual yet simple program. “For many people, it’s a tradition,” says Canning. “It’s their Sunday morning.”

Even though the station is owned by Yale students, Canning’s primary audience remains the sizable Irish-American population in New Haven and the surrounding suburbs.

Canning’s audience ranges in age, he said. “We have a lot of old people. We also have young people who have to listen because their parents do… and then [the young people] continue listening. They tell me, ‘We grew up listening to your program. It brings back memories.'”

The disc jockey’s listening base goes beyond the New Haven area. He has received feedback from listeners as far away as Trumbull, New London, and Middlefield.

John O’Donovan, a friend of Canning’s and frequent listener, said Canning’s publicity about Irish-American groups in New Haven draws Yale students to Irish-American cultural events.

“He tries to relate events to the Yale community,” he said. “Sometimes, students will come to our musical programs, which they wouldn’t know about without Sean’s program.”

As of this year, there is no organization for Irish-American students here at Yale. Clan na Gael, a group founded by Brendan Crowe ’89 two years ago, failed to meet the registration deadline this year and subsequently folded.

As pleased as he is with WYBC’s generosity, Canning also is proud of what he has given back to the station: a wider audience, and revenue in the form of increased advertising.

“I hope to stay there and continue to bring in money and some publicity,” he said. “YBC is a station with great potential, and I hope I can help it realize that potential.”

Canning is optimistic about the potential of his fellow Irish in any community. “They are all over the state,” he said, “and they blend in well in any community… They come into [a community] and they work like hell. They’re not afraid to take another step.”

Canning himself is personally involved in the community’s activities. He is the president of the local chapter of the Pioneers of the Sacred Heart, an organization founded in 18th-century Ireland to “atone for the sins of drunkenness,” he said. The group in New Haven is celebrating its 31st anniversary this year.

Humane Society VP of Policy and ‘Clean Meat’ author Paul Shapiro wrote about animals at age 9

Shapiro with a chicken, presumably rehearsing these scenes from “The Room” —

Although he wouldn’t become a vegetarian until age 13, Paul Shapiro loved animals at least several years before that, penning a short story at age 9 about a lost dalmatian titled Where’s Spot?

Now serving as Vice President of Policy Engagement for the Humane Society of the United States, Shapiro’s first book comes out this week: January 2, 2018. It’s titled Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, about new technology that allows meat to be grown in a lab by multiplying only a few cells of an animal — without any slaughter or death involved. Shapiro predicts the practice could become the industry standard at your local supermarket and restaurant within a few decades.

Here’s what Shapiro says about his short story at age 9, followed by the story itself:

My thoughts on Where’s Spot?

I’m not sure what the pub date on this literary masterpiece is, but my mom thinks I was perhaps nine when I penned it, meaning around 1986. Interestingly, it’s actually not penned at all, but rather typed, meaning I was a nerd with some type of primitive word processor of the day. It appears that I forgot to type the title and byline, meaning I had to scrawl them onto the page post-printing in cursive, which at least is far better than my cursive today.

Soooo, maybe “masterpiece” may be a bit much for Where’s Spot? After all, a grammatical error in the very first sentence may not have been the best way to impress my teacher. I should’ve thought about asking my mom — a former editor — to proofread it, but instead I put the apostrophe in “Simpsons” before the ‘s’. SMH. [Scratching My Head.]

It doesn’t get much better from there. Exhibit A: “Spot was a Dalmation with many spots.” Even ignoring my misspelling of Dalmatian, I wasn’t exactly painting the most vivid picture for the reader.

I don’t want to give away the ending of the gripping mystery, but it’s not much of a page-turner. Well, it’s literally not much of a page turner in that it’s just barely more than one page. But if you can’t make it all the way to the end, at least rest easy knowing that the question in the title of the novella is indeed answered. Spot is found.

For what it’s worth, given that I now work full-time in the animal welfare field, it does seem at least somewhat interesting that even at such a young age I was writing a story involving a missing animal in need of help from the local animal shelter. Perhaps if my parents had known this would be my career they could’ve saved a lot of money on education in topics unrelated to my profession. For one, writing lessons would’ve been useful.

Enjoy the story! 

Here’s the original short story alongside a transcribed text — spelling and punctuation errors intact.

Where’s Spot?
by Paul Shapiro

It was a Sunday morning at the Simpson’s [sic]. Scott was playing with Spot, the family dog. Spot was a Dalmation [sic] with many spots. Spot was in the right neighborhood at the right time.. He had all the best dog friends in the world. There was Bess, Ron, and Blinky.

One day all the dogs were out playing together. Spot saw a huge pile of soot and decided to jump in and so did the others. They played in the soot for hours. In fact Spot was so black that you couldn’t reconize [sic] him.

Mr. and Mrs. Simpson called everyone about Spot to ask them if they’d seen him. Bess, Ron, and Blinky were reconized [sic] by their owners immediately. After Mr. and Mrs. Simpson got back from the animal shelter they asked Scott if anyone called. Scott replied like this: Nobody called but a black dog stopped by and tried to get into Spot’s bed but I made him leave because I knew we couldn’t get a new dog. Mr. and Mrs. Simpson ran over to Spot’s bed and saw that it was full of soot. Immediately they realized that Spot must have come home full of soot and not have been recognized [correct spelling that time] by Scott.

Now the mystery of what had happened to Spot was almost solved. The only question was where had he gone after Scott made him leave. Since Spot was no where [sic] to be found in the neighborhood, the Simpson’s decided to check the animal shelter again. When they got to the shelter there was still no Dalmation [sic] in sight. However, there were a whole lot of black dogs that were about the size of Spot. After getting permission from the people who ran the animal shelter, they started to give each of the black dogs who were Spot’s size

[At this point the 3-page story skips page 2, which has apparently been lost to history. We resume our tale in mid-sentence with the few lines on page 3.]

by strangers. The third dog, however, didn’t mind at all. In fact, he licked the Simpsons, who were not surprised after that to discover that the black dog was really Spot.

Follow him on Twitter @PaulHShapiro or visit his website Buy his new book Clean Meat out January 2 on Amazon or at

Kara Swisher’s first tech article was about pay phones in 1980


Kara Swisher, tech reporter for Recode Media with more than 1M Twitter followers

Not many people have interviewed both President Barack Obama and Kim Kardashian. But most people aren’t Kara Swisher, executive editor of Re/code, the huge website covering all things tech.

A profile article called Swisher “Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist,” with 1.2 million Twitter followers.

Swisher enrolled at Georgetown University in fall 1980, hoping to work for the CIA. She hadn’t even written for her high school newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey, instead only serving as an editor for the yearbook.

Yet she started writing for the Georgetown Hoya, winning a journalism award her freshman year which was usually intended for seniors.

The very first tech journalism piece Swisher ever wrote was on October 3, 1980 about pay phones — and featured a typo in the opening sentence. (Kids, pay phones were devices on street corners where you had to put money in to call someone.)

Here’s Swisher’s exclusive intro, followed by the actual 1980 article:

Here is what I recall: Absolutely nothing about writing this piece. I have written so many articles over the years, I am afraid that it is impossible to recall any of these. In fact, it speaks to the change in journalism — it is such a fast-paced media world now that we are subject to a news cycle that is both immediate and incomprehensible at times. As you might imagine, this is both good and bad. 

Phone Co. Cracks Down on Cheaters

by Kara Swisher

HOYA Staff Writer

[Georgetown Hoya: October 3, 1980]

The Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Compnay [sic], the utility that services all public and private phones on the Georgetown campus, says it will attempt to “crack down” on fraudulent calls from campus areas, particularly zeroing in on the fraudulent use of public pay phones.

Allen R. Coale, security manager at C&P, says, “College campuses hold the dubious distinction of ranking as the most identifiable source of toll fraud in metropolitan Washington.”

Over the past six months, toll frauds have increased one-hundred and two percent, and the projected bill for 1980 is $115,000. Faced with these costs, C&P will be using newer and more sophisticated means of catching offenders. Coale explained, “Given C&P’s responsibility to our customers who pay for phone service, we have no choice but to go after persons deliberately giving false or unauthorized billing information to an operator. Toll fraud is like shoplifting, and if we let it get too high, we must keep it within limits. Some people think of the phone company like the government, but we are out to make money, and if us someone is stealing from us we must take whatever measures necessary to stop them.”

The means with which C&P will attempt to thwart the frauds are varied. According to Coale, the local phone affiliate is as advanced electronically as any section of the nationwide Bell System. Ultra-sophisticated equipment in conjunction with the operator will alert the phone company to “suspicious calls,” and the culprit will now be dealing with machines rather than just human beings. New procedures in verification on credit card calls and third party billing will be utilized with operators and computers checking pay phone calls more often, rather than the “on the spot” methods being used right now. The phone company will also be arresting and subjecting the offender to civil and criminal penalties.

C&P maintains that telephone frauders leave clear trails, such as the number called. The company claimed that it will even go as far as coming right to the phone to catch the offender in the act. A number of students from surrounding universities have been apprehended in this manner.

The Bell System’s attitude towards this situation is reflected in Coale’s comments. “Unfortunately,” Coale said, “we can no longer afford the luxury of letting college students off with just a warning. If the matter continues even after these methods, we have no other choice but to discontinue use of the pay phones. We have done this on other college campuses for three to four weeks, and have found that students understand the real advantage of a pay phone system.

“Those phones represent a partnership between the college and the phone company. We rent the pay phone space from you at the university. If the phone is being used for fraud, there’s not much point in the phone being there. You lose out as well as we do.”

Sums up Coale, “We’ve tried the soft touch, because the students are in a delicate situation, both academically and career wise. But because of these abuses, we can no longer do this. Arrests will be made. We are giving fair warning. The risk is now yours.”

Thanks to Georgetown University Archivist Lynn Conway for locating this article deep in the archives.

Follow Swisher on Twitter @KaraSwisher where she has 1.2 million followers and counting. Visit her Re/code author page here where you can read all her articles and listen to episodes of her podcast Recode Decode.

Politico editor-in-chief John Harris wrote a political article in college about an alum who became Defense Secretary

John Harris, Politico editor-in-chief. Photo source: Politico.

John Harris, Politico editor-in-chief. Photo source: Politico.

Decades before he ran one of America’s top political journalism newspapers and websites, John Harris wrote a political article for his Minnesota college newspaper in which he interviewed an alum who became one of the key figures in the Vietnam War.

Harris has done more than almost anybody else in the past 10 years to shake up journalism for the better. Previously a longtime reporter for the Washington Post, in 2007 he co-founded Politico, the upstart political journalism newspaper and website which quickly became one of the most important in the country. Today as their editor-in-chief, he oversees a publication with millions of readers whose morning newsletter Politico Playbook drives the agenda in Washington. Just the other week, Politico arguably caused President Trump’s Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder to withdraw his name from consideration, after they exclusively published a video of Puzder’s ex-wife detailing alleged abuse. (Perhaps that’s partially why Politico was banned from the White House press briefing room last week, along with the New York Times, CNNLos Angeles Times, and BBC.)

Everybody should read Harris’s September article “Why Journalism” about why he believes the field is still bright and its best days are ahead, even as the press these days is so often attacked, maligned, and distrusted. Also check out Harris’s interview last week with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, the governor of America’s largest swing state.

On a personal note, I’d also like to express gratitude to Mr. Harris for taking the time to speak with me one-on-one for a solid half hour during my 2015 Politico internship. At many institutions, those atop of the hierarchy won’t even make eye contact with those at the bottom.

Harris’s Politico author page with all his articles is here, and you can follow him on Twitter @HarrisPolitico here.

Here, Harris explains the backstory behind his March 1982 college newspaper article titled “Melvin Laird’s best defense.” The article itself is at the bottom.

I remember vividly the reporting circumstances around this piece—written 33 years ago, during my junior year in college—but definitely did not remember much about the actual text of the story.

I was that year editor of the Carletonian, the campus newspaper at Carleton College. I was always interested in politics—an interest that preceded my interest in journalism—so it was natural that I agitated to publish pieces that could connect the campus in Northfield, Minnesota with people who had done interesting things in Washington or other parts of the political world. At that time, only a decade past the traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Melvin Laird was still a well-known figure. (He died last year at age 94). He was a Carleton alumnus from 1944 who had gone on to be a well-regarded GOP congressman from Wisconsin and, more controversially, President Nixon’s Secretary of Defense during the closing years of Vietnam.

Importantly, from a Carleton perspective, he had gone from being a loyal alum to someone who was rather aggrieved with the institution. He felt he had been ostracized and even smeared by student activists and some faculty during Vietnam, and the college leadership had not done enough to stand up for him personally or the cause of open debate generally. Specifically, he believed that an offer to come explain himself and administration policy on campus had been rudely snubbed. That assertion was disputed by some, but he was clearly sincere in his belief that it happened.

So, the interview in his Washington office started out a bit warily—he seemed to be sizing me up to see whether I had some axe to grind. I didn’t. Though the events were actually fairly recent—closer in time than, say, 9/11 is us to now—to a 20-year-old they seemed like a distant era. Laird was very close to many reporters, so I think once he decided I wasn’t baring fangs he got kind of a kick out of talking with me. I’m sure if a transcript existed it would show him running circles around me and my questions.

On to the writing… What I worried about when I went to read the piece turned out to be true. It strikes me as clumsy and pretentious. In fairness to myself, pretentious isn’t the worst thing you can say about a young writer. Probably most ambitious journalists start out as pretentious: We see work we admire and so we think to ourselves, “I want to try that.” We are not aware at the time how painfully obvious that trying and pretending is, at least to observant readers. In this case, even the conception of the piece was derivative. I had read a piece in the New York Times Magazine by Fox Butterfield about how as the Vietnam War receded in time and emotions on campuses cooled there was a reappraisal taking place in the academy: People were more willing to examine the Vietnam debate from multiple perspectives, including that of U.S. policymakers, and less prone to view it simply in good vs. evil terms. By trying to present the Laird story in that context—wanting to seem like I was deeply exploring an important intellectual movement—I let the story get muddied. The essence of the article should have been much more straightforward: What actually happened between Carleton and Laird in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and what did he and other relevant characters have to say now? This essence is lost in florid language and murky presentation.

Oh, well. Even as I cringe a little upon reading the story I’m certainly not embarrassed by it. I remember getting some praise from people who thought it was interesting. I think tackling the subject matter and trying to present it in a sophisticated way showed ambition, which is what I admire and look for now in young journalists. So I suppose I’ll give myself a B+ for the piece, and hope I am not accused of grade inflation.

Here is Harris’s March 1982 piece in full — click the photo for the full PDF of the article:



Sesame Street writer Annie Evans won a poetry contest in sixth grade with a dark poem about a hunted wolf

Annie EvansAnnie Evans has perhaps the coolest job description in the world: writer for the television show that raised everybody, Sesame Street. Since 1993, she has written for the U.S. show and “Sesame Street Live!” as well as for international versions of the show in countries ranging from Mexico to South Africa to China to Bangladesh. She’s also an accomplished playwright and author, with several books and plays to her name. Here’s a clip she wrote for Sesame Street as a parody of Mad Men, which is funny whether you’ve seen the original or not, but does contains a few references for fans of the show:

You’ll also absolutely fall in love with this clip of Annie and her husband, fellow Sesame Street writer Marty Robinson, getting engaged on the show’s set in front of all the staff and crew — a ceremony officiated in part by Oscar the Grouch:

But Annie didn’t always write with such a happy tone. In sixth grade, she won a poetry contest with much more sinister and morbid language. First here’s her explanation of the context and backstory, followed by the text of the poem pasted at bottom.

Won the Suffolk County poetry contest in 1974. Typed it from memory since I had to memorize it way back when at the awards ceremony! I was so scared it stuck!

Wolves is the title. The contest wasn’t just for kids, it was for all Suffolk County, NY (on eastern Long Island.) I remember the second place winner was a teacher. The tone of the poem is definitely dark. I was very serious back then about animal welfare (wanted to be a vet.) I didn’t really discover my funny side until I started to write plays and perform in musical comedy. I have a dark side still (don’t we all?) but I feel comedy is more effective a tool for teaching kids on TV. I just finished a play — a comedy about infertility. So it has a dark edge to it, but my point is to make it funny, since life is. If you aren’t laughing right now at the state of things, you’re weeping.

You can find Annie on her website and on Facebook here.  (I also appreciate Annie being the first woman to contribute on this website after launching with nine consecutive men!) And now, here’s her poem from 1974:

Slipping through a moonless night.
Stalking up to a silent prey.
Squatting down to make that deadly bite.
A wolf makes its last and final kill.
A fluttering noise shatters the silence.
Fright is passed through the woods.
Bullets shoot through the air with great violence.
And in the end a wolf lay dead in the snow.
Why did this have to happen?
Man just taking a life like this?
So another legend is confirmed.
All enemies must die
Is man’s horrible wish.
Annie Evans
Sixth grade


New York Times columnist Dan Barry’s 1978 profile of a college dorm janitor

Dan Barry

Dan Barry

Perhaps Dan Barry is the best person to describe his own career exploits, from an excerpt of the commencement address he delivered at his alma mater St. Bonaventure University just weeks ago:

“I’ve been a newspaper journalist for 35 years and I have written thousands of stories. Small town crimes and big city massacres. Political campaigns for Town Council and for the United States Senate. Saints and mobsters. Burlesque queens and circus elephants. The powerful and the powerless. I have met the coroner from The Wizard of Oz.  I have witnessed a man’s execution. I saw New Orleans underwater after Hurricane Katrina. I spent an entire year writing about what happened to the city of my birth after an attack on a sunny Tuesday morning in September. In some ways, I’m still writing about that.”

Dan Barry is truly one of the great storytellers of our time, best known as the columnist for the regular New York Times feature “This Land,” which tells the tales of ordinary people with unique stories or meaningful lives in the hidden corners of America. It’s always a refreshing break to read that in a newspaper often noted for its coverage of the most powerful, from presidents to popes to dictators. Among Barry’s best writings include:

  • The tale of Mamie Lang Kirkland, the elderly black woman who finally returned to her home state a full century after her family left while fleeing a lynch mob.
  • The offbeat story of activists in Keene, New Hampshire who were paying literally all the parking meters in the town to “save you from the king’s tariff.”
  • The sad life of Jesse Webster, who since 1996 has served life in prison without parole for a completely nonviolent offense.
  • Dan Barry's 1908-style baseball column in the NYT print edition. Click for a larger view.

    Dan Barry’s 1908-style baseball column in the NYT print edition. Click for a larger view. (It should surprise nobody that the Cubs lost.)

    His column last October covering a Chicago Cubs vs. New York Mets baseball game as though it was 1908, featuring old-fashioned terminology (a single becomes a “one-bagger” and the Mets become “the Metropolitans”), a century-old font in the newspaper print edition, and grainy black-and-white photographs.

  • Another baseball-related story,  his book “Bottom of the 33rd” about the longest baseball game of all time in 1981. Barry alternates chapters describing the game inning-by-inning and tracking down the (often tragic) lives of the minor-league players in the subsequent three decades. I read the whole thing, all 33 innings of it, and I’d highly recommend even if you don’t love baseball. As proof, I don’t love baseball!
  • Barry’s new book, released just last month, is “The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland,” the true story of several dozen intellectually disabled men who were kept in servitude for more than 30 years in a small Iowa town without anybody knowing before gaining their freedom.

The piece Barry submitted for A Step in the Write Direction is a short column he wrote for his college publication the Bonaventure Convex in December 1978, about a janitor at a university dorm building who had more to his life than met the eye. The piece shows early glimpses of the “aura of mystique” writing style that Barry uses so often today, in particular phrases like “some people still say…” Below is Barry writing about what he remembers about writing the piece, followed by a photo of the piece as it appeared in the print edition you can read, followed by the original text copied and pasted. (A note for younger readers: Sophia Loren, who is mentioned more than once in the column and featured in the photo accompanying the piece, was an Oscar-winning actress from the ’50s and ’60s.)

Check out Dan Barry at his official website, follow him on Twitter at @DanBarryNYT, on Facebook at DanBarry.Author.

The story of Tony Oni — whose real name was Tony Villani — had a deep impact on me. I was a student at St. Bonaventure University, trying to imagine a life as a journalist who told the stories of others, including the vulnerable. And here, every morning, came Tony to my dormitory to pick up the beer cups and other debris of a bunch of relatively privileged young men from Syracuse and Buffalo and Long Island. Some ridiculed him for his intellectual disability, even as he cleaned their mess.
To check out the rumor that he was Sophia Loren’s cousin, I visited Tony in his squalid apartment in a dodgy part of town. He said he had a photo; it turned out to be a movie poster on his wall. But I kept digging, and ultimately found a photo of the two of them in an old campus newspaper.
I’m indebted to Tony Villani. I learned about the chasm that existed between the non-disabled and disabled worlds — that still exists, as I recently discovered in researching and writing “The Boys in the Bunkhouse.” I learned about not giving up in digging for facts. And I learned the rush from snatching a true story from out of the clouds of myth and rumor.

Toni Oni, The Spirit of Devereux - Dan Barry - The Bonaventure Convex, December 1978

Toni Oni, The Spirit of Devereux

By Dan Barry

When that freshman first lugs his suitcase up those stairs in Devereux, he can sense the tradition of the oldest dorm on the St. Bonaventure campus. It has a special air about it, one of pride and madness. The teachers refer to Dev as the “Zoo.”

As the upperclassmen arrive a few days later, they fill the freshman in on the history of his new home. Yes, Lanier lived here, and there’s where the Great Water War of ‘76 took place, and up on Fifth Dev two guys said a black mass and a priest held an exorcism.

But the only story that the upperclassmen tell with a special tone of reverence and mystery is the one about Toni-Oni, the janitor. He’s Sophia Loren’s cousin, the upperclassmen say.

As the years pass, that freshman (now an upperclassman) sees Toni-Oni almost any time of the day, dragging two plastic trash bags down the Dev halls, his eyes down in search of empty beer cans and scraps of paper. In his baggy blue uniform and black shoes, he perpetually cleans up after the students, never complaining, never scolding. Only smiling. He always smiles and says, “Hiya.”

Some people say his name is Antonio Villani and he lives across from Burger King in town. Others who know better say his name is Toni-Oni and he lives in Devereux tradition. After all, the upperclassmen say, he’s Sophia Loren’s cousin.

Time Magazine humor columnist Joel Stein’s first college piece was so weak “they made me submit a second sample”

Time Magazine humor columnist Joel Stein, present day and with his mullet in 1990. (Photo on left:

Time Magazine humor columnist Joel Stein, present day and with his mullet in 1990.
(Photo on left: Ron Bennington Interviews.)

Not sure which one is Joel Stein.

Not sure which one is Joel Stein.

Every year Joel Stein parodiesTime Magazine’s annual “100 Most Influential People” issue. This year he had the 100 most influential animals. Previous years included:

That’s what you’ll read in the back pages of Time Magazine which feature the weekly irreverent humor column “The Awesome Column,” written since 1998 by comedy writer Joel Stein.

Asked for an early example of his writing, Stein submitted the first humor column he ever wrote for his college newspaper, the Stanford Daily. Wanting to join the newspaper’s opinion staff at the beginning of his sophomore year in 1990,  he submitted a column titled “Fruit flies and memories,” which may be more relevant than ever during the year of the mosquito-borne Zika Virus. The column is copied below in text form, along with a photo showing how it appeared in the print edition. (His author bio also contained a very dated reference to the at-the-time-recent unification of East and West Germany.) Remembering his first piece, Stein writes:

It sucked. I was copying Dave Barry. I was the only person where they made me submit a second sample because that one was so weak, but someone thought there was something there.

Follow him on Twitter @TheJoelStein where he has just shy of one million followers as of this posting. Stein can be found at his official website, his Time Magazine column archive is here, and and like him on Facebook here. One particularly funny and accurate tweet of his: “The only way to assure an email gets read is to send a second one titled ‘Ignore last email.'”

 Here’s his original October 5, 1990 humor column “Fruit flies and memories.” Hopefully you can get past the late-’80s style mullet haircut in his author photo.
Click on the image or open it in a new tab to enlarge.

Click on the image or open it in a new tab to enlarge.

Fruit flies and memories

The fruit fly quarantine was over. The signs which had previously warned the public (and successfully convinced small pesky mosquitoes not to fly within restricted areas) were now covered with “Eradicated — We Thank You” notices. Sometime over the summer, the Stanford community had scoped the area and destroyed the entire fruit fly population, boldly proclaiming their accomplishment with notices declaring that no fly would dare return.

As I drove up toward the Stanford campus this fall, eagerly searching for a familiar face, I was instead immediately confronted with this startling information. My first reaction was a gut one: “By God,” I thought, “what a wonderful, powerful institution this Stanford University is.” But as I drove on toward my new sophomore home in Sterling Quadrangle, I had plenty of time to consider the deeper implications of the complete extermination of the local fruit fly community. The question that was raised appeared to me in this form:

  1. In recent months, the Stanford community has worked together to accomplish the eradication of certain agricultural problems. In a short, two-page paper, describe several similar personal accomplishments of your summer and/or Stanford career.

I quickly began to form an outline of my summer experiences on the front cover of the great big blue book in my mind.

  1. bought a few CDs
  2. rented a bunch of movies
  3. read a couple of books
  4. met a girl named Bubbles

But, as I tried to flesh out my outline, I was forced to own up to the fact that none of my summer experiences could even compare to the fruit fly thing. What I needed was a contribution to the community at large, an accomplishment of some kind, some sort of a Raid can I could place on that bathroom shelf we affectionately call Life.

“Forget the summer,” I blurted (mentally) as the car rounded past the Stanford Hospital, “I’m sure I did something last year.” But alas, my search was to no avail. I hadn’t done any of the things I promised I would accomplish during my frosh year. I hadn’t done any volunteering for the local community. I hadn’t gotten straight A’s. I hadn’t even gotten A’s tickets. I hadn’t made a habit of flossing everyday. And worst of all, no one had yet told me I had become a more multicultural person.

By the time I turned onto Santa Theresa Street, I had come to two conclusions. First of all, Sterling Quad is really far. Second, I decided that this year was going to be different. I was going to do all those things I promised to do. I pulled the floss out of the glove compartment and concentrated hard on all the things that lay ahead of me. I was a sophomore, dammit; I should be kissing up to professors, applying for internships and running various (or is it sundry?) student organizations. I was a sophomore and, if nothing else, I was going to use more parentheses this year (they’re so collegiate).

It’s been a week since I first drove up to the Governor’s Corner parking lot, and I’m now forced to ask myself what I have accomplished. Let’s see…. I joined the Price Club and bought a gallon of Clinically Proven Anti-Plaque Pre-Brushing Dental Rinse (seven dollars — what a bargain!). I got my oil changed. I finally found out where the GreatWorks lectures had been held. And I even helped someone build a loft.

Well, I guess I haven’t exactly lived up to the Stanford student I feel that I was supposed to be — nor the one that was described in Approaching Stanford. But I did meet some nice people and take some interesting classes. And most of all, I had a good time.

Who cares if I didn’t end a pestilence? I’ll leave that for the big organizations. For now, I’m content to just enjoy myself, make some new friends, learn a few things, and strengthen my tooth enamel. Screw the fruit.

Joel Stein would like to know which flag Germany is using, and if he can have the other one. His column will appear every Friday.

11-time Sportswriter of the Year Rick Reilly’s first big sports article about a local marathon included an interview with the governor

Rick Reilly photo

Rick Reilly, 11-time NSSA National Sportswriter of the Year

If you’re a huge sports fan, then longtime Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine columnist Rick Reilly is probably your favorite sportswriter. But if you’re not a sports fan, please keep reading this… because Rick Reilly would still probably be your favorite sportswriter.

See, Reilly rarely writes about game scores and recaps. He mostly writes about the people behind the games.

Rick Reilly's cover story last month. In this photo, just like in politics, the Green Party is on the left. (Photo: Walter Iooss Jr. for SI)

Rick Reilly’s cover story last month. In this photo, just like in politics, the Green Party is on the left. (Photo: Walter Iooss Jr. for SI)

Take his recent Sports Illustrated cover story about the Golden State Warriors, the basketball team which just set the record last week for most wins in a regular season. Almost any other writer would have structured the article around  superstar and Most Valuable Player award winner Steph Curry. Instead, Reilly structured the article around 15-year-old Sofia Petrafesa, afflicted with a bone cancer that shows up only 200 times a year in the U.S., a girl whose only dream is to see the Warriors play.

As another example, take Reilly’s 1999 column “Funny You Should Ask” which many people (including myself) consider to be his best piece. It’s kind of about sports, but mostly it’s about life itself, as in this beautifully eloquent paragraph:

I don’t think the meaning of life is gnashing our bicuspids over what comes after death but tasting all the tiny moments that come before it. We’re here to be the coach when Wendell, the one whose glasses always fog up, finally makes the only perfect backdoor pass all season. We’re here to be there when our kid has three goals and an assist. And especially when he doesn’t.

The cover depicts Reilly competing in the competition known as "ferret legging," which actually exists.

Reilly competing in the competition called”ferret legging,” which apparently actually exists.

Plus Reilly wrote one of the funniest books of the past few years — “Sports from Hell: My Search for the World’s Most Outrageous Competition.” In it, he goes around the world competing in everything from Chess Boxing to the World Sauna Championship to the Three-Mile Golf Hole.  And those are some of the less ridiculous contests.

Reilly is one of the best sportswriters but would probably be one of the worst horoscope writers. Here’s a quote from his 2011 University of Colorado-Boulder journalism school commencement speech:

“We’ll be fine. You guys should hang onto those diplomas. They’re like collectors’ items. It’s like ‘Donald Trump for President’ bumper stickers or polar bears. You’ll never see them again.”

So which early piece of writing did Reilly choose to feature here?  A Colorado native, Reilly, while still a sophomore in college, started writing sports on the side for the local Boulder Daily Camera newspaper . His first piece in May 1979 was about the local marathon, which even included a short interview with then-Governor of Colorado who was at the race. The article is copied below in text form at the end of this post, with a photo of the print edition version included as well.

As Reilly lamented when re-reading the piece for the first time in decades a few weeks ago, “It wasn’t much, was it?” To be perfectly honest… no, it wasn’t. Yet perhaps that just underscores the point: the best writers aren’t made, they’re developed.

Here’s how Reilly describes the experience in his own words:

The Boulder High School Owl, my first newspaper was called. “Hoo’s Hoo at BHS” I think was one of my columns. Yes, it was.

The Owl was HUGE for me because that was the first time I could actually write for somebody else. As opposed to my terrifyingly-detailed “newspaper” accounts of me and my 10-year-old friends’ exploits in Home Run Derby every day and what we did at “night” — I dated Joey Heatherton, I remember, and drove a Rolls-Royce.

Also, through the Owl, I competed in the state high school journalism contest, where I won first place in sportswriting. They gave you a list of random facts about some game, all mixed up, some important and some not, and you had to bang out a game story in six paragraphs and 15 minutes. Somehow, I think I got the word “obstetrician” into it.

Anyway, the judge was the assistant sports editor at the Boulder (CO) Daily Camera. The problem was he judged the contest anonymously. That is, nobody’s names or towns were on the entries. So he didn’t know who he’d picked. When I won, I tried desperately to find him and ask for a job, but he was gone.

BUT… I was a teller at the local bank that summer after my senior year and who do I end up “telling” next to but the guy’s WIFE.

I begged her for a month to tell him I was the kid who won the contest and would they need any help? And finally she did and he immediately called me and gave me a JOB, which I worked at 40 hours a week while going to CU [University of Colorado at Boulder].

And, anyway, that’s how I got my break.

And now, here is — in both photo and text form — Reilly’s 1979 article about a Colorado marathon. (Reilly can be found at his official website, and follow him on Twitter @ReillyRick. Read and watch his ESPN articles and videos here, and read his 10 best Sports Illustrated feature articles through the years here.)

Rick Reilly - Boulder Daily Camera - Barksdale Beats Heat for Marathon Win - 5.7.1979

Click the photo or open it in a new tab for a larger version.

Barksdale Beats Heat for Marathon Win


Camera Sports Writer

DENVER – Boulderites Hank Barksdale and Bernie Allen are giving Colorado marathon runners the business.

The business is a wholesale running gear company — International Sports, operated out of Boulder by Allen and assisted by Barksdale. The company deals in professional equipment for the serious runner. The other business the two are involved in is actually running marathons. Allen won the first annual Boulder Memorial Hospital Life and Health Marathon earlier this year, and Barksdale claimed the United Bank of Denver Mile-High Marathon Sunday.

The red-haired Barksdale, who turns 25 today, beat the searing mid-morning sun, the altitude, and 1,657 other runners to win the title and cross the finish line at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver in 2 hours, 33 minutes and 39 seconds.

“I never pushed it,” an exhausted Barksdale said afterwards. “It was so hot out there that after a while, I realized that running with a kick was going to be ridiculous. I just decided to keep up a steady pace. The heat took at least five minutes off my time. So did the altitude.”

Barksdale took the lead at about the 20-mile point on the scenic Denver course and was never behind after that. Second place went to Longmont’s 18-year-old Perry Evoniuk, who ran 2:35:47.

The women’s winner was Bette Popper, a Littleton native and a member of the Rocky Mountain Road Runners, co-hosts of the event. She finished in 3:13:30, unofficially.

Claiming second behind Popper was Boulder’s Beth Schlichter, a physical therapist at Boulder Memorial Hospital. Schlichter finished in three hours and 15 minutes, also an unofficial time after a computer breakdown prevented accurate timing.

A crowd of about two thousand people roared as Barksdale made the turn onto 17th street off of Glenarm and headed into the last yards of the gruelling 26-mile, 385-yard course. When he arrived, a swarm of television cameras and reporters greeted him, along with Gov. Richard Lamm, who placed an Athens-like Olympic wreath around his head.

Lamm had already run his own 13-mile race earlier in the day, but remained at the race site for a few hours afterwards.

“This is such a joy,” he said. “I envy these people [finishing the race]. But you don’t have to go 26 miles to enjoy running. You should be able to run around the block and still have fun.

“I just ran 5 or 6 miles a day, but I keep thinking it would be a good goal to try and run one of these things. I have so much fun now, though, I would hate for it to become a chore. There are already so many chores in life.”

Women’s champ Popper was greeted with the same type of enthusiasm as she neared the finish.

“I have the best fan club in the world,” said Popper. “This is wonderful. The course was beautiful. I ran badly, but it was good enough to win, I guess.”

Businessman Allen, a native of England, dropped out of the race near the 20th mile but Barksdale, the man they call “Hammerin’ Hank,” hung on to win his first marathon ever.

The slender Barksdale didn’t enter last month’s Boulder event because he was training for the Boston Marathon (where he finished 190th). He says he will probably run in the New York Marathon.

Barksdale defeated former CU track star Mike Peterson, one of the favorites of the race, who withdrew after 24 miles because of blisters.

Last year’s winner, Skip Houk, from Reno, Nevada, finished fifth. Houk ran a 2:30:53 on a cold, snowy day in 1978.

“The heat made all the difference,” Houk said. “It was bad for me. Even before the halfway mark, I could feel it. It was a lot easier to run last year.”

Third-place finishers were Roger Gerard, 35, of Arvada and Martha McKeal, also 35, of Colorado Springs.

Though the breakdown made complete results unavailable, Boulder also had one of the best efforts by a young runner Sunday. Twelve-year-old Jay Roper finished the 26-plus-mile race in 3:56.