National columnist Connie Schultz addresses Ayers Lecture audience at JSU
by Cameron Steele
csteele@annistonstar.com
Mar 09, 2012 | 7314 views |  0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Connie Schultz speaks at Jacksonville State University Thursday afternoon. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Connie Schultz speaks at Jacksonville State University Thursday afternoon. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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Connie Schultz has been called lots of things over the course of her journalism career.

By her peers: Pulitzer winner. Campaigning with her senator husband: “his lovely wife.” And by some of her readers: “nutjob” and — in an apparent play on “dumb” and “Democrat” — “dumbucrat.”

Schultz admits the latter monikers sometimes make her angry, that these epithets have barbs that hurt her just like they would anyone else.

But during a speech at Jacksonville State University Thursday, the Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist repeated a quote from poet Lucille Clifton that soothes the sting, puts hurtful words into perspective.

“What they call you is one thing,” Schultz told the hundreds at the annual Ayers Lecture. “What you answer to is something else.”

And the successful, widely read writer said she will always answer first and foremost to “Connie Schultz” — the name given to her by her parents, the people whose lives of blue-collar hard work shaped her understanding of her country, her work and herself.

“I am Chuck and Jamie’s kid,” she said.

She explained what it means to be that kid, leading JSU students and Calhoun County residents through the story of Chuck Schultz, a man who hated his 36-year-long career as a factory worker but did it anyway. And of Jamie Schultz, the “spicy” little woman with the big beehive hairdo and bigger heart.

They were working-class people who didn’t go to college. But they were determined that Schultz and her siblings would. Throughout college, her years as a young single mother, as a journalist and later award-winning columnist, Schultz kept her parents’ determination, their dreams, their life lessons close to heart.

“Don’t marry him until you see how he treats the waitress,” Schultz recalled her mother saying. It’s another touchstone phrase that she runs her fingers over when she approaches new stories, new columns.

It reminds her, Schultz said, to write about the people who need expression the most — the poor, the working class, the single mothers, the people like her parents, the young girls like “Chuck and Jamie’s kid.”

It reminds her to tell good stories that readers will care about.

And she does — whether she’s detailing the joy that she and her husband, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, find in their puppy Franklin or lashing out against business managers who pocket the tips intended for service workers.

Sometimes people respond with overwhelming approval, Schultz said. Often, just as many will disagree.

But as long as she stays true to Chuck and Jamie’s kid, as long as she tries to sincerely connect with people, Schultz said, she thinks she does OK.

Case in point: Schultz spent eight hours at the Cleveland airport Wednesday when her plane into Atlanta was delayed. In that time, she ran into a man who said he hated her politics. But, he told her with a smile, he loved her puppy Franklin.

“If you can write about your relationships with your dog, people are going to be a lot more patient with you when you write about the economy,” she said.

After answering a variety of questions on topics from the vitriol injected into the current political rhetoric to engaging young people in current events, Schultz received a standing ovation from the crowd.

“She’s really smart,” JSU sophomore Zach Tyler said. “I agree with a lot of what she says.”

Tyler is a 19-year-old public relations major. But after Schultz’ speech, the Pell City native said he felt inspired to switch his major to journalism.

Jan Case, a mathematics professor at the university, was similarly impressed with Schultz, praising the columnist’s ability to speak as well as she writes.

Case particularly enjoyed Schultz’ discussion of how she intersperses her more controversial columns on politics with writing about her family.

“It’s harder to dislike a person than an idea,” Case pointed out. “Personal stories really make a difference.”

And “Chuck and Jamie’s” daughter feels the same way.

So what if people call her liberal or a feminist; she’ll tell you the stories that shape her beliefs. She’ll give you the narrative: The beginning days in a home with framed, side-by-side pictures of John Kennedy and Jesus … the middle years as a young woman watching her father’s boss condescend to him … as a journalist earning the trust of a wrongfully convicted black man … and for now, a self-proclaimed “liberal with gratitude” standing in front of a room at the Houston Cole Library.

“I had to turn out this way, didn’t I?” she asked.

And this:

“I will never change my name.”

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