April 2007 Issue
Writing Her Roots
Connie Schultz is a bona fide celebrity: Between winning a Pulitzer Prize for her Cleveland Plain Dealer columns, authoring a new book and marrying Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, the writer is firmly in the spotlight. But all she ever wanted was to make her parents proud.
As faux pas go, this was a doozy.
Actually, calling it a faux pas is kind. At best, the man's comment was old-fashioned ignorance. At worst, outright sexism.
Connie Schultz sat at a dinner in southern Ohio last year, stunned and exasperated. She was supposed to speak to 150 people about why they should support her husband, U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown, in his bid for a Senate seat. Schultz had no regrets about taking a leave of absence from writing her Pulitzer-Prize-winning column for Cleveland's The Plain Dealer to campaign with Brown. Still, she was struggling with the adjustment: Someone who proudly calls herself a feminist writer, who worked tirelessly and spent 11 years as a single mother while building a career for herself, now suddenly was going "from a woman who's paid to give her opinion," she would say post-campaign, "to giving her husband's opinion away for free."
And now this: The man introducing her to the dinner crowd was showing his disgust at Schultz still using her maiden name.
"Sherrod Brown's wife is here; she refuses to change her last name," he said. "So, here she is."
That was it. No addressing her directly as he matter-of-factly stepped aside. As if she didn't exist.
This, to a woman who once named one of her daughter's dolls Gloria Steinem.
"Well, you know, it's true: I never did change my last name," Schultz began.
Some in the audience were surely waiting for the columnist to cut the guy in half with her razor-sharp wit. Or maybe she'd chasten him with her gift for words, pronouncing him a jerk in a thousand colorful ways.
Instead, she talked about her folks.
She recalled how her dutiful father toiled as a maintenance man at a power plant in Ashtabula for 36 years so that she, the eldest of four children, could be the first in the family to go to college. She told them how her petite, nurse's aid mother instilled in her the notion that being a Christian meant being an activist for social justice - a philosophy that inspired Schultz, when she was only 17, to force a restaurant to change its policy of charging waitresses for broken dishes. It also spurred her, when she was the student editor of the Daily Kent Stater, to challenge the university's practice of paying the newspaper's employees at the end of a quarter rather than every two weeks. And it prompted her, in 2002, to write an acclaimed series of stories for The Plain Dealer about a man who was wrongly imprisoned for rape, ultimately causing the real rapist to come forward.
"My parents wore their bodies out so their kids would never have to," Schultz told the crowd. Her mother died at 62 of pulmonary fibrosis, she said. The father she worshipped - the person who was the subject of her first column on October 21, 2002, which chronicled her desperate longing to find the old metal lunch pail that he carried to the factory for so many years - had just suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 69.
Keeping her last name wasn't some shrewd career move or a political statement. It was about honoring her parents.
The crowd was quiet. The tears in many of their eyes said they understood.
But the man who'd made the comment spoke. "I think Schultz is a wonderful name!" he said. "Don't change it."
For Connie Schultz, 49, that incident on the campaign trail was like a revelation.
"When I first started speaking, I'd say, 'Sherrod thinks this and Sherrod thinks that,'" she recalls from her perch on a leather sofa in the couple's cozy living room in Avon, a suburb west of Cleveland. "I realized, I'm not connecting with people in the way that I need to and I'm boring myself."
The eventual connection - an ulti-mately winning one, helping propel Brown to the Senate last November - wasn't made by the writer comparing her husband's progressive politics with the more conservative stances of his opponent, former Senator Mike DeWine. And it certainly wasn't made by Schultz simply appearing at events like that dinner in southern Ohio.
Yes, her smiling face is a staple on thousands of breakfast tables every Tuesday and Friday morning for the loyal following of Ohioans who read her column. And yes, she's already authored one book, last year's Life Happens, a collection of her favorite columns, and is currently putting the final touches on her latest work, And His Lovely Wife, a memoir of her campaign experiences due out in June.
Still, "once you get south of Akron," she says, "quite a number of people see me basically as the senator's wife."
But her upbringing in working-class Ashtabula? Now that's something countless people can relate to. In this state, blue-collar backgrounds are more common than buckeye trees. Schultz's commitment to the memory of her hard-working parents and those like them who are overlooked and underpaid, defines those columns the 2005 Pulitzer committee said offer "a voice for the underdog and underprivileged."
"She has a way of observing human nature and people's strengths and weaknesses better than anybody I've ever met," says Brown, 54.
He knows better than anyone. It was her compassionate writing in The Plain Dealer that emboldened the then seven-term congressman from Mansfield to send Schultz an admiring e-mail back in November 2002 ("... You are a breath of fresh air; your writing reminds me of that of Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favorite living writers," he wrote), and sparked a correspondence between the divorced, single parents that culminated in their first date on New Year's Day 2003. They were engaged just 10 months later and married in April 2004.
"We were both brought up by parents who cared a lot about justice and treating people equally, who taught us to value all human beings," says Brown, whose doctor father had a reputation for treating everyone in Mansfield, even if he knew they couldn't pay for his services. "I think that's a big part of what attracted Connie and me to each other."
It's also what attracted so many to Schultz on the campaign trail during events like that dinner in southern Ohio, her sincere concern for others and pride in her upbringing pulsing through the room and making heads nod knowingly.
"I have never, ever forgotten my roots," she says from her spot on the sofa. "I don't want to." In fact, her late father's old, black lunch pail - the one she longed for in her first column, the symbol of her family's struggle to make her a success - stands sentinel on a ledge in a nearby room.
It's hard to tell that Schultz and Brown have lived in their home for less than two years. In part, it's those subtle accents that are the hallmarks of a lived-in house: the kitchen refrigerator littered with magnets and family photos, the chair with the sunken-in cushion near the fireplace (the senator's favorite reading spot).
But it's also all those features that speak so tellingly of their personalities. There's their intellectual sides: the living room's wall of towering, built-in bookshelves that stretch up to a cathedral ceiling and are crammed with tomes, just a fraction of the couple's more than 4,000 books. There's their playfulness: the large ping-pong table that occupies a room off the foyer, an anniversary gift to Schultz from her husband and a reminder of one of his favorite pastimes as a boy. And finally, there's their sociability: the spacious kitchen - an amateur chef's dream and the place where Schultz loves to experiment with new recipes - that opens right into the living room, all the better to entertain the couple's four grown children. (Hers are Caitlin, 19, and stepson Andy, 32, her ex-husband's son with whom she is very close; his are Elizabeth, 23, and Emily, 26).
"This part's what sold me on the house," she says, gesturing at the openness between the rooms, her voice trailing off as she talks excitedly of one child being married, another engaged, the fun of all the kids visiting here together, the hope of grandbabies running around in the future.
The spaces are lush and perfect - and yet none are as meaningful as the writer's small home office.
I want my dad's lunch pail. ...
Across from the Pulitzer Prize certificate hanging on the wall, above the bust of Robert F. Kennedy on her desk (an award for her social justice reporting), Charles Schultz's lunch box looms high on a shelf.
... My father does not understand why his lunch pail matters to me, probably because he never thought his job mattered, either.
Her sisters, Toni, a middle-school teacher in Ashtabula, and Leslie, a nurse in Conneaut (brother Chuck is a pharmaceutical representative in their hometown), found it when they were going through their father's home last year after his death, rummaging through the detritus of a life spent in service to his family.
They remembered the words from their big sister's first column, "A Promise In A Lunch Pail," and knew instantly where it should go.
"... You kids are never going to carry one of these to work," he'd tell us over and over. "You kids are going to college."
Today, it's there in Schultz's office alongside her dad's scuffed, yellow hardhat, with her mother Janey's nurse's aide badge hanging nearby - constant reminders of their sacrifices.
"My parents' story is as old as love itself. Mom got pregnant, Dad got a union card and a marriage license, and the rest of their life was harder than they'd ever thought it could be," Schultz wrote in the preface of her first book, "Life Happens."
The outgoing, 4-foot-11-inch Janey and her burly, 6-foot-2 boyfriend Chuck were both raised on farms in New Lyme, a tiny township in Ashtabula County, where they graduated with a handful of other high school seniors. The 20-year-olds eloped in February 1957, had Connie that July, and quickly set out on what would become a decades-long grind of raising kids and working overtime.
"Growing up, it never occurred to me that you could love what you do for a living. My dad always hated his job," says Schultz, recalling her father faithfully trudging off every day to do maintenance for the electric company (her mother worked as a nurse's aide and in hospice care). He'd frequently come home after his shift and voice unhappiness about his vocation, viewing it as more of a job than a career. "You could teach a monkey to do what I do," Schultz's first column recounted him saying.
But any dissatisfaction with his own station in life only hardened his resolve that his kids would one day find purposeful professions that they enjoyed.
"My dad spent his whole life thinking that he was a nobody," says Schultz, her voice a whisper, "but that he was going to raise four somebodys."
For the young girl who would become a writer, her future passion was heavily influenced by her early surroundings. It's no surprise that Schultz identifies with the poorly paid coat-check clerks, rarely tipped airport aides and rudely ignored supermarket cashiers that she so often advocates for in her columns today. In her diverse, low-income community on the west side of Ashtabula, where her family rented a place until Connie's junior year in high school, everyone had equally humble roots.
"I never really cared much about fitting in in high school, because I knew I was never going to be part of that crowd, anyway: We were literally on the wrong side of the tracks," Schultz says. Instead, young Connie tried fitting in with her African-American neighbors. "I have a ridiculous picture of me in the seventh grade from when I got a perm so I could have an Afro," she says, rolling her eyes and chuckling. "I looked like a Q-tip."
But her ambition, outspokenness and ability to relate to everyone made her a popular student who was elected class president twice, and whose coming of age during the 1970s feminist movement made her, she admits, "a real pain in the butt" to more than a few authority figures.
It was no mystery that Schultz got her conscientiousness from her mother, whose big heart seemed to make up for her short stature. Janey was the woman who, after all, insisted that being a good Christian meant "fixing yourself and helping others - not the other way around"; and whose advice about finding Mr. Right was as poignant as it was pithy: "Don't marry him until you see how he treats the waitress."
Still, when her mother died in 2000 and more than 800 people showed up at her wake, it confirmed that she was much more than just the devoted wife and mother who'd forgone her dream of becoming a nurse, and who passed down a reserve of humaneness that resonates in her daughter's work.
"All these people were introducing themselves at the wake, telling me story after story about her," Schultz says, her blue eyes tearing up.
"I remember this big guy, 6-foot-4, he takes my hand and says, 'I want to tell you what your mom used to always do when she'd see me: She'd step up on a chair so she could hug me.
"'She always wanted to be able to see me eye to eye.'"
The columnist knows that there are plenty of people worth crediting for her accomplishments - not the least of whom is the high school guidance counselor in Ashtabula who steered a teen-aged Schultz away from a career in social work and toward a journalism degree at Kent State University. "He knew that I got way too emotionally invested in stuff to be in a field like that," she says. "I would get headaches just thinking about conditions in the Soviet Union."
But the tenacity to do years of freelance writing before finally settling in at The Plain Dealer? And the determination to see that her own offspring carry on her family's tradition of compassion?
Those two people are represented today by a lunch pail, a nursing badge, and a column whose empathy for others has made it required reading for thousands of Ohioans.
"My story is as old as the bricks under Cleveland's earliest streets," she wrote in "A Promise In A Lunch Pail."
"I am the child of working-class parents determined they would be the last of their kind. And there was the same unspoken deal in thousands of households: We'll send you kids away, but don't you ever forget where you came from.
"As if we could."