Pomona Alumna Wins Pulitzer for Newspaper Column

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Sound familiar?    

How about this one? “Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”    

Although sometimes attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, these phrases actually belong to Mary Schmich PO ’75, who wrote them as part of her column in The Chicago Tribune.    

That particular day’s column, entitled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” was just another day’s work for Schmich. She wrote it in an afternoon, but it garnered international success and became a book and the lyrics of a Billboard Top 100 Baz Luhrmann song, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).”    

Schmich’s entire column was recognized April 12 as she captured a journalist’s most coveted honor: the Pulitzer Prize.    

Schmich was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary “for her wide range of down-to-earth columns that reflect the character and capture the culture of her famed city.”

Schmich, who has lived all over the country, remembers her stint at Pomona fondly.    

“I loved Pomona. It grew me up,” she said. “I made friends for life.”    

One of those friends for life is Pomona economics professor Eleanor Brown, who received a Happy Birthday phone call from Schmich two days after Schmich had won her Pulitzer.

Brown and Schmich were in the same sponsor group their first year at Pomona.    

“She was the popular girl in the sponsor group,” Brown said. “She was always getting flowers.”    

At Pomona, Schmich did not know exactly what she wanted to do.    

“Pomona lay the foundation for learning later in life,” Schmich said. “It helped me learn how to learn.”      

Schmich co-edited The Student Life for a semester, although she remembers it as a slightly different operation from the one that exists today. The staff would go in on a Sunday night and throw the paper together, “but actually throw it together, using rubber cement and tape,” she said. Schmich had her typewriter, and her co-editor would bring in a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon.    

As graduation loomed, “I didn’t really have my sights set on anything,” Schmich said. She heard there was a job working at Pomona’s Office of Admissions, so she walked up and applied in person. She worked there for three years, a time that Schmich remembers fondly as an extension of her time at Pomona.      

She then found herself in France studying on a scholarship for a year and a half, and it was there that “a boyfriend from Pomona sent me applications to journalism schools,” Schmich said. She applied, and got in.    

After attending the journalism school at Stanford, Schmich worked her way up the ladder, going from small town papers to writing the column in The Chicago Tribune that would win her the Pulitzer.       

The Pulitzer Prizes, “honoring excellence in journalism and the arts since 1917,” are given annually in 21 categories, although this year there were no prizes granted in Editorial Writing or Fiction.    

It is the first time in 35 years that no award has been granted in Fiction, and the lack of a prizewinner has created controversy in the literary community. Former Pomona professor David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King was nominated as one of the three finalists, of which none were chosen.    

In the Commentary category, Schmich beat out fellow finalists Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and Steve Lopez of The Los Angeles Times.    

Schmich’s column typically appears three times each week. Sometimes it contains witty observations on the mundane, sometimes social commentary, sometimes family memories. A few times a year Schmich’s column takes the form of a poem, like a 22-stanza tribute to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley upon his leaving office that was included in Schmich’s winning Pulitzer entry.    

To be considered for the prize, columnists submit any ten articles they have written the previous year. In one story, Schmich criticized a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe.    

Another column included in Schmich’s entry detailed Schmich’s conversation with a Chicago mother whose son was charged with mugging five people in an affluent part of Chicago.

“After her son’s bond hearing, she told a reporter that his $250,000 bail wouldn’t have been so high if he’d committed crimes on the South or West Sides,” Schmich wrote.    

Schmich said she suspects that it may have been the more personal columns that particularly appealed to the Pulitzer Committee, but she said she is not certain.    

“I was sitting at Starbucks when my editor called me,” Schmich said. Upon hearing that she had won the Pulitzer, she said she was a bit “flummoxed.”    

Brown is not. During their sophomore year at Pomona, Brown remembered, Schmich decided they should all become good runners.    

“She went on a running kick. This was at a time when women didn’t really just go out running,” Brown said. “She became a marathoner. When she does something, she just does it well.”

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