'Our' Connie

Kent State's Pulitzer Prize-winning professional-in-residence may be the next First Lady

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Lead Photo_Connie

Connie Schultz and her husband, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, listen to presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker speak at the Dorchester County Democrats' first annual oyster roast Saturday, March 2, 2019.

Editor’s note: A little more than three years ago, Connie Schultz came to Kent State to teach journalism. In that time, no profiles focusing on her work here were written. I didn’t know Connie, but I heard from everyone she was brilliant and gentle and unshakable in her opinions. I realized I couldn’t let this moment — perhaps Connie’s last semester at Kent State — pass The Kent Stater’s readers by.

In anticipation of what could be her husband, Sherrod Brown’s, decision to launch a presidential bid, I decided now was the time to share a little bit of her life here with the world.

—Valerie Royzman, Stater Editor-in-Chief

Connie Schultz began her journalism feature writing class at Kent State with a question.

“How many of you like music?” she asked her students. “If I were to ask you right now, ‘What is your song?’ ... what would it be?” 

She paused and smiled. “This is not a rhetorical question,” she said to the suddenly silent room.

On the table in front of her is a lime-flavored La Croix, some papers and her laptop. There’s a sticker on it that reads, “America needs journalists.” Of course, there is. 

She’s known for wearing a pin with those same words, especially on campaign trips with her husband, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, the only Democrat elected to a statewide office last November in Ohio and a potential presidential candidate.

Connie in Class

Schultz listens as one of her students in her feature writing class pitches a profile story in class Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

Students around the room shared the soundtracks to their lives and why they mean so much. They mentioned songs from Mumford & Sons, Andy Grammer, Kid Cudi, The Rumors, ABBA — “I love ABBA,” Connie said excitedly. “I can’t listen to it without being happy. It drives Sherrod crazy.” 

“I never skip that song on shuffle,” one student said about Cudi’s “Day ‘N’ Nite.”

“I never skip that song,” Connie repeated to him, letting the words hang in the air for a moment. “That’s a great line. You could write a whole piece about why you like it.”

She encouraged her students to use all the tools in their writer toolboxes. “When something moves you deeply, trust that it could be a tool for you when you’re trying to tell a story,” she said. “Not every story, not every time. But there are things and moments and memories and music that will actually be something you can use when you’re trying to help readers understand.”

One student explained his headphones are always in. Connie said she sees students in the building, music booming in their eardrums, and she doesn’t understand how young journalists can do that. “So much of what we do is eavesdropping,” she said. “So many of my columns have come about because I was listening to something that was a whole lot of none of my business.” 

And then she kicked into mother mode. 

“I do want to suggest that people can sneak up on you from behind,” she warned about the common dangers of students’ lives. “And so in the dark, it’s a very bad idea. Bad idea. You should always have your phone — have we already talked about this? — your phone on your person, not in your bag.”

A student asked for her favorite song.

And her answer was so Connie. “The River,” by Bruce Springsteen, whom she calls “a poet that comes from the people I come from.” Connie, 61, is from Ashtabula, where her father worked as a maintenance mechanic for the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company on Lake Erie’s shore and her mother was a nurse’s aide. “Because it [the song] really is about my roots,” she said. “My mom got pregnant with me, my dad got his union card and his marriage license in a month.”

Class

Schultz teaches her feature writing class Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Franklin Hall.

As a 36-year-old single mother, she got her start as a columnist at The Plain Dealer, her first newspaper job. Stuart Warner, her former editor, wrote that on Connie’s last day in the newsroom in 2011, “a part of Cleveland’s journalism history walked out of The Plain Dealer’s doors.”

Connie likes to write about working-class Americans, people born from “Rust Belt Dreams,” people with stars in their eyes and soot on their hands. She was named the 2005 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Commentary “for her pungent columns that provided a voice for the underdog and underprivileged.”

But you might already know that because Connie Schultz is in the news these days. 

Clevelanders, especially, know her. Connie loves that city, and it loves her right back. 

Another reason you should know her is that Sherrod could be running for president. As time has progressed, she said they’re closer to a decision and are expected to announce sometime in March. If he runs, Connie would have to give up her column. “Believe me, I think about that,” she reassured me. “I love it here [Kent State]. I want to be here. I have to be fair to my students. We really don’t know yet what we’re going to do.”

The university made it clear to her that Sherrod running for president or no-longer-columnist Connie aren’t reasons for her to stop teaching. But if Sherrod joins the fray, she’s going to be with him full time. “Because it’s that important,” she said. “That’s why the decision weighs on us so much. There’s just a lot at stake. ...

But, I am conscious of this — I am going to be a journalist until the day I die.” 

CARRYING AS SHE CLIMBS

A week earlier, Connie had just flown back from a weekend trip to Iowa on one of Sherrod’s “Dignity of Work” tour visits.  The professional-in residence, who mixes her work life with her teaching life, had a column to write (for Creators Syndicate) and edits to make in her up-and-coming novel. A few days later, she jetted off again, this time to New Hampshire. For the first time in her life, she told me, she’s able to sleep on the plane.

When I showed up in Connie’s office during the gap between those two trips, it was my professor, Jacqueline Marino, doing most of the talking while I just silently hoped. Please, please say yes to an interview, I thought. A few days before, Connie didn’t say no, but she didn’t say yes, either. I asked for a lot of access, and because of the exhausting chaos that is her life right now, she couldn’t grant it.

“That was gutsy,” she said to me the day we met, about how much I asked for. “I would’ve done the same thing. I was you at 20.” 

Did Connie Schultz just say that to me? I thought. And I began to understand what her students meant when they told me Connie roots for them. It means a lot when someone says they believe in you, a young, inexperienced writer trying to make meaning of the world. It means a lot more when that someone is Connie.

Wall

Schultz works at her desk in her Franklin Hall office, surrounded by pictures of her family, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

The next week, I sat in on her class, then followed her upstairs to her Franklin Hall office. On her door, the sticker shows up again: “America needs journalists.” Of course, it does.

Connie, surrounded by photos of her four children and seven adorable grandchildren, leaned in and told me about the joys and sorrows of her job. I nervously scribbled into my notebook. She never thought she’d grow so attached to her students, she admitted. She calls them “walking reminders of the work that has yet to be done.”

During class that day, Connie’s students were in the process of writing testimonials of working people — short interviews inspired by Studs Terkel’s 1974 nonfiction book “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” It’s a collective work capturing the everyday work life of lower-class individuals in America. 

“No person is just one thing,” Connie told her students. She emphasized how each student should “listen hard” to capture that person’s spark, the thing that makes them a unique individual. It’s what she strives to do each day as a teacher.

“I’m struck by — and I talk about this a lot with Sherrod — how hard some of my students are working just to stay in school,” she told me. “This other work they have to do just to be able to pay the bills, tuition. I feel a real responsibility to them to bring it all into the classroom.” 

She says “bring it all” in reference to her many roles — outspoken journalist, teacher, novelist, mother, grandmother and Sherrod’s very busy, devoted partner. Connie, too, is more than “just one thing.”

Connie is all the things.

Bailey_Connie_312018

Schultz adjusts her hair as she leaves the home of Don and Carol Fowler, former members of the Democratic National Committee, after an event on Friday, March 1, 2019, in Columbia, South Carolina.

But she has her own moments of doubt, as well. Sometimes, she’ll wake up on Wednesdays, the day she writes her column, and she still isn’t sure what she’s going to write about. “I panic all the time,” she said, and laughed a lot when I asked how she balances it all. “And then I meet the deadline.” 

She uses her insights as a writer to counsel her students. “Bang out that first draft so you can walk away from it,” she said, so “you can go do something else, you can sleep.” 

Always, the mother comes out. “I’m trying to get them to take better care of themselves because the work will benefit. … It’s not lazy to do that. It’s not selfish to do things for yourself, because then you’re better for the world,” she said.

She told me teaching has reminded her to “talk more about why I do what I do and why I do it, which has come at a good time when I’m having to defend journalists so much more.” 

Often, that defense comes on Connie’s social media channels, where her thousands of followers (188,373 on Facebook as of Sunday, 81,300 or so on Twitter) hear her voice, but are also elevated by her staunch advocacy of civil discourse. She also regularly promotes others’ work, including her students’, raising them up to her own expansive audience.

This translates into her time in the classroom, which has done a lot for her purpose in life, and that is to “carry as she climbs.” Connie said she wants to use her influence to help younger people, especially women and people of color — “to get jobs sooner, to get the chances they deserve sooner, to not be invisible, ever.”

‘THE BEST KIND OF EXPECTATION’

Shams Mustafa, a graduate student, told me Connie was one of the reasons she chose to come to Kent State after leaving her home country, Egypt, to study journalism in the States. Mustafa hopes to eventually teach and write columns — just like Connie.

Mustafa said she’s concerned that she isn’t a native English speaker and that it could limit her in journalism. Connie — who she calls the “wonder woman of writing” — was the one who told her none of her goals were impossible.

Connie loves millennials and does battle for them. 

“There are so many stereotypes about millennials, and while I’ve always objected to them, now I object to them with a great deal of substance because I can talk about my students at length,” she said. “I also have become much more outspoken with editors of larger organizations when I meet them about this notion of unpaid internships.”

That wasn’t on her radar in the same way it is now that she teaches. “I know what they’re missing when they don’t hire our students, because I know how bright and talented so many of our students are, and they bring a world perspective that a lot of more affluent kids don’t have,” she said.

Tess Cottom-Bennett, a former student of Connie’s who is now working in the field, told me her father-in-law bragged at her wedding about how Connie taught her and was one of her mentors. “Her lectures were always so insightful and hopeful,” she said.

Cottom-Bennett remembered a piece of advice Connie gave the class: to write like you’re writing for the New Yorker, “to give it 100 percent” no matter the assignment. She also remembered a time when she didn’t do that, and Connie called her out on an assignment she pulled together at the last minute. “She was very real with me,” she said. “And I appreciated that. Connie made me work harder.”

Connie Schultz Chestnut Burr 1978

1978 Chestnut Burr yearbook staff writers. Connie Schultz is in the front row at far right. 

Step back in time to 1979, when Connie was one of those students at Kent State and the editor of The Daily Kent Stater, the campus newspaper whose name has since evolved. 

We are speaking former editor to current editor. She told me she was that “freak Boomer who did no illegal drugs,” and being the first in her family to attend college kept her motivated. Connie wanted to prove that her parents’ hard work to get her there was worth it, that her father was right when he promised she and her three siblings would never have to carry a lunch pail to work. In Connie’s office, on her bookshelf, is a sign that reads, “The best safety device is a careful man.” It was her father’s.

Before Connie started her job as editor, she asked the university’s administration to change the policy that made students wait to be paid until the end of the semester, after they had worked its entirety. Student media transitioned to payments every two weeks. When she told me this, I said, “Wow.” 

But thinking about it now, I’m not surprised at all. Even college-girl Connie was fighting for workers’ rights.  

Dignity of Work, March 2, 2019, SC

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Schultz talk to Elaine Reed, a member of the Democratic Women's Council of Darlington County during the annual Women's History Month Trailblazer Award Luncheon in Hartsville, South Carolina, Saturday, March 2, 2019. Brown stopped to speak during his "Dignity of Work" listening tour.

Connie’s Kent State colleagues feel her magic, too. Marino, who is a writer in the same vein as Connie, called her “a unique combination of writer, teacher, human and sage.” In the early 2000s, Marino would run into Connie at Plain Dealer events (Marino’s husband worked there then), and the two attended each other’s weddings.

“And there’s just no one like her,” she said, then paused like she was going to say something she was absolutely sure of. “Working with her has been one of the great fortunes of my professional life.” 

Marino remembered a time when she was applying for a fellowship, and Connie offered to read over her work and offer feedback, even though Marino knew she had no time. “Connie really wants to help people,” she said. “She wants people to achieve, to realize their best selves.”

Then Marino asked if Connie had “fixed her big blue eyes” on me. And I knew exactly what she meant. Thinking back to our interview, Connie pushed her laptop aside, leaned in and lent me her time. Connie is all in when she’s with people. “There’s an expectation, and it’s the best kind of expectation, you know?” Marino said. “She believes in you. I think she really does believe in people.”

The day after Donald Trump was elected president — a day Connie told me she “would never forget” — was a day people needed to know Connie could see a way forward for them. They wanted to be heard, and Connie was willing to listen. People showed up in her office to talk, some of them students she had never met.

Marino said she saw students approach Connie in the elevator and the hallway. “She was doing emotional triage that day,” she said. “People gravitated toward her. … She was so calm and so thoughtful and so supportive. I don’t know how many other people here could’ve had that same effect.”

Brown_SC_5

Schultz cries as she listens to Darious Sanders, a veteran, read his poem about the lack of appreciation for veterans during stop a for Brown's "Dignity of Work" tour at technology center Fast Forward in Columbia, South Carolina, Friday, March 1, 2019.

I wonder how she manages to give this much of herself when the noise of politics and our loud America blare in the background of her life. After her class, Connie told me someone with an unknown number called and cursed at her through the phone. As the world waits for Sherrod’s decision, the noise keeps growing.

SENATOR BROWN COMES CALLING

Sherrod had just spoken to his wife’s media ethics class, and I found him ambling near her office door, right before I was set to interview him. I had 20 minutes to hear him gush about “His Lovely Wife” (not his words, but something she heard so frequently that she used the phrase as the title of her first book).

The curly-haired senator with the trademark voice, dressed in an olive green sweater and gray trousers — oh, and his yellow canary in a cage pin — sat down and, well, pretty much began interviewing me. 

Sherrod quickly learned my parents are immigrants from Ukraine. Then, eagerly, he shouted out the door to Connie, “Honey, is it OK if I speak a little Russian?”

She just laughed.

Sherrod Brown, a possible candidate for president of the United States of America, sat in front of me, completely comfortable and relaxed as he played with a binder clip on Connie’s desk and babbled with me in Russian (which he studied while at Yale). 

Brown_Breakfast_2

Schultz and Brown (front right) talk with diners during breakfast at Brazen's Family Restaurant in Florence, South Carolina, Saturday, March 2, 2019.

Seeing Connie teach, he says, is “kind of cool” and that she’s successful because “she’s a nurturer as a human being.”

“I’m not sure she loves grading papers, but I know she loves everything about this job. … I’ve always known she was a good teacher, and I had kind of encouraged her to teach before she did,” he said. “She was so thrilled to come to Kent State because, you know, the thing that’s launching you launched her [The Kent Stater].”

I asked him about how Connie’s ideas and words collide, yet land so beautifully when she’s done with them.

“I — I don’t know,” Sherrod, 66, said. He scratched his head. “I don’t understand the human brain that well. I do know that I’ll walk by her writing office and I’ll hear her talking to herself. It’s one of the things that she insists how important it is to read out loud what you write. … I preach that in my office.”

He got her a standing desk for Christmas, and he knows that when she’s in front of it, that means he shouldn’t interrupt. “We kind of had this joking rule that I never told her what to write and she never told me how to vote,” he said and smiled.

Is there anything Connie isn’t good at? I wondered. As I flipped to a fresh page in my notebook, Sherrod had switched languages again.

“Is the word ‘tovaresh’ still used?” he asked. It’s a word used in the Soviet era that means comrade or friend. I explain it’s less common now, and there are synonyms for it.

“OK, sorry,” he said with a chuckle. “I just wanted to call you comrade once.”

He talked about how his possible run for president would affect Connie, and he became more serious. “It’s an earthquake to our lives,” he said. “It swallows you up, it consumes you. It does that to your family, your wife especially.” 

Connie used the term “earthquake,” too, in reference to their marriage in 2004. “It was a second chance and an earthquake,” she told me, smiling.

Car

Schultz and Brown talk to a supporter as they leave a meet-and-greet and the home of Don and Carol Fowler, former Democratic National Committee members, Friday, March 1, 2019.

On the campaign trail, Sherrod said, Connie would be the most accomplished spouse.  “She will be the best speaker of any of the spouses,” he said. “She will be the most engaging and engaged with audiences. She will be the best storyteller. She’ll be all that.

“And it’s her call entirely how much time she wants to do. And the campaign will want her to spend every waking hour doing this — I will not let them ask that. … I’m not going to let the campaign put that kind of pressure on her where she feels like she has to say yes all the time.”

As I stepped out of the office, the first thing Connie asked was, “Well, was he worth your time?”

We all laughed. Then they “I love you’d” and kissed, and Sherrod was off.

THE ‘DIGNITY OF WORK’ TOUR

I boarded a plane for South Carolina the following week, to see Connie move a room with her words like Sherrod said she would. This was the final leg of his “Dignity of Work” listening tour, where he visited states that hold early primaries to test the waters for a presidential bid.

At the meet-and-greet at the Hyatt Hotel in Florence, South Carolina, two guys were talking. One leaned over and asked the other, “Who is that woman?”

“What do you mean? That’s Kent State University’s most famous journalist.”

Dignity of Work, March 2, 2019, SC

(LEFT TO RIGHT) Angela Clyburn, Jennifer Clyburn Reed and Schultz share a laugh during the Dorchester County Democrats' first annual oyster roast in Summerville, South Carolina, Saturday, March 2, 2019.

Connie, before she introduced Sherrod, started off speaking about her life back home.

“I teach writing at my alma mater, at Kent State, and one of the things I tell my students is don’t try to write for everybody, especially when you’re trying to express your opinion,” she said. “You want to imagine the one person you’ve got to be credible with ... because I write about workers’ issues a lot, I try to imagine that person sitting there.”

Even on tour with Sherrod, Connie was teaching and sharing some of her writing wisdom.

Connie moved on and told a story of her relationship with Sherrod, about three months into when they started dating.

Sherrod offered to make her coffee, and as she told this part of the story, she impersonated him.

“And I said, ‘I don’t need you to make my coffee. I have made my own coffee for 10 years,’” she told everyone. “He grabbed my hand and said, ‘We need to talk,’ and we sat down at the kitchen table and he said, ‘You will not lose your right to vote or your right to own property if you let me make your coffee.’”

The whole room laughed.

“So I married him,” Connie said.

She was radiant when she introduced Sherrod, and she spoke like the sun was shining out of her. When Connie had the floor, the room grew quiet, and everyone locked their eyes on her.       

Afterward, the two mingled with Carolinians at the event. I overheard Sherrod’s conversation with a small group of people.

“People say they like me — then they meet Connie,” he said, “and they love her.”

From Columbia to Florence to Hartville to Summerville, Americans said they liked Sherrod for his consistency, for sticking to his values. “For him to come here to get different points of view and respond is very important to me,” said Darious Sanders, a Marine Corps veteran who lives in Columbia. “It’s important that you stick to what you say.” Sanders will watch to see if Brown continues to keep the same message.

Kitty Sutton, also from Columbia, said Sherrod seems like he “understands the regular person.”

The same can be said of Connie, who said of herself online that newsrooms and union halls are her “two homes away from home.”

Connie in the light

Schultz looks out over the balcony of the Hyatt Hotel in Florence, South Carolina, Friday, March 1, 2019, during a stop on Brown's "Dignity of Work" tour.

Davita Malloy, the president of the Democratic Women’s Council of Darlington County and the wife of Sen. Gerald Malloy, chatted with Connie at the Women’s History Month luncheon at the Jerusalem Baptist Church in Hartville.

“I think she’s wonderful,” Malloy said. “I think she’s down-to-earth. To say that I just met her today, I feel like I know her. She’s very personable — when she talks with you, she looks right at you.”

Connie is relatable to the average person. She is one of us.

Back at the hotel, Connie walked outside and stood in the light, looking quietly out over the balcony.

As I watched her, I realized that maybe our Connie was stepping out of our ordinary lives and into something bigger than any of us could imagine.

If Sherrod announces he’s running for president, Connie will be there, completely.

Of course, she will.

Valerie Royzman is the editor-in-chief. Contact her at vroyzman@kent.edu.

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