Poynter president leaves legacy born of childhood challenges

Editor’s note: Poynter Vice President and Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark delivered this speech Thursday night at a dinner honoring outgoing President Karen Dunlap.

I thought the best way to honor Dr. Karen Dunlap this evening was to tell her story. Not just the story of her life here at Poynter and her rise to the presidency. I was more interested in the arc of her story, the life and times that she brought with her into this building, the life that shaped the Institute, the life that changed us all.

Karen Dunlap speaks in Poynter’s Great Hall in 1993. (Poynter Institute)

I want to begin with a scene that took place in a barber shop — sometime in the 1960s — in an African-American neighborhood of Nashville, Tenn.  A man sits in a chair getting his hair cut. He is a distinguished looking man, with a round face , arched eyebrows, and a neatly trimmed mustache. He could be a teacher or a preacher. It turns out he is both. His name is the Rev. Charles Fitzgerald.

Like other such barber shops, this was an important gathering place, a place devoted to talk about family and church, about sports and music, about politics and the rising tide of racial protest in the South.

I can imagine that at least on one of these visits to the barber the talk turned to children. I can hear in his baritone voice — the voice of a teacher and preacher — the Rev. Fitzgerald bragging on his daughter Karen. Her mother, a teacher of French and English, pronounced it Kay-ren. The barber might have nodded favorably to Charles on the news that young Karen had won a contest for crossword puzzles, that she was excelling in all her classes, that she was a talented young reader and writer, that a teacher had told her she had the makings of an excellent journalist.

Dunlap teaches during a group session in 2002. (Poynter Institute)

Karen Fitzgerald  – the girl who grew to become Dr. Karen Dunlap — was born at an extraordinary time,1951, in an extraordinary place, Nashville, Tenn. Even in the land of the Grand Old Opry, the winds of change began blowing through the Jim Crow South. By the time she graduated from high school in 1969, the signature events of the Civil Rights movement had taken place: Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the lunch counter protests in Nashville and around the South, the freedom riders, the March on Washington and the I Have a Dream Speech, the murders of four young girls in a Birmingham church, the civil rights legislation, the ascension and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (a classmate of her father’s at Morehouse), would become part of American history.

In her own musings, Karen always retained a nuanced view of growing up in the segregated South. She remembers signs that directed blacks away from white-only businesses and restaurants. She remembers attending the poorest of the poor segregated schools in the region, Haynes Elementary and High School, from first through tenth grades. A photo in the newspaper showed the principal pointing to a portable classroom with a big hole in the side. She wondered why her schoolbooks always said Litton H.S. on the inside — until the day she realized that second-hand texts were being circulated through the black schools.

Dunlap with Poynter’s previous presidents, from left: James Naughton, Bob Haiman and Don Baldwin. (Poynter Institute)

When she and her third grade friends heard that one of their classmates was going to be attending a white school, they worried that their classmate was going to be murdered. How old is a third grader? Eight-years-old?

After two years of high school, Karen and her classmates became pioneers of integrated education in Nashville when they were bussed out of their community to Maplewood High. On their first day on the bus, it made a scheduled stop in front of the house to pick up an unsuspecting white girl. When the girl looked up, saw the color of the faces looking out at her, she began screaming and ran inside.

There were other indignities. In one gym class, a white girl having a bad hair day, complained to a friend that she was suffering from a case of “nigger hair.” At assemblies, the students sang “Dixie.” In spite of all this, perhaps in part because of it, Karen excelled academically. She might have been valedictorian at Maplewood, except they wouldn’t include on her record the high grades she had earned at the black school.

As her seventh-grade teacher Eleanor Martin had predicted, journalism would become Karen’s gateway. Her grades earned her scholarships to several colleges and universities, including the prestigious Wellesley. She chose the most lucrative scholarship from Michigan State, partly so she could get away from home, but those northern winters did not suit her.  Inspired by the cold, she earned 27 credits in a single semester, and earned her degree in 2 ½ years.

Reporting and editing opportunities followed – in Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. My favorite story about those days concerns her stint at a small weekly paper owned by a real estate tycoon in Warner Robins, Ga, outside of Macon. She writes: “Not only was I editor, I was also senior writer, intern reporter, feature writer, food writer, editorial writer and ghost writer for the publisher’s column.”

Howard Finberg, Poynter’s director of training, facilitates a webinar with Karen Dunlap. (The Poynter Institute/ Jim Stem)

But wait, there’s more: “I wrote so much copy that I decided to stretch my byline to make the staff seem larger. On some stories I was ‘Karen Brown,’ my first and married names. On others I was ‘Lavette Fitzgerald,’ my middle and maiden names. Stories with less potential as clips for future jobs searches were written by Lavette.” In addition to writing, she was the photographer when the circulation guy wouldn’t take pictures. At about 2 a.m. on production night, she became typesetter when the real typesetter’s husband called her home.

A return to Nashville caused a sea-change. A mentor named Jamye Williams offered her a job at Tennessee State – still famous for its track stars such as Wilma Rudolph – and encouraged her to earn a masters degree there and then a doctorate at the University of Tennessee, where she wrote a dissertation about the history of the Black Press in that state.  She went from being a writer, reporter, and editor, to a teacher of those crafts. She taught at Tennessee State for 10 years.

It was toward the end of her tenure there that she applied to a week-long program at the Poynter Institute. In her modesty, she describes her first experience at Poynter as being a student in a seminar. In actuality, she was one of a dozen or so recipients of a Poynter teaching award, chosen for her proven excellence as a college teacher of journalism. Reading her application, selecting her into the program – if I may quote the late editor Gene Patterson – proved to be a “good day’s work.”

She joined the faculty at USF in Tampa and began working at Poynter part time and then full time, her ascension up the ladder of responsibility and influence now part of our collective histories: director of the high school program, director of the writing center, dean of the faculty, Poynter ambassador to journalists as far away as South Africa, president of the Poynter Institute.

In the era of Big Data, reflection upon Karen’s record as president of Poynter requires the distribution of a visual aid. If my helpers will please distribute Exhibit A.

Poynter faculty and staff on Aug. 12, 2008 and those who are no longer at Poynter are indicated by a blue dot. (The Poynter Institute)

You are looking at a rare group photograph taken of the staff of the Poynter Institute, as it existed on Aug. 12, 2008. The photo does not comprise the entire staff back then. If you look closely, you will see that several of us are holding objects that represent staffers who could not be there for the picture. I count eight such objects.

Each of those blue dots represents a Poynter staff member who is no longer here. You see Karen Dunlap on the right. On Feb.1, she too will become a blue dot. A death, retirements, buy outs, layoffs, departures to safer jobs and industries – these are the usual paths to blue dot land.

Let’s recognize that we have added to the staff several other good faces since that photograph was taken.

Go back and look at that date below the photo: Aug. 12, 2008. Remember what was just ahead of us. The Great Recession. All boats sank on a low tide. Or, if they didn’t sink, they dropped low enough so you could look over the side and see the bottom. Those boats included most news media companies, including ours.

Years ago, I imagined that I would become the president of a small liberal arts college, my friend and mentor Don Fry sat me down and gave me a stern lecture. If you want to become a dean, he said, you must always become a growth dean. Never become a cutting dean. Cutting deans make themselves and everyone else miserable.

Through forces well beyond anyone’s control, Karen Lavette Fitzgerald Brown Dunlap became president of the Poynter Institute during an era of tumultuous change when its resources were shrinking. Her predecessor Jim Naughton was licensed to grow, grow, grow. Karen never had that luxury. Her mandate was transformation.

But here’s the thing:  Karen is leaving Poynter at a point in its history where its budget may be low, but its influence is high. I am happy to make the case that the influence of Poynter, on the craft and values of journalism, has never been higher, not just in America but around the world. Is there any such institution whose influence is greater? I challenge PolitiFact to prove me wrong.

Lower budget? Smaller staff? No dividend payments? No training budgets? Shrinking faculty? Not because of these setbacks but in spite of them, Karen over-achieved. Through her vision, hard work, determination, diplomacy, and compassion, her mantra was like the lyric of a Springsteen song: No retreat, baby, no surrender.

(I’m just surprised that, based on her experience back at the weekly paper in Georgia, that she didn’t give us all multiple names to make the staff look a little bigger. Hey, I’d love to write under the byline Peter Clark Roy.)

Through her leadership we continue to outperform our resources, a tradition that began in a little bank building on Central Avenue in 1975.

Why should this surprise us: Look at Karen’s life story. Think of those second-hand text books. Think of her wonderful journey from the portable school building with the hole in the side to this wonderful house of learning.

Let me close by returning to that opening scene in which Karen’s father sat in that barber shop in Nashville. I even know the name of the barber.  His name was Vernon Winfrey, the father of a woman, who became famous enough to be known by one name Oprah. Now Karen was born in 1951 and Oprah in 1954. Those three years make a difference. I can imagine Vernon talking to his daughter, encouraging her to speak, write, and pursue her interests in journalism. I bet he said, “You know, Oprah, I was talking to the Rev. Fitzgerald in the shop this morning, and he was telling me all kinds of wonderful things about his daughter Karen. That girl is headed for the top. She wants to be a famous journalist some day.  Who knows, girl, if you apply yourself what will become of you!”

If you travel to Nashville and visit the state Baptist offices at the intersection of 9th and Jefferson and look above the entry, you will see, etched in gold the name of Karen’s father Charles H. Fitzgerald. Those letters – and a photo of him inside — honor his tenure as executive director. There are a lot of glass windows here at Poynter. I don’t know what other honors may be in store for her, but I bet there is a fitting place for her name, etched in gold.

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