The Ball State Department of Journalism hosted Gail Sheehy as this fall’s Letterman Speaker on Thursday, Oct. 22 at Pruis Hall. Sheehy spoke about her career as a journalist and her life experiences that accompanied the stories she told.
Sheehy told the audience that after three years of looking back on her own life, she figured out what the theme of her life.
“What is daring?” said Sheehy. “It’s the curiosity to take the less-traveled road – it’s also the courage to try something you’ve never done before and fail at it, and maybe fail at it again and try it again until you fail forward. That is daring.”
She was began her career as a journalist in the 1960s. Sheehy worked at the New York Herald Tribune “in the women’s department,” she said.
“The flamingo-pink, women’s department where all the girl journalists were sequestered in the Sixties, not allowed to cross into the testosterone zone, or the city room, where men wrote important stories.”
Sheehy described herself to the audience as a naturally fearful person, but it didn’t stop her from crossing into the ‘testosterone zone’ to pitch a story to the Sunday magazine editor, Clay Felker.
“I was determined to pitch a story to the man who was remaking journalism in the late Sixties,” she said.
After that, Sheehy got the chance to cover things most journalists only dream of. She was on a plane with Bobby Kennedy just days before he was assassinated, covering his political campaign. She was in Northern Ireland on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
“The way to make your name as a journalist is not to write a lot of little stories, no matter how good they are. Nobody’s gonna remember them,” Sheehy said, recalling the advice Felker had given her at the beginning of her career. “What you need to do is grab onto a big story, something everybody is talking about, but they don’t know the ‘why.’”
She went on to tell the audience, which was mostly comprised of future storytellers like herself, about how to make a story last.
“The issues are today,” she said. “Character is what was yesterday and will be tomorrow.”
Sheehy has written multiple stories that have lived pasted their time pegs, including one that has made its way to the Broadway stage.
She wrote the cover story for a 1972 issue of New York called “The Secret of Grey Gardens” about Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin, Edith and Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier. The story was taken to the screen and the stage. “Grey Gardens” was the title given to the movie and Broadway play.
Although she has done more than journalism, Sheehy still considers herself a journalist. “I never stopped being a journalist and I never will, because I will never stop being curious.”