The Eisendrath Years

January 29, 2024

By Yvonne Simons '03

  • 2024 |
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  • knight-wallace |

This article appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of the Wallace House Journal. 

“What is your dream?”That’s how longtime director Charles Eisendrath started interviews. When I arrived in Ann Arbor for my interview in 2002 with 30 or so other finalists, the question conjured up delightful and spirited responses from many applicants and stumped others. Previous fellows had told me to expect that question from Charles. But I wondered, what does dreaming have to do with anything in my work?

The Cambridge English Dictionary sums it up in one definition as hope: “an event or condition that you hope for very much, although it is not likely to happen.”

At the time I started my fellowship, I could not yet see where my time at Michigan might lead me. I just knew I wanted a bigger spot for my journalism.

Charles Eisendrath became Director of the Fellowship Program in 1986.

I was working in a medium-sized television market at WRALTV in Raleigh, North Carolina, a great station all around. But I was feeling frustrated. Many of us start our careers as generalists. We find what we’re good at and our employers hone in. Over time we get boxed in, and that thing that made us stand out starts to hem us in. We forget the wide-open optimism of our early careers and tunnel vision takes over.

I was the Education Fellow in 2002-03. But I also had music on my mind. In addition to my reporting career, I have always maintained a side gig as a professional classical musician. I have sung with the Virginia Symphony Chorus and the professional chamber group Virginia Pro Musica. I also spent time with the Raleigh Oratorio Society and the ROS Master Singers. During my time in the fellowship, I learned that my journalism and music were spiritually connected. When producing effective news stories, my music tended to be good, and vice-versa. When I came to the fellowship, I had been neglecting my music training and performance. And I had developed a puzzling case of stage fright and performance anxiety. So, beyond my formal study project, I wanted to spend time at the School of Music.

When I presented myself, the dean had never heard of the fellowship. She told me I could not take voice lessons. I produced my music résumé and she changed her tune. I was in! However, my assigned voice teacher made one requirement of me. I had to perform at the end of the Winter semester. Publicly. Stage fright and all.

And I did. At Wallace House.

I visited Charles in Ann Arbor on a trip home where he told me, “Dream bigger!”

I chose to perform at Wallace House because other Fellows were my friends and not likely to pick apart the performance as music students and faculty are prone to do. I did invite my voice teacher from Michigan and my former Belleville High School choral music teacher to a program of classical art songs and a few pieces from the Great American Songbook.

I was terrified, but I got through it. Kind of like contemplating my next steps in reporting.

I wanted independence and in 2003, I was getting it. I had decided not to return to WRAL, and it hit me in February of my fellowship that I had no job waiting, even though I’d studied the intricacies of No Child Left Behind, news convergence, and educational gaming. What had I done? What was I going to do?

Charles Eisendrath chuckled when he told my fellowship group, “Yvonne has succeeded in being the fellow to panic the earliest during the fellowship year!” But part of the Eisendrath charm was to encourage us to move forward. Light would illuminate our paths when we were ready.

I did freelance work for a short period of time after the fellowship, followed by a Monday-through-Friday anchor job. At one time, I had thought that was my calling. It turned out to be a bit of a bore. So much for dreams! I visited Charles in Ann Arbor on a trip home where he told me, “Dream bigger!”

So, in 2005, I made a leap to journalism management. I am helping train the next generation of journalists in television and digital pathways, and there is much to do! One job led to the next, all across the country. I landed in Sacramento at the CBS networkowned station, where I thought I might stay. But darn if I didn’t start wanting something with a bit more challenge. I jumped to Portland, Oregon, where I lead a large staff and helped us turn a 3 station into a #1 station in the market. I am also on the ABC Affiliate Advisory Board, helping the network better serve its partner stations. It’s been 17 years of bigger dreams— and counting.

The fellowship doesn’t ask that dream question anymore, not explicitly anyway. But, the concept survives: Hope for something more, and trust in the journey that leads you toward it.

Charles Eisendrath introduced the first issue of The Journal of Michigan Fellows in the summer of 1990. The subsequent issues evolved into what is now the Wallace House Journal.

Yvonne Simons is a 2003 Knight-Wallace Fellow.