In 2007, when I was pregnant with our fourth child and our family was preparing for a move from Washington DC to Boston, I sneaked away from the chaos for a three-day publishing conference in New York.
I was assigned to a group of about 15 people, all of whom had finished their first novels and were there to pitch them to editors. (In hindsight, I’m confused about why this was encouraged, skipping the literary-agent step.) In between our meetings, we gathered as a group to hone our style on the infamous elevator pitch.
I hit it off particularly well with one group member, Lee. She’d retired as a television reporter and had become a journalism professor a the University of Maryland, and she was whipsmart and worldly and funny as all get-out. Throughout the weekend, as editors (and our own workshop leader) said the darndest things about our books, she cracked me up with her searing asides. Hers was a novel that, if I remember correctly, was set in the 1940s South, based on a real group of women soul singers (think early Supremes) who almost made it big. One editor who heard Lee’s pitch told her, dubiously, Who is going to be the audience for that? She had a polished reply that culminated in a fantastic rolling grumble, under her breath, a barely audible commentary on her indignation that I’d pay cash money to be able to do, myself.
What I didn’t realize immediately is that Lee wasn’t just a television reporter — she was the first black female White House correspondent in the 1970s, and for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” too. She also did a stint at CNN. As we stayed in touch via email over the years, she held an endowed chair, then became the dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, then the provost of diversity for the university. And then she was gone.
I knew she’d been sick, but only found out she’d passed away, died of pancreatic cancer, when she didn’t reply to an email I sent. A Google search yielded an obituary (http://www NULL.nytimes NULL.com/2013/10/03/business/media/lee-thornton-ex-white-house-reporter-dies-at-71 NULL.html) in the New York Times five weeks earlier. It also turned up a video (http://www NULL.merrill NULL.umd NULL.edu/deadline/index NULL.php/2013/09/27/thornton/) made by her colleagues and students upon her retirement in 2010. They called her “Dr. T,” and talked about her tough-love style of teaching and mentoring. The video tribute had messages from newscasters all over the country who’d at one time been her students; in total, they’d won more than 80 journalism awards.
She tried reworking her novels over the years — she had a second one about a black southern minister. But she was also caretaker of her elderly mom, and busy with school responsibilities that followed her into retirement like a beloved stray that won’t go away. When she’d write about the ways she got pulled back into work, in the email messages we exchanged every few months, I could hear her rolling grumble between the lines, but also her affection for the school.
I wondered how many colleagues, students and friends knew she was working on this fiction on the side. And how many people like Lee die with novels in the drawer, the quiet dream of someday seeing their book on the shelf dying with them.
We didn’t have any mutual friends, so I have no way of knowing whether she gave her books to anyone while she was sick, or if she would have wanted someone to try self-publishing on her behalf, posthumously.
All I know is that Lee Thornton was whipsmart and worldly and funny as all get-out, and now she’ll never have the chance to show the editorial world just who, thank you very much, is going to be the audience for that.