My Mentor: Better Than Journalism School

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Veronica "Ronni" Patriquin was the State Capitol bureau chief for the now defunct afternoon daily, The Shreveport Journal. She hired me during my senior year at LSU as a paid intern to help her cover the 1979 session of the Louisiana Legislature in Baton Rouge. The session ran from April to July. During this time, legislators would introduce lots of proposed bills. Some would get discussed in committee, then a few would make it to the floor for debate and a couple would get passed to the governor for his signature. Most of the real work was done at night at the lobbyist parties where the talk centered on things like the merits of legally changing the official spelling of the then unofficial state crustacean from crayfish to crawfish.

Ronni assigned me to cover the State Senate - the more distinguished of the two bodies. Ronni managed to condense two years of journalism school into two sentences of what is and is not news: "If one of the Senators eats fried chicken straight from the bucket right here in the Senate chambers, that's NOT news. However, if one of the Senators throws a fried chicken at another Senator, then that's news." With that guidance, Ronni left me alone to cover the Louisiana State Senate as she reported on the antics of the State House of Representatives, a more raucous bunch debating things like whether they should they repeal the state's Napoleonic Head and Master law. Really. There was such a law that deemed the husband as the sole Head and Master of the Home. And, it wouldn't be until a few years later that the legislature actually repealed it! Coincidentally, the Head and Master law was repealed in the early 1980s, right around the time that the State Legislature declared the Crawfish (not the Crayfish -- at least not in Louisiana) as the official state Crustacean.

Explaining the nuances of this crazy, fun, sometimes misguided Napoleonic legislature was just one of the ways Ronni mentored me. However, the most generous gift a mentor could give a female mentee is the tools to navigate a male dominated workplace with waters more treacherous than the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchatrain combined.

The lesson I will never forget was over an invitation to a private lunch with then Gov. Edwin Edwards - a self-proclaimed womanizing politician who once publicly bragged that only being caught with a dead woman or live boy could keep him from being elected. When I informed her of my lunch "coup," Ronni without so much as raising her voice or rolling her eyes, informed me of the following: "Honey, you ARE the lunch." She took a deep puff of her unfiltered cigarette, dialed the extension to the governor's press secretary, canceled the "lunch" and then secured me a real exclusive with the governor in his fourth floor office at the State Capitol. She offered no advice on what questions to ask him other than this one tip -- keep the door open at all times. I remember very little of that interview other than Ronni's tip on how to keep it professional.

Now, almost 30 year later, I have stayed in touch with Ronni who has since relocated to Mobile, Alabama. She is still a better journalist than I was ever to become. But the more meaningful lesson she taught me was about helping interns with the kinds of lessons rarely taught in a classroom.

January is National Mentoring Month. Most successful people say they had mentors along the way who guided and encouraged them. The Harvard Mentoring Project has been conducting videotaped interviews and collecting written essays in which prominent people from various fields talk about their mentors. Who mentored you? --The Harvard Mentoring Project