04/22/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Al Neuharth: My Mentor, 55 Years Ago


After a week of blazing headlines, the death of Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today and former CEO of Gannett Company, was lost in the back pages.

But it wasn't lost on me. I've followed his long and successful career with special interest, because years ago, when he was a young man and I was 17, he was my mentor.

In 1959, Neuharth was assistant managing editor of the Miami Herald and I was editor of Miami Beach High's Beachcomber, which had just won an award from the Columbia school of journalism.

Along with dozens of other high school editors, I was taking part in a contest sponsored by the Herald to find "Dade County's Best High School Journalist." The winner would accompany a reporter to Detroit, at the unveiling of a new Ford model (now long discontinued; I forgot its name), and write about it for the paper.

So one Saturday our high-school group wrote articles, and took tests on current events. And then we were interviewed by Mr. Neuharth, who was both tough and nurturing. And by the end of the day the field was narrowed down to three of us. (I don't remember if one of the finalists was Larry Kane, my Miami nemesis in writing contests, but he probably was there. He later went on to write a book about the Beatles and became a legendary TV anchor in Philadelphia.)

As I waited in front of the Herald building in downtown Miami to be picked up by my mom, Mr. Neuharth saw me and called me back to his office.

"Lea, I'm not supposed let anyone know until it comes out in the paper tomorrow ... but congratulations, you won!"

And I jumped up and down and he complimented me and then I was picked up and the next day a big article came out and I figured that writing for a living just might be doable.

And I flew to Detroit -- when it was still a great, thriving American city -- with a woman reporter who paid more attention to her whiskey sours than to her new teen sidekick, and I was basically left on my own to scout around, taking notes. And I loved every minute.

I wrote about everything from being a passenger in a car around a test track, to how many pounds of chicken it took to feed the masses involved in the event. And Mr. Neuharth liked my articles well enough to offer me a job that summer before college as an intern at the paper.

I worked mostly in the "morgue" clipping, pasting and filing articles. If I wasn't exactly Brenda Starr, at least it was fun poking through files and seeing the history of the city. And I pitched and generated a few articles for the "Society Page" as it was called then. One was a first-person account of orientation day at the university, and Al Neuharth seemed to take pride in his fledgling.

I left for college, Mr. Neuharth's formidable wind beneath my wings, and soon became feature editor at the college paper, when David Lawrence was the editor; he later became editor/publisher of the Herald for many years.

As so often happened in those times, my journalism career took a back seat to moving around for my husband's academic career. We lived in Miami, Gainesville, Syracuse, London, San Antonio and New York within 10 years. I stayed at home, freelancing local articles. I was a stringer for the Herald in the 1970s and 80s, interviewing creative Miamians who made it in New York.

Ironically, after my divorce I wound up writing a column called "Going it Alone" which ran in Gannett papers in the mid-1990s. I thought of contacting the man who was now CEO of that company, but never did.

Al Neuharth was known for his feisty style and for encouraging women and young writers at USA Today. Since 1999, Freedom Forum has funded the annual Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference program for fifty-one high school seniors, representing each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

And long ago, in my own way, I was one of those lucky youngsters sought out and encouraged to shine. So thanks so much Mr. Neuharth, not just for creating a national paper, but for inspiring so many of us throughout the years. Your legacy will continue through those you have mentored.