As a college senior looking for work in journalism after graduation, Kalari Girtley did an experiment. Half the newspapers she wrote to about internships were told only the basics: that she’d be graduating in May 2006 from the University of Illinois, that she’d been a reporter for the Daily Illini, that she’d interned the previous summer with Catalyst, the monthly Chicago journal that covers educational issues. The other newspapers learned one thing more–that Girtley is legally blind.
Those were the papers, she tells me, that didn’t get back to her. “That could just be a coincidence,” she says. “Different editors are looking for different things.” Of course they are–though I’ve never known an editor who was looking for a reporter who couldn’t see.
Girtley wound up with one offer, and she took it: an intern-ship at the weekly Hyde Park Herald. She was ready to “bust my butt,” as she puts it, and she quickly got her chance.
The Herald staff–an editor and four reporters when Girtley arrived–also produces a free weekly for Bronzeville, the Lakefront Outlook, with a cir-culation of around 11,000. Last month the feisty Outlook carried a three-part report on Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman and the Harold Washington Cultural Center at 47th and King Drive, which Tillman had championed as, to quote the Outlook, “the cornerstone of historic Bronzeville’s economic and cultural rebirth.”
The three-year-old center is considerably less than that, the Outlook reported. It described the center as an infrequently occupied, money-losing operation run by Tobacco Road Inc. as a nonprofit corporation that Tillman has staffed “with her family, friends and political allies.” The Outlook reported “apparent conflicts of interest involving current and former board members and management [and] appearances of possible self-dealing conduct.” The center originally was to be named after Lou Rawls, the paper recalled, but the late singer backed out in frustration “amid a series of construction delays.”
The cultural center investigation was brought to my attention by its lead reporter, Daniel Yovich, who told me he worked two days with Girtley before he even realized she was blind. “Kilari’s role, initially, was my gofer,” he said. “At the end she was leading the charge. I’ve worked with a lot of Medill kids, Columbia kids. She runs circles around them.”
Yovich, who’s 43, has years of experience at papers far bigger than the Herald. “It’s the kind of paper people go to to make their bones,” he says. “They’re wannabes. I’m kind of a has-been.” Three years ago he left journalism to seek his fortune trading grain futures, and the experience was a disaster: a year ago the brokerage he joined, Refco Inc., collapsed when its CEO was charged with securities fraud and conspiracy. “It was like you just told me my brother is an ax murderer,” Yovich told Bloomberg News.
Last August he joined the Herald “basically to get out of the house. Here’s this great little neighborhood paper in the neighborhood where I live. I came in a little like a bull in a china shop.” The Harold Washington Cultural Center was his kind of document-driven story, a story “that cried out for us to explain to readers ‘here’s what they did and how they did it.'” In running the investigation, he allows, “I was probably too overbearing, forceful, and at times flat-out an asshole.” Girtley doesn’t disagree. But then she’d joined the Herald to learn.
Her immediate advantage was that she was so new Tillman and her staff didn’t know her. (Tillman’s office wasn’t returning calls from the more veteran reporters.) “We needed a hard copy of information that said the Spoken Word Cafe was the primary caterer for the Harold Washington Cultural Center,” she says. This was important, the Outlook would explain, because Tillman’s daughter Jimalita Tillman was not only the executive director of Tobacco Road but the owner and opera-tor of Spoken Word. So Girtley e-mailed Jimalita Tillman. “Uh, I just said I was inquiring about throwing a little party at the Harold Washington Cultural Center and I wanted to know everything as far as how much it would cost to rent, how much it would cost to cater, and so on, and she sent me a rental sheet pretty much confirming that Spoken Word Cafe was the primary caterer.
“And then I made various phone calls confirming other things for colleagues, saying, ‘My name is Kalari Girtley, and I’m interested’–pretty much giving the same pitch. I said I was looking around trying to compare prices and could I get some information.”
Girtley was in cub-reporter heaven. “Everything I was learning in school, like the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to touch on in the series,” she says. “I actually FOIA’d Tillman for financial records.” She says Tillman ignored the FOIA. “So I think my editor wrote an appeal letter, and if she ignores that we’re going to take her to court.”
Girtley, who’s 23, is hydrocephalic. When she was three months old a tube was installed in her head to drain fluid to her stomach (it’s still there). When she was six the tube clogged and water built up behind her eyes and destroyed her optic nerves. She lost 90 percent of her vision.
“I come from a really good family,” she says, “and they put it in me that I always had to be independent.” Her father, a spe-cial education teacher, didn’t mince words. “He’s a realist–he was the one who didn’t sugarcoat things. When I was six he told me that pretty much I can’t use my eyes no more so I’ll have to rely on my other senses. So”–she laughs–“his exact words, I still remember this, ‘You’ll always have to be four steps ahead to be average, because people with sight will always be ahead of you.’ I kept that in mind. I think it pretty much drove me. Ever since I was nine I played beep baseball–baseball for the visually impaired–and I had it in me that I have to win.”
A southeast-side native, Girtley traveled miles to Curie High School at Pulaski and Archer to take advantage of its program for the visually impaired. “The teachers wanted you to be independent so they kept you in the mainstream classroom,” she says. “They limited the amount of time you spent in the resources room. So it worked out for me in the long run.”
When Girtley applied for the Catalyst internship she submitted a writing sample. It was about running the mile in high school–something she managed by hav-ing a guide run with her, their pinkie fingers touching. Associate editor Maureen Kelleher read the story and knew at once that Girtley had studied under Sarah Levine, a Curie English teacher who’s won a Golden Apple award. Kelleher, a former teacher herself, and Levine had both trained at the University of Chicago. “She knows how to write,” says Kelleher of Girtley. “We do interviews before we hire, and she walked in on a cane and we knew two things–we really wanted her, and we really wanted to figure out how to make it work.”
Girtley told them how. She introduced Catalyst to JAWS (Job Access With Speech), a computer program with a voice synthesizer that reads aloud whatever appears on-screen. “She was really gutsy, she wasn’t intimidated by anybody,” says Kelleher. “She never let her visual handicap stand in the way of her doing anything, and she really educated us in how to have a reporter who needed adaptations, because we didn’t know anything.”
The Herald has said thanks to Girtley by making her internship open-ended–she can stay as long as she wants. Girtley hopes for something even better. One of the paper’s four reporters recently quit and she’s applied for the job. “Let’s see if I get it,” she says cheerfully. “I’d like to be paid.”
For more, see Michael Miner’s blog at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.