Part 49: A couple of ink-stained wretches earn their stripes

Part 49: A couple of ink-stained wretches earn their stripes

With the UI celebrating birthday No. 150 this year, Editor JEFF D'ALESSIO caught up with hundreds of graduates who have gone on to big things. Today, in Part 49: The journalists.

Of the 425,000-plus living alumni with diplomas from the UI's Urbana campus, few went to the lengths to get theirs that MARY JO MEISNER did.

It was September 1970. Months earlier, Meisner had finished up a stellar academic career at Nazareth Academy in LaGrange Park — the kind that would be expected of a future three-time Pulitzer Prize judge who would run one major-market newsroom (Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel) and hold top editor positions at several others (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Washington Post).

Problem was, the UI campus was already overcapacity, forcing school officials to take extreme measures to decide which qualified applicants got in — "the ill-fated lottery," as Meisner calls it.

"I lost, as did several of my friends from Nazareth Academy," she says. So that September, "we went on a last-minute multi-day tour of other colleges and universities in Illinois — a band of smart but unlucky kids looking for an academic institution that would take us in at the last minute.

"Fortunately, a group of rejected applicants and their parents filed an emergency class-action suit against the state and university, claiming the lottery was illegal. They won and our little band of Nazareth rejects returned from their car trip to my parents standing in my driveway, waving a letter from U of I accepting me into the class of 1974."

And then came issue No. 2.

"My dorm assignment was Allen Hall but because I — along with a slew of others — were accepted so late, we had no actual room," Meisner says. "So my first memory of the U of I was living in a makeshift dorm room fashioned out of the study hall on the first floor of Allen Hall, along with several other refugees."

It was an invigorating time to be a student — and not just because of the dreamy part-time gig she landed (working on the sports copy desk of The News-Gazette).

Back in the early '70s, you never knew what you'd see on campus. Especially at the Quad, which Meisner says "seemed to me to be the hub of student protest against the war in Vietnam and all other kinds of social unrest and discontent."

"I vividly remember hanging out on the Quad, studying on the lawn, and having a front-row seat to any number of spontaneous walks, protests, streaking incidents and other forms of civic engagement. Pretty heady and sometimes scary stuff, but certainly right up the alley of a future journalist."

* * * * *

CARINA LEE faced a different sort of challenge in her quest to earn a journalism degree from the UI.

"I never thought a FOB — Fresh off the Boat — Korean student could stay for two years as a reporter," she says, "but I did."

The Class of '13 grad wrote us from Seoul, where she now works for Discovery Networks after a stretch as an Associated Press news assistant monitoring news out of North Korea.

She still remembers that sinking feeling early in her Daily Illini days when she'd rush in at 5 or 6 at night to go through a first edit and think "Will I be able to walk out of this building tonight?"

As her English got better, those sessions got shorter. And by the time she was a junior, she drew the plum assignments, "from covering Unofficial to staying up late to cover President MICHAEL HOGAN's resignation."

"All these experiences helped me to realize that (we can't) fail if we do the best we can."

 

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