A Change of Course

by Kate Stone Lombardi ‘78

Kate pictured at NPR

A fellow Eph completely changed the course of my career, but she didn’t find out about it until 40 years later.

After graduation, I’d gotten a job on Capitol Hill working for a New York senator. It was hardly a glamour position. When I applied to work for this senator, I was sent directly to the Capitol basement to take a typing test. Never mind my political science degree from Williams, or the fact that boys with my educational background were hired as legislative aides right out of college.

Fortunately, in another vestige of the sexism of that time, the girls in my public high school were required to take typing. (The boys were in shop building bird houses, so I think we girls ultimately had the best deal.) Anyway, I was hired on the basis of my speedy typing and immediately began trying to move out of the secretarial job I’d been given. My first job was to answer the mail. Back then, we had numbered, pre-written responses. If someone wrote about gun control, we’d send them a #8; for crime is was a #11. My job was to scrawl the number that matched the subject.It was mind-numbingly boring. Lucky for me, my boss—not the senator but a young lawyer who worked on his staff—didn’t much like to write. I did. Eventually, he had me draft the letters, then personal responses from the Senator, and finally statements for inserts in the Congressional Record.

We were about two years out of Williams and I was plugging along at this still not very interesting job. There were many Williams people living in and around the district. I had half a dozen classmates who were at Georgetown Law School. Only one was a woman—Nancy Schimmel. We didn’t know each other well at college, but one night, Nancy threw a party at her apartment and I was included. I remember her high-rise apartment in DC struck me as incredibly sophisticated. At the time I was living in a crappy basement studio in Arlington, Va.

At one point in the party, Nancy and I had a brief conversation. She asked me what I was up to. I told her that I worked on the Hill and that I liked politics but also really wanted to write. Sipping a drink from a plastic cup, I added that I really didn’t know where I was going with my career.

One thing I remembered from Williams was that Nancy was always direct.

“You should go to journalism school,” she told me bluntly.

Journalism had never even been on my radar screen. I hadn’t even written for a high school or college newspaper. I didn’t want to look foolish, so I casually asked, “So what do you think are the best journalism schools?”

“Northwestern and Columbia,” she said, and moved on to another guest.

Our conversation probably didn’t last two minutes. But it charted my course. I applied to Columbia, writing my own recommendation from the senator (he did read and sign it) and after getting my journalism degree, began my career—a perfect combination of politics and love of writing. For more than 20 years I was a regular contributor to The New York Times. For eight of those years, I had a column in a regional section of the paper. I’ve also written for other national publications and published one nonfiction book. I’ve always loved what I do and feel incredibly fortunate about my career.

I’m pretty sure I never saw or spoke to Nancy Schimmel after that. Until yesterday—40 years after that chance conversation at the party. I emailed her because I was thinking about this story and realized that while I’ve thought about it on and off for decades, Nancy knew nothing about it. She got back to me immediately. Nancy is now a partner at a Chicago law firm, specializing in bank law.

“Good for you!” she wrote, after I wrote her about how she has set me on my way. Not surprisingly, she had no memory of our talk.

But isn’t it amazing how one incredibly brief Eph-to-Eph moment had such a significant influence on my life?

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