Learning From Marlene

On Wednesday my mentor and hero Marlene Sanders died of cancer at 84 years old. Since then, I've been trying to elicit the right words so I could honor her in a way that she would find meaningful and appropriate. I don't even know if these are them, but I'm going to try.

Marlene was more than just a professor to me. I had picked up the memoir she wrote -- Waiting for Primetime -- with Marcia Rock at Housing Works a year prior to our class together. As an aspiring broadcast journalist and reporter, the lives and careers of women like her were inspiring, and the knowledge of journalism practices and standards prior to the present day was crucial to understanding the path I would have to navigate. I idolized her from day one, and was fortunate enough to be introduced by my other celebrity professor Joe Peyronnin. I, of course, was nervous. She asked me what I wanted to do. I told her that I wanted to eventually anchor a newscast, and she replied, "Don't say anchor. Say, 'I want to be a reporter.'" I never forgot that, and I never said anchor again.

Earlier Thursday afternoon I took it upon myself to hike the Hemingway Memorial Trail in Sun Valley, Idaho. On my way to the top, I found a memorial bench dedicated to a woman who had died in the past year. Two women were walking down from the summit as I was perched atop the bench, and they asked if I knew her. I said that I didn't, but that it was a lovely dedication. As they passed I was immediately overcome with memories of my time with Marlene, what she had taught me, and why I had wanted to go into journalism in the first place.

Marlene taught us why telling stories was important. We need storytellers not just to raise awareness about current events, but also to connect us to our fellow human beings. In the end we're all the same people with similar stories despite the supposed "barriers" of background or skin color. We're all linked by our humanity and empathic nature. Stories strengthen that bond. Marlene made sure we knew the significance of that.

She was stern, but steady and compassionate -- as most good bosses and teachers are. Those who understood her teaching methods learned a lot and took it to heart for the length of their careers. However, there were some students who didn't understand Marlene's firey teaching methods. She was a real journalist with the spirit and values that shaped reporters like Walter Cronkite and Christiane Amanpour. She would critique you to your face, and respected those who would take into account the advice she gave (which was always right). She was a passionate journalist, and wanted to make all of her students passionate journalists too. Marlene loved her work and she loved her experiences with us.

Every class with Marlene was intense and active. We were watching her old documentaries, comparing evening newscasts, taking news quizzes, practicing broadcast writing, or discussing and working on our latest pieces. She also made sure we knew how proud of her son -- famed writer Jeff Toobin -- she was, and every session she filled us in on his latest journalistic endeavors. Her son is her legacy, and his success is a testament to just how good of a teacher and a mother she was. She passed on her talent and zeal to him.

Throughout Marlene's work, one could also see her lifelong commitment to another cause: feminism. Her latest documentary She's Beautiful When She's Angry details a life built on the fight for equality in a business and age when women's rights were not given a second thought -- especially in the "Boy's Club" of TV news. It seemed like, out of all of her outstanding achievements, she was the most proud of her contribution to this documentary.

The New York Times was right; "Pioneer" is the correct word to describe her. In addition to, modestly, being the first woman to anchor an evening newscast and report from Vietnam, throughout our last semester with her Marlene never once mentioned the battle she was fighting internally. The news came as a shock and rocked the NYU journalism community, but this serves as evidence of her true strength of character.

I felt that Marlene and I had a special connection built upon our commitment to journalism. She made me believe I had the potential to do what she had done; it meant the world to me. I've been chasing a dream for a long time, and have had more than a few obstacles along the way. Despite that, I came out of every class with a reinvigorated drive and thirst for our craft. I can only ever hope to be as ferociously impassioned as my mentor. She was interested in her students: their opinions and their careers. Marlene had the rare quality of caring, which I believe is what made her so special.