Mary Elson is an associate editor at Tribune Content Agency, the syndication, licensing and news service division of Tribune Publishing in Chicago. Prior to that, she was a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers. She edited a science series that won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1998 and was inducted into the inaugural class of the Vanderbilt University Student Media Hall of Fame in 2009.
Mary Elson has a daughter, Madeleine, who is a project manager at a government contracting firm in Charleston, S.C., and a son, Russell, who is a student at Shimer and an emergency medical technician. Her husband, Jim Mahan, works in the commodities industry in Chicago. She lives in Evanston.
Susan Henking: Our students have come up with fascinating questions to ask one another in contexts like this, so I have been challenged to ask “better” questions in these interviews. But let’s begin with the basics. How did you “meet” Shimer?
Mary Elson: I “met” Shimer when I was an editor on the metro desk of the Chicago Tribune and in charge of a number of beat reporters, including higher education. Shimer was still in Waukegan then, and, as I recall, I had seen something in the news about it or received a press release. Sounded interesting, so I assigned a reporter to do a news feature for the Tribune. Little did I know that one of my children would end up there.
SH: What surprises you most about Shimer?
ME:I am surprised that it is not better known in Chicago. When I describe it, people seem very impressed, but many have not heard of it and do not know it is in the city. I think more students from the Chicago area would apply if the school were publicized more widely.
SH: If you were going to introduce Shimer as a friend to another friend you value, what would you say?
ME:I would say that the curriculum is based on The Great Books program developed at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s and that its greatest strengths are the very low student-teacher ratio and the exceptional credentials of the faculty. I have been particularly struck by how my son describes the level of discourse in class and the expectations for verbal participation by students in each tutorial. The students are treated as intellectual equals, and their views are taken very seriously. Also, being located on the Mies van der Rohe-designed IIT campus offers impressive opportunities. The CTA train that runs through campus alone is a wonderful benefit. The students themselves are creative and energetic and truly interested in learning.
SH: Shimer is, in part, about terrific, challenging conversations. So are good dinner parties. If you were going to gather a group together for dinner and absolutely anyone, living or dead, fictional or “real”, could come, who would you invite? Why?
ME: I am bad at narrowing lists down and could probably spend a year trying to answer this question. So I’ll just say that I jotted down most of this list as my first stab at it: Alice Munro (just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and I am a wildly devoted fan of her short-story collections); Berthe Morisot, one of the few women Impressionists to become known); Robert Penn Warren (I was fortunate enough to meet him at Vanderbilt when I was editor of the newspaper); Willa Cather, one of the great writers of the 20th century (Song of the Lark, one of her best, is set in Chicago); Frederick Chopin, my favorite composer; Virginia Woolf, groundbreaking in many respects; Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun is in a new Broadway production, and a Chicago play is based on it; Chris Rock, one funny guy who “gets” contemporary society; Robert Kilmer, an English professor who influenced me; Barack Obama, why not?; Steve Jobs, no explanation necessary; Henry Ford, who set the stage for so much of American business; Shakespeare: will finally know for sure who he is?; Gustav Klimt, brilliant, innovative painter; John Keats, for “Ode on a Grecian Urn” alone; Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas; T.S. Elliott; Leonardo da Vinci; and Jay Gatsby. Should be a lively discussion!
SH: Suppose you get to add one book written in the 21st century to the Shimer curriculum. What would you suggest?
ME: Fiction: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, introduced a stunning new voice to American literature and unique storytelling about modern life.
Non-fiction: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, also an extraordinary talent who has influenced our culture in countless ways OR The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a panoramic look at the great migration of African-American from the South.
SH: Shimer is, I believe, about meaningful work embedded in meaningful lives, enriched by all of what we do. What is the message you would offer other Shimerians —friends, alumnae and alumni, current students —about your work and its relevance to Shimer and/ or their lives?
ME: Journalism is a ticket to adventure and opportunities for intellectual development and insider knowledge of the world. In my career, I have interviewed Bill Clinton, actor Charlton Heston, screenwriter Nora Ephron, Chicago mayor Jane Byrne, sculptor Henry Moore and author Margaret Atwood, to name a very few. As with courses at Shimer, the field makes you think and analyze and communicate clearly. I believe it’s relevant for anyone who wants to know how things work, whether politics, science or contemporary culture. It also has given me the chance to work with some of the smartest, most talented people I have ever known.
SH: What question have I not asked that you wish I had? How might you answer that?
ME: I attended Shimer graduation this year, so I might have picked the question: “Do you have any advice for Shimer grads in navigating the professional world”?
I have done a lot of hiring in my jobs, and the biggest mistake some people make in an interview is concentrating on what they hope to get out of a job (i.e. “Well, I worked at such-and-such a job and didn’t like it and think this would be more interesting.”) Focus exclusively on how your skills can help an employer, and do your homework on the company so you can be as specific as possible. Don’t be afraid to say something memorable or unusual about your background. We interviewed a guy one time who had been a finalist on “American Idol.” He didn’t end up getting the job, but that experience stood out on his resume and suggested that he had qualities we were looking for: poise, concentration, self-confidence, etc. A young man we did hire started following my boss and me on Twitter during the interview process. A smart move that got our attention—and helped get him the job.