Barbara Walsh, 2007 Visiting Journalist
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“I was inspired by the passion and curiosity of the students enrolled in the journalism classes. They were eager to learn about reporting and telling stories that make a difference. They asked insightful questions and genuinely cared about the answers. They even fought washed-out roads to get to campus on a day when school was technically closed.”
The 2007 Donald Murray
Before Barbara Walsh graduated from UNH in 1981, she flunked one of her journalism classes because she missed a deadline. So when she returned to spend the week of April 16, 2007, on campus as the Donald Murray Visiting Journalist , she titled her public talk “From Failure to Pulitzer."
In fact, the Pulitzer Prize is only the beginning of the list of awards Barbara has received. A passion for fairness and giving voice to the voiceless has propelled her career. In 10 years at the Portland Press Herald, her work launched state and federal investigations, changed laws, sparked fundraisers and public action meetings, and altered people's attitudes toward teenagers, the poor, and the mentally ill. Her projects involved such subjects as alcohol abuse, rural poverty, mental health care for children, domestic violence and teen suicide.
Barbara was one of two principal reporters at the Lawrence, Mass., Eagle Tribune who worked on a year-long series about Willie Horton Jr., a convicted killer and furlough escapee whose crimes drew attention to the flawed Massachusetts prison system. The series won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize. How she did it, in her own words.
“The Horton story taught me how much power and responsibility journalists have,” Barbara told the group gathered for her speech. “In the decades since, I have learned how stories can transform lives and inform people about what is going on in their town, their state and their country. I’ve learned that people and politicians will react to these stories, that they’ll demand change and make change if you tell them why these stories matter.”
After winning the Pulitzer in Massachusetts, Barbara moved to Florida, where she covered courts and social services for seven years for the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale. Moving to Portland in 1996, she began investigating major social issues. In 1997 she was part of a four-person team that produced "The Deadliest Drug: Maine's Addiction to Alcohol," a series that resulted in dozens of public forums around the state in which citizens brainstormed ways to solve the problems. In 1999 her series "A Stolen Soul," about a woman's struggle to bring her son's murderer to justice, won the national Dart Award for excellence in reporting on victims of violence.
In 2000 and 2001 Barb spent 15 months interviewing hundreds of Maine teenagers for a series of print and online pieces called "On the Verge." She held pizza parties for kids, gave them disposable cameras to record their lives, and generally immersed herself in their world to become "as invisible as a 40-year-old pregnant woman could," she says. "On the Verge" won the Casey Medal, the top national prize for coverage of children and families. It also received an honorable mention for the Batten Award for excellence in civic journalism; the Pew Center called the stories "a stunningly framed and written series about teens that broke free of stereotypes."
In 2003 Barbara won more awards for "Castaway Children: Maine's Most Vulnerable Kids," which showed the need for more children's mental health services in Maine. The stories led to hearings and legislative changes at both the state and federal levels. The series won the national Anna Quindlen Award for Excellence in Journalism in Behalf of Children and Families, given by the Child Welfare League of America, as well as the first media award given by the New England Juvenile Defender's Center. It was also a finalist for the Casey Medal and the Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Award. These projects and others -- including "Death Too Soon," on youth suicide, and "Crisis in the Courts" on the way faulty record-keeping deters justice -- have also won numerous state and regional awards and led to many local initiatives.
Barbara and her husband, journalist Eric Conrad, and their two daughter live in Maine, where Barbara now focuses on freelance writing. She is working on a book about the Newfoundland fishing community and an infamous storm that killed four members of her extended family. She is also writing a children's book.
Barbara Walsh ’81, the 2007 Donald Murray Visiting Journalist, told the story of winning the Pulitzer Prize as part of a speech on campus in April 2007. Excerpts from her talk:
I have never had a lot of confidence. Like many writers, I was a shy kid. My mother says I never spoke a word until high school. I communicated better through written than spoken words. I wrote poetry and 12-page letters to my relatives, who thought I had way too much time on my hands. I wrote Stephen King-like stories about my sisters’ stuffed animals coming to life – stories that made them think I was deranged.
My high school teachers believed I could write. They suggested I consider journalism, and that’s how I wound up at UNH. I did all right in most classes and did fairly well in journalism classes, but I was never good at meeting a deadline. That character flaw cost me in a magazine writing class. I ended up getting an F for handing in a paper late. My professor was trying to prepare me for the real world, but I thought my life was over. I remember walking the railroad tracks out by College Woods, thinking my writing career was finished before it started.
But I was lucky enough to have parents who convinced me otherwise. They told me not to give up, “You’re a writer,’ my father said. “You love to write, and you’re good at it.” I wasn’t so sure I had what it takes to be a journalist, but my parents were, and it made all the difference. I continued taking writing classes, and after I graduated from UNH, I eventually wound up at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass.
I was 27 when my editors put me on the Willie Horton story, a story that would ultimately change lives, laws and affect a presidential election. Some of you may be old enough to remember who Willie Horton was. Horton grew up in Lawrence, Mass., and was sentenced to life in prison after stabbing to death a 17-year-old boy during a gas station robbery.
In April 1987, our newspaper learned that Horton had escaped. It turned out that he didn’t actually escape – he walked away during one of his unsupervised weekend passes. The prison called them prison furloughs. Horton won a $1,000 on a lottery ticket while on furlough and decided not to return to prison to finish his life sentence. Who could blame him? Horton wound up in Maryland, where he held a young couple hostage. He raped the woman twice, tied her fiancé up and repeatedly stabbed him. The couple thankfully escaped, and Horton was captured.
How did a killer like Horton get to leave prison for a weekend pass to go to the mall and McDonald’s and buy lottery tickets? That was the question that led our paper to a year-long series of stories about Massachusetts’ furlough program. We learned that lots of rapists and killers were leaving prison each weekend unsupervised, told simply to return Sunday night. No one knew about the program, not even the local police. The community was outraged.
Our newspaper fought every day to learn more about the furlough program. I was one of two reporters assigned to the story full-time. Day after day I sought answers for the people who lived in our community. Massachusetts prison officials kept saying that many other states had furlough laws that were similar to the one in Massachusetts. After making about 25 calls to federal officials to find out whether this was true, I learned that no one in the country had done a study comparing state furlough laws. So I figured I’d do my own survey. I began calling up prison officials in the other 49 states to ask them about their furloughs.
Other reporters in the newsroom, thought I was nuts. “Why are you wasting your time?” they asked me. But I continued making calls and learned that most states had furlough laws that were far different from the one in Massachusetts. In Louisiana, a prison official told me, “No ma’am, we don’t let killers out for the weekend. We hang ’em, down here.”
Most states allowed prisoners to go on leave to find a place to live or to get a job -- shortly before they were to be released from prison for good. Most states did not allow killers and rapists to go out for the weekend on unsupervised passes. My story ended up proving that Massachusetts’ program was far more liberal than those in other states. It further outraged people who wanted the law changed. Michael Dukakis, who was Massachusetts governor at the time, disagreed. He didn’t want to change the law, and that helped cost him the presidential election. I’ll never forget sitting in my North Andover living room watching the presidential debate and listening to George Bush Sr. talk about Willie Horton and how Dukakis was soft on crime.
Eventually, Dukakis changed the law, and now killers and rapists are no longer allowed to leave prison and come home on the weekend unsupervised. But changing the law didn’t help his image. Dukakis lost his bid for the White House.
Before the Horton story was over, I was sent to Baltimore to cover Horton’s trial for rape, kidnapping and the stabbings he did in that state. The judge there found Horton guilty and sentenced him to several life terms in prison. A poker-playing, whiskey-drinking character, the Maryland judge told me, “Tell those folks in Massachusetts don’t leave the light on for Willie, ’cause he ain’t never coming home.”
Throughout the trial, I kept asking Horton’s attorney if I could interview his client. After the sentencing, I asked again. To my surprise, the defense attorney said yes. Part of me wished he’d said no. For most of the night, I dreamt Horton was outside my hotel window.
The next morning, guards escorted me past several metal security doors into the interviewing area. Horton sat across from me, thankfully separated by glass. He wasn’t happy with our newspaper and our coverage. “You’re making me out to be a monster,” he shouted. He also didn’t like the fact that I asked him how he got out on furlough when he wasn’t even a model prisoner at Walpole. He again started yelling and told me tear my notebook page into small pieces. The interview continued for a while longer before I angered him again; guards took Horton away screaming.
Several months later, our newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for our stories on Horton and the Massachusetts prison furlough system. I was stunned and overwhelmed. Suddenly I was getting telegrams from people like Senator Teddy Kennedy, congratulating me. People were looking at me differently, treating me differently. Suddenly I was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
Part of me wished we’d never won the Pulitzer. I felt like I didn’t deserve it, I didn’t do anything special. In fact, I had flunked magazine writing in college. This was all a sham.
I called up Don Murray, my former journalism advisor at UNH. He had been a wonderful mentor. Don was one of the best teachers and writing coaches in the country. He too had won a Pulitzer Prize, and he understood how I felt. “It’s like someone suddenly waved a magic wand and said you’ve made it,” he told me. “You’ve earned it. Enjoy it.”
Regardless of how strange I felt being called a Pulitzer Prize winner, the lessons of the Willie Horton story stayed with me. Our newspaper had changed laws and lives. The Horton story taught me how much power and responsibility journalists have.