OU student, professors, discuss political activism in the Trump era

Deon Osborne took his place at the podium at a Norman city council meeting Oct. 24. Backed by a team of allies holding signs around the outskirts of the room, the young activist and OU student delivered his bold message with poise and firmness: Norman has a race issue that must be confronted. DeBarr Avenue, a street named after Ku Klux Klan member Edwin DeBarr, must be renamed.

The message was heard loud and clear — the council voted unanimously that night to change the street name by June 1, 2018.

For Osborne, the night marked a victory not only for the entire city of Norman, but an important turning point for his own blossoming role as a prominent community activist.

“He found his voice,” said George Henderson, a long-time Norman activist who considers Osborne a friend and mentee. “When and where I don’t know, but he found his voice in terms of social justice.”

Osborne is one of a new generation of young activists nationwide whose political involvement was largely sparked by President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Osborne said he thinks Trump’s victory created a group of individuals bent on upholding the rights of marginalized minorities.

“If Hillary would have won, would we be facing some of the issues we’re facing now? No. But would we be shedding light on a lot of the issues we’re shedding light on now? No,” Osborne said. “Because Trump won, he’s created an entire group of people who says we’re not going to let you decide what America becomes — we’re going to decide what America becomes.”

Keith Gaddie, chair of OU’s political science department, said there has been an intensification of political activism, both across the country and among students since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. Activism today is shaped by the competing voices of many identity groups each demanding fair and equal treatment, he said.

“That’s what this round of protests is about—it’s about dignity, it’s about human dignity, and the right to be treated with dignity and not bullied…that’s where people find common ground,” Gaddie said. “And that’s where the sophistication of modern activism comes from. It’s about a broader concept of justice that’s invested in a deeper understanding of human rights and human dignity.”

With an eye and ear trained closely on his community, Osborne is a social justice advocate for countless groups he considers allies. He has collected friends from every underrepresented group — Native Americans, environmentalists, Latinos and Latinas, LGBTQ+ individuals and more.

That’s one way in which activism has shifted over the years, Henderson said.

“He’s a broker between cultures,” Henderson said. “The DeBarr (issue) is just symbolic of what he does: he finds an issue, he finds allies. If more of us could do that, we would solve more of our problems around here, and it would be not just one group advocating for one another, but all of us advocating for one another.”

Henderson recalls a time when the issues were black and white, literally. Other minorities were forgotten, left behind in the intensely narrow focus of the civil rights movement, he said.

“I focused on race, just black or white, and I forgot about the Hispanics, the Latinos. I forgot about the white allies. I forgot about the Asians. I forgot about the Native Americans. I forgot about those people because for me, I had a narrow vision,” Henderson said. “His is a broad vision. And that comes with the kind of maturity that most of us didn’t have.”

Osborne said he believes power lies at the intersection of movements. When groups with various interests come together, each is able to learn from the others’ perspectives, while also gaining more traction as a team, he said.

“It builds power and it builds legitimacy,” Osborne said.

With this mentality in mind, Osborne this fall helped found the Norman Citizens for Racial Justice group, a loose coalition of allies across various social justice movements whose mission is to educate and advocate for a variety of social justice issues in Norman.

“A lot of times activists and politicians will feel good about themselves because they got something done and they’ll let that go to their heads and think, ‘OK, I’m the champion of this, and if anyone wants to work on this issue, you have to go through me,’” Osborne said. “That’s the opposite of what we want to do. We want to empower students to become their own leaders and to become their own agents of change.”

Beyond the current political climate, Osborne’s commitment to social justice is rooted in his upbringing and past experiences. Growing up in the small town of Lawton, Oklahoma, he had the n-word and bottles tossed at him at the age of 10. In Norman, he’s been called the n-word walking to work as a server at a restaurant, especially on game days, he said.

“I’ve had enough happen to me and enough happen to my family to know that this is an epidemic that we can’t just sweep under the rug any more,” Osborne said.

But he doesn’t like to focus on his own struggles. Brushing aside his own experiences, he is focused on being a representative for others, through social media campaigns advocating for various causes and a video production business he uses to shine a light on suppressed voices.

“Even though I’m an African-American, bisexual, there’s still a lot of privilege that I have, especially now, having the council’s ear, and I want to use that privilege to help those who’ve had worse experiences than me,” Osborne said.

Although Osborne first became involved in campus protests by filming and documenting them, he has gradually shifted to a more vocal leadership role. He regularly attends rallies and engages in community conversations via social media, even though he said he is naturally a quiet person who would rather stay home.

Still, he has a lot to fight for and plenty of reasons to continue advocating.

“This is a dark time right now and we need to show people in the nation who are scared to walk out of their doors, there’s people who will walk out of those doors for you,” Osborne said. “We will go to those city council meetings for you. We will protest for you if you don’t want to come. We’re not going to let them scare us into staying inside — not anymore.”

Looking at Osborne today, Henderson sees himself reflected in the energetic, committed young leader.

“There are very few individuals who I honestly believe were born and given the gift of being the honest brokers of justice,” Henderson said. “He’s one of them.”   

OU Pride of Oklahoma marching band supports Sooner fan battling brain cancer through visit, performance

It sounded just like any other Saturday in the fall. The steady beat of a drumline sprang to life, cymbals clashed and blaring brass instruments joined in. The rise and fall of “Boomer Sooner” filled the afternoon air as members of the Pride of Oklahoma marching band did what they do best.

Except, this time, the band was in uncharted territory. There was no football game, and it wasn’t a stadium full of screaming fans that surrounded them but a sunny park hundreds of miles from Norman.

Though far from home, the band’s music met an equally receptive audience with the Schwammlein family. Peter, a 14-year-old music lover, stood yards from the line of performers, surrounded by dozens of his extended family members, and grinned from ear to ear as the band continued with other hits like “Go Big Red” and “Oklahoma.”

Fifteen members of OU’s marching band made the trek to Fayetteville, Arkansas, not to cheer on the football team like usual, but to support Peter in his fight against a different opponent — cancer.

“The OU fight song has taken on a new meaning for us,” said Brian Schwammlein, Peter’s dad. “Whenever I’m watching the game, hearing the OU fight song come on, I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s fight cancer too, let’s do it, come on now.’”

Pride member Brenna O’Hara said the band’s mission goes beyond its primary purpose of cheering on OU athletics, something that became evident through its Arkansas road trip.

“As a band,” O’Hara said, “our support extends beyond the team to individuals like Peter, like the fans of the university, the people who are really invested in the culture we have here.”

A different opponent

Peter can appreciate a good marching band.

He first picked up an instrument in seventh grade and now loves music so much he spent his entire summer using a computer program to compose his own songs. The high school freshman had just joined his school’s marching band when his pursuit of playing the mellophone was put on pause by a diagnosis of brain cancer, which took his younger sister Natalie’s life five years ago.

It was early September when he was supposed to play in his first band performance. That Friday, he was excited and a little nervous that he might mess up. But a CT scan that morning led to an MRI, revealing a brain tumor that called for immediate surgery at Arkansas Children’s Hospital two hours from home.

“I was still hopeful that I would get to come back and, even if not perform, be there for the band,” Peter said. “And then we had to drive to Little Rock that night, so I never went.”

The tumor, later determined to be malignant, was removed after an hours-long surgery two days later. Post-surgery, Peter wasn’t allowed to play his mellophone for several weeks.

Then came the radiation treatment. As the teen’s days filled with nurses, tests and hospital rooms, he was unable to spend as much time composing music and playing his instruments. Still, the Schwammleins brought a keyboard and a ukulele to their temporary Memphis apartment where they stay during treatment. The instruments are nice to have, Peter said, to help process things.

On the road

Born in Norman, where his family lived from 2000 to 2006, Peter said the Sooners are probably his favorite college team, although he’s never been a huge football fan. Still, the Schwammlein family’s ties to their old home in Norman were strong enough to elicit a large response from the community.

Michelle Sutherlin, a school counselor at Norman North High School and a close friend of the Schwammleins, said she created a Facebook page where anyone can post videos of encouragement for Peter.

“Whenever we found out (Peter) was sick, I just wanted to do whatever I could to help their family because they mean so much to me, and they’ve already been through so much,” Sutherlin said. “I reached out to some local organizations, including the Pride of Oklahoma and some local high schools, to make a video get-well card for Peter, and the Pride of Oklahoma actually took that a couple of steps farther and have done so much for him that it’s been very, very meaningful.”

Peter’s story struck a chord with Kaleigh Guess, an elementary education sophomore who plays french horn in the Pride, when she first heard it at band practice from the director. Guess lost her great-grandpa to brain cancer, so she understands the devastating effect it can have on families. After the Pride recorded a video of support to share on the Love for the Schwammleins Facebook page at Sutherlin’s request, Guess knew she wanted to do more.

“I thought it would be cool to let (Peter) know, ‘Hey, the Pride of Oklahoma is here for you, we want to cheer you on and be there for you every step of the way,’ because something like that is something that you don’t want to go through thinking that you’re unnoticed or that people don’t… know what you’re going through,” Guess said. “So I thought it would be cool if we showed him, ‘Hey, we care. We’re here for you. And we want to make sure that you get better.’”

Guess and Sutherlin arranged the details of a surprise trip for the Saturday of OU’s bye week. Brian said he thought the idea was a terrific one.

“My first response — my jaw was dropping, like, ‘Oh my god, this is unbelievable. Absolutely, we’ll do whatever we can to adjust our schedule to make it work,’’’ Brian said.

When Guess announced the plan to the entire Pride, she was surprised by the amount of interest.

“At first, it was just going to be a few people from my section go up there and play for him or something like that, but as I started talking about it with more people, it caught on,” Guess said. “People were very interested in it, and so it kind of grew from there.”

Fifteen Pride members, with hefty instruments in tow, piled into cars to make the four-hour drive to Fayetteville, which turned into over seven hours after a dead car battery delayed their departure. They didn’t return to Norman until well into the early morning hours of Sunday.

“It was so much more than a pep band,” said Meagan Millier, a Pride member who made the trip to Fayetteville. “It was so much more than just driving down there, playing a couple pep tunes and then leaving. It was about seeing (Peter), talking to him and his whole family… just letting him be a normal kid for a little while.”

The OU students connected easily with Peter, whom they said they loved getting to know, through their shared love of music and marching band.

“That was just really cool for me because it was an instant bonding point where there was an immediate connection of something we both like and love,” Peter said. “That was really nice to have that.”

Brian stood nearby, beaming with pride, as his son was engulfed by a group of college students.

“Here’s, you know, our son just being surrounded by a group of college students just laughing with him, sharing stories, talking about band stuff — stuff that totally goes over my head, but they’re all understanding it, and it was a real gift,” Brian said. “Not just the music — the coming out, just getting to know them, hear their stories and make those connections.”

A lasting impact

The Pride’s visit to the home of the Arkansas Razorbacks left a lasting impact on the extended Schwammlein family, many of whom gathered at the park for the Pride performance.

“We have family that live here in Fayetteville, and they’re life-long Razorback fans, and they left that gathering, though, with OU pride — said, ‘Well, I can be a Sooner fan now, I’m all right with that,’” Brian said. “And they kept their word. They were rooting for the Sooners the following week…they got disappointed when OU lost. So that’s been fun for us, as a family.”

The effort has reached beyond the Pride, as well. Janna Martin, a human relations faculty member who knew the Schwammleins when they lived in Norman, asked her students, including athletes like Baker Mayfield, to make a video for Peter and post it on his page. Another Pride member strapped a GoPro camera on his instrument during halftime of the OU-Texas game for Peter to experience what it’s like to be in the marching band.

Peter said he thought the videos were “very cool.”

“It goes a long way,” Brian said of the supportive gestures. “It’s nice to have them on video so we can go back and watch them again or share them with a friend or say, ‘Hey, here’s somebody else wishing Peter well.’ It just creates some positive momentum in the midst of something that requires a lot of adjusting to and some unknowns, so that’s been appreciated.”

Sutherlin, an OU alumna, said she has never been more proud to be a Sooner. There’s something special about OU students, members of the Pride in particular, she said.

“I don’t even know how to describe how wonderful it made me feel to know that something that I love and care about, which is the University of Oklahoma, would turn around and do something so kind — and totally above and beyond any expectation or request — for a young man they’d never met, who lives in a different state,” Sutherlin said. “I’ve just never been prouder to be an Oklahoma Sooner.”

Alan Velie: OU’s longest serving professor reflects on 50 year career

BY ANNA BAUMAN

Alan Velie was the center of attention and loving it.

At 79, he sat surrounded by hundreds of dear friends, colleagues and students crowded into Beaird Lounge in May to celebrate the career of a man whose influence spans generations.

The group gathered was as diverse as it was large — OU’s top administrators, English and Native American studies professors, athletic executives, study abroad faculty, old friends, young students, children and grandchildren — all standing as testament to Velie’s far-reaching influence on the institution he calls home.

Many speeches conveyed part praise, part roast — fitting for a man who has been described as “lovable” and “contentious” in the same breath.  

This fall marks the 50th year of Velie’s notable career at OU — a milestone earning him the distinction of being OU’s longest serving faculty member still teaching — something he’ll return to this spring post-retirement.  

“He holds so much institutional memory,” said Amanda Cobb-Greetham, Velie’s former student and current colleague. “He is like a keeper of OU’s memory. A keeper of our institutional culture and history.”

In his second year, Velie witnessed the retirement of OU’s venerated president George Lynn Cross, best known for desegregating the school, and six presidents later, he will witness the end of OU president David Boren’s era. In between, he has seen OU transform from an average university into what it is today — better in every way, he says, in spite of a worsening budget crisis.

“It’s a pleasure to work here,” Velie said. “It’s always been very pleasant, but it’s really something to be proud of today.”

‘It was a long time ago’

Velie first set foot in Norman long before McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken popped up, before the football stadium sold out Saturdays in the fall and even before Barry Switzer was a household name.

Norman in 1967 was much sleepier, more provincial, Velie says, with only two restaurants in town. The steakhouse didn’t cater to his “adventurous” appetite, as one friend put it, so he had to drive to Oklahoma City for Chinese takeout.

With a wife and 15-month-old son in tow, he was just shy of 30 and fresh out of graduate school at the West coast’s prestigious Stanford University when he took a position as an instructor in the English department for around $8,900 a year.

As a Harvard undergrad, Velie found English — a major he didn’t fall asleep reading — when his plans to become a doctor were ruined by a chemistry class he didn’t have a prayer of passing. Velie admits he was not a serious student in those days, opting for the local college bar over the library, a lifestyle that resulted in a transcript mostly marked with C’s.

Post-graduation, he served four years in the Marine Corps, but left to start a family with his soon-to-be wife, Sue. It wasn’t until he worked at a publishing company visiting college campuses that he got the idea of becoming a professor.

“I figured, hell, I could do that — they’re no smarter than I am,” Velie said.

At Stanford, he got serious — diving into the study of Shakespeare, he earned a master’s and Ph.D in four years.

“In graduate school, you have to work a lot harder or they throw you out,” Velie said. “So I did.”

Velie brought his passion for Shakespeare and the written word with him to OU’s English department — one of the largest on campus — housed at the time in Kaufman Hall and later moved to Gittinger Hall, now gone. It has since been eclipsed in size by many new departments and colleges instituted under Boren.

Back then, Velie penciled in his students’ grades and students signed up for courses on a pad of paper.

“It was done by paper and typewriters, not computers,” said Velie. “It was a much smaller, simpler operation.”

Still, as students drift to other departments like communications, journalism or science-related fields, Velie recognizes the importance of the discipline he has dedicated his life to. Analyzing literature is akin to solving social problems, skills needed in any job, he said.

“Most problems involve human behavior,” Velie said. “And that’s what English covers.”

‘Soul of a teacher’

Kyle Harper would not be the person he is today without Alan Velie.

OU’s provost credits Velie, who he describes as “a character,” for sparking in him a lasting love of literature, beauty and ideas.

“I vividly remember being in his class and having my life changed because of the way that he taught great literature,” said Harper, who studied texts like Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene with Velie. “He could make it come to life, he could make it seem important, in a way that was surprising for literature that might be hundreds of years old but could somehow seem to, in his classroom, be the most important thing in the world.”

Harper estimates that Velie has impacted thousands and thousands of students in a similar way throughout his 50-year tenure — many of whom have gone on to become Velie’s colleagues in the English and Native American studies departments.

Velie’s gift in the classroom is something special, Harper said, and he’s has racked up plenty of awards to prove it.

Velie received the Amoco Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1972, the Baldwin Award for Excellence in Classroom Instruction in 1986, the Mortarboard Honor Society Outstanding Faculty Member in 1989. In 2014 he was awarded the Otis Sullivant Award for perceptivity — “whatever that means,” Velie says — which counts former linebacker Eric Striker, honors college dean David Ray and associate dean of students Kristen Partridge among its recipients. In 2015, Velie was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame alongside Boren.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a born teacher,” said Jerry Weber, retired exercise physiology professor who has enjoyed a 50 year friendship with Velie. “But if I thought there were, Alan would fit that category.”   

Since his early years when OU had a looser admissions policy, Velie has noticed the quality of students and academics greatly increase. It’s now tougher to get in, he says, contributing to better students thanks to initiatives driven by Boren like the recruitment of National Merit Scholars.

Velie’s teaching style is traditional and his strategy is simple to teach students how to read, write and, most importantly, think. Even through 50 years of change, Velie’s teaching remains timeless.

“I try to teach them how to think for themselves,” Velie said. “That’s why I have them read a passage — Well, what do you think it means?’ Tell me, not what somebody said it meant, but read it, and try to figure it out. And if a student can get out of college knowing how to read and write, that’s really all you need.”

A penchant for travel

Velie’s dedication to students extended beyond the classroom in a study abroad program to Oxford, England, that he chaperoned nearly every year for two decades until 2015 with honors college professor Melanie Wright.

Wright traces the beginning of Velie’s involvement with the program to an event in the Union when Velie approached her at the snack table wanting to come along on the Oxford trip.  

“It was just like ‘Hey, how about I join in?’ ‘OK!’” Wright said. “Who’s going to tell him no?”

Since then, the pair has taken groups of students on treks to experience the wonders of Oxford — from the school’s stately grounds, to the Houses of Parliament and, most often, the local bar scene.

“He’s the heart and soul of the program,” Wright said of Velie, who loved taking students to lunch and out to visit the many colorful, tiny bars dotting the area.

Velie, ever adventurous, discovered a quaint pub a four-mile walk away with a thatched roof, a waterfall and peacocks that’s now become a tradition for students to visit.  

Velie’s travels also reached across the globe to places like Bolivia, Bulgaria and Ukraine where he gave academic lectures. He aspired to give students a glimpse of the world outside Norman — a goal shared by OU’s administration under Boren.

“There’s a big world out there,” said Velie, whose own worldview has expanded since he first settled in small-town Oklahoma. “I think it’s healthy for students to realize that and just get a sense of what the rest of the world is like, what they’re doing.”

‘Nobody else was doing it’

Velie found ways to be curious in his own backyard as well.

Cobb-Greetham sat in Velie’s classroom 25 years ago reading books she didn’t previously know existed written by Native American authors.

“I don’t even know how to explain what it meant to me the first time I was in a class and I read these texts,” Cobb-Greetham said. “I am Chickasaw, and when I read these books by native authors that I didn’t even know existed they weren’t anywhere else and they weren’t being taught anywhere else — it meant the world to me. And I wanted to become a part of that and to share that as well.”

Cobb-Greetham, now the chair of OU’s department of Native American studies, credits Velie with helping shape the academic field she and many others at OU have built careers on.

“Alan Velie insisted that the literary works of this renaissance be taken seriously as significant texts within the academy,” she said.

In 1969, two years into a budding teaching career, Velie became the first in the nation to teach American Indian literature in an academic setting, at the request of his department chair.

“I didn’t know a thing about it,” said Velie, who had just written his thesis and dissertation on Shakespeare.

Looking for texts to teach, he found only nine novels in publication — including N. Scott Momaday’s 1968 House Made of Dawn — which he taught alongside the poetry section of a Mohawk newspaper.

Cobb-Greetham recalls sitting in Velie’s classroom the first time.

“You’re like ‘Who is this slightly-grumpy-sounding rugby player who’s in here talking about Native American literature?’” she said. “You’re like ‘What?’”  

But his “gruff” personality didn’t translate into arrogance — instead, he acted as a conduit between the academic community and the writers whose works he taught.  

“He didn’t hold himself out as like, ‘Oh, I’m the expert on this,’” Cobb-Greetham said. “He mostly saw himself as a way to help introduce literature from these communities…He understood that the knowledge and the expertise lives within our tribal nations and communities and he honored that.”

The Native American studies department, which emerged out of an interdisciplinary program, was built on the contributions from the discipline’s first scholars, Velie chief among them.   

Velie taught the Native American literature course for years until new faculty members rose up to take his place. Still, he continued to pursue the field as a scholar, writing three books and over 40 articles and editing several anthologies on the subject.

“Indians are such an important part of Oklahoma history, and one of the best ways to understand Indian culture is to read novels about it,” Velie said.  

Al Velie rugby field

Velie’s love of literature is rivaled only by his other main hobby — sports of all kinds, but especially contact sports.

“At his retirement reception there was a lot of rugby talk — and some literature,” Cobb-Greetham said.

During his undergraduate days at Harvard, Velie crossed the yard one day and saw a group of young men playing rugby. He immediately knew he wanted to join.

“I couldn’t imagine what they were doing but it looked like fun, so I asked if I could do it too,” Velie said. “And they said, well, come out Tuesday — so I did.”

Over six decades later, a sign bearing his name stands in the corner of a patchy field on the south end of campus to mark OU’s rugby field in honor of the club’s founding father.

Velie agreed to sponsor an OU rugby team in the mid-70s when approached by two law students, with one stipulation — he would play on the team. He continued to do so for several seasons in his late 30s until he took a permanent spot as the team’s sponsor and biggest fan.

Velie was not so much beloved for his abilities on the field, but instead the “abilities, expertise and passion he exhibited in pre- and post-game celebrations,” Weber said in a speech delivered at the retirement reception, sparing the details “in the interest of family harmony.”

His physical abilities were severely inhibited when he suffered a stroke in February 2014 that sent him to the hospital for nearly a month. With time, he learned to walk and talk again, but still has limited use of his right arm.

“I think the most remarkable thing is his humor — his sense of humor and his enjoyment in humor,” Weber said. “His ability to laugh, his willingness to laugh, is undiminished by his physical circumstances, and I just think that is remarkable — absolutely remarkable.”  

Weber admires the way his friend made a graceful come-back, returning as soon as he was physically able to a class that met him with a standing ovation.  

‘That’s a remarkable legacy’

These days, Velie sits in a new office in Cate, a converted dormitory, with a window gazing out at Dale Hall, one of many buildings he pre-dates. He navigates the halls using a walker and cruises to meet friends for lunch at the Union on his very own golf cart provided by the university after his stroke.  

Wearing open-toed sandals and a sport coat layered over a Hawaiian shirt, Velie is every bit the combination of rugged rugby player and sophisticated scholar that his various interests suggest.

As OU faces a new era, relics of his past clutter the desk and shelves — a coffee-stained mug bearing an Oxford crest, photos of he and his wife on exotic trips and a vast collection of books amassed over the years.

But, reflecting on a life’s worth of contributions to OU, it’s not the books that matter most to him — it’s the students.

“That’s the best legacy you can have the only real legacy is students,” Velie said. “I mean, you can write all kinds of books, but most of them don’t sell and anyway, I think students are more important.”

 

“Portland MAX hero’s last words: ‘Tell everyone on this train I love them'” by The Oregonian’s Maxine Bernstein

Maxine Bernstein was just getting home from a weekend of camping with her family when she turned on the local TV news channel.

She caught a snippet of an interview with a woman who said she had helped one of the victims of a violent stabbing on the MAX train in Portland, Oregon over the weekend.

Bernstein, a crime reporter for The Oregonian, saw her chance.

She tracked down the witness on Facebook and sent her a message around 11 p.m. that night. To the reporter’s surprise, Rachel Macy responded.

Macy turned out to be the key source to Bernstein’s in-depth follow-up story on the tragedy that shook the city of Portland in late May. With Macy’s first-hand account, a clearer picture began to emerge that of a man yelling racial and anti-Muslim epithets at two teenage girls on the public transit system, the three innocent men who lost their lives when they stepped in to stop the harassment and a hero’s dying words spoken to a stranger providing comfort.

The story, “Portland MAX hero’s last words: ‘Tell everyone on this train I love them,’” remains one of the most shared stories of the year of Advance Publications, an umbrella company encompassing dozens of newspapers nationwide.

“This was a pretty significant incident that occurred,” Bernstein said. “The fact that people were killed on public transportation, not too late on a Friday night, who were heading home from work that was pretty significant, so I think everyone wanted to find out as much information as possible as quickly as we could.”

Beyond the significance of the attack, Bernstein attributes the story’s success to the element of human connection.

“It was a tragedy, but there was a woman who did good and sacrificed…to help others,” Bernstein said. “And she was providing a first-hand account of it, so I think that just struck an emotional chord with people perhaps.”

The morning after making initial contact via Facebook, Bernstein called Macy to interview her for the specific details she wanted what Macy saw and felt, where she and others were seated on the train, even what people were wearing.

“I’d say, ‘This will sounds like a silly question and I’m sorry, but I’m just trying to get an accurate account and picture of what occurred,’” Bernstein said. “And so that’s how I would preface some question that seemed completely silly to someone who’s not used to this.”

After an extensive interview, she hung up the phone and began writing, but called Macy back three or four times that morning to clarify certain details and fill in gaps.

“I think it’s important if you have questions if there’s something missing or a gap to find out, not just breeze over it,” Bernstein said.

After the back-and-forth with Macy and with her editors, the story was published in the early afternoon less than a day’s work.

With over two decades of crime reporting under her belt, Bernstein said she has learned how to talk to sources who have just experienced a traumatic event. The key is listening, she said.

“Unfortunately, I’ve had to run into situations where people are at their worst they’re suffering, they’re at the worst part of their lives at the moment I’m showing up asking questions,” Bernstein said. “But I have recognized that a lot of people, you know, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s it’s somewhat cathartic talking about it and sharing what they saw and having someone listen.”

The reporter first got hooked on the police beat while covering a small town in Connecticut when she wrote a story exposing a police chief who sent his officers across the country to collect baseball cards for his personal collection. The chief resigned.  

“From that point on, I enjoyed covering law enforcement,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein got her start in journalism when she served as her high school paper’s editor. In college, she majored in history and never took a course in journalism, but worked at the school’s student-run daily newspaper and spent summers interning at papers in Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

She enjoyed the rush of covering news, and asking questions for stories helped push her outside of her comfort zone.

“(Journalism) kind of married my interest in writing with my curiosity about lots of different subjects,” Bernstein said.

After an unsuccessful job search post-graduation, she decided to volunteer at an army base in Israel, where she learned Hebrew and eventually got a job at an English-language daily newspaper in Jerusalem.

After another several months of traveling through Europe, Bernstein moved home and got a job at a Hartford paper’s Washington bureau covering the Connecticut congressional delegation.

Seven years in Hartford bouncing from beat to beat ended when a colleague offered her name for a job opening at the Oregonian, a paper she had never heard of at the time. She was offered the job after a two-day interview and called her dad to help make the decision.

“My dad said, ‘What do you have to lose? Go there, you can always come back after 2 years,’” Bernstein said. “And so I did, and I’ve been here for now 18 years.”  

Throughout her career, Bernstein has learned the value of being persistent in asking questions, hunting for sources and following up on stories.

“As a journalist you can’t be lazy,” Bernstein said. “If a door closes one time, there might be another opportunity. You just can’t be lazy, you got to keep trying everything that could potentially work, that’s all.”

Q&A: Siandhara Bonnet by Anna Bauman

Like many, Siandhara Bonnet turned to religion during a dark time in her life. The kind-hearted people within the Church of Latter Day Saints appealed to the young journalist during her sophomore year of college, but the warmth they offered eventually clashed with the beliefs they preached. I asked Siandhara to tell me about her journey with religion, and in doing so, learned about her existential curiosity, inner strength and ability to find joy in life’s little moments.

A: So I remember last semester you were thinking about joining the church of LDS – is that something that you are still thinking about?

S: No, definitely not. So, the entire premise behind that is actually rather complicated. A lot of really bad things happened last year leading up to that, joining the church, and the people there are great — they’re fantastic people, they’re kind hearted, genuine, very pleasant. But the inherent beliefs are not what I agree with or believe in. In my opinion, they’re not feminist, at all. They think that women have their place, and it’s behind their husband, and that they should completely and fully support them. And for me, I grew up in a household where it was filled with women, powerful women, women who are empowered. And that’s just not something that I inherently believe in.

But when I was thinking about joining the church, I was very much in a place where I was not completely myself. And right now I’m still trying to regain who I was before all these bad things happened.

So no, not going back there. It was kind of just me running away from everything else that had been happening in my life and it just gave me something else to focus on.

A: What do you think it was specifically about the church of LDS that offered you something that you needed at that time in your life?

S: I think it was my vulnerability and just being willing to get away from other things. The things that I had been affected by had been so dark, they had been so dark and the people that I was around, their beliefs, versus the church of LDS, were complete opposite. I guess it was kind of like a magnet affect, where it was just like, alright this is south and this is north, and they’re butting against each other — so I made a jump. And it was just so completely opposite that it was just almost refreshing.

A: Can you elaborate more on what those differences were between the people you were around and the church?

S: One person in particular that I was around a lot was just — I usually say people aren’t inherently bad, that there’s always some kind of goodness in them — but this person was, right now it feels, very inherently bad. It was just a very toxic aura, something that being around was really bad. There was a constant anxiety and worry in every situation where that person was involved, and it made my stomach turn. He wasn’t kind, and he was constantly asking questions, constantly making me doubt myself and all of my choices and everything I was about, and making me question, ‘Okay, is this actually this?’ Where it was almost at the point where he made me question my reality at every given point in time. Versus LDS, where it was very much like, ‘Hey, come hang out with us — we’re not going to make you question things, we’re going to make you think about these writings and we’re going to guide you in a direction,we’re going to let you think about it.’

It was that kindness — everyone was really happy and excited to see you and they all chatted about you. It very quickly — looking back, scarily — was everyone knew who I was. And everyone was very kind hearted and pleasant and would ask about my day and seem very genuine. So when, having gone through traumatic events and being in such a toxic environment and pushing myself into an environment where it was so bright and nice and almost like a fairy tale, it made sense to make a jump.

A: So how far did you get into that fairy tale before you realized, wait, this isn’t me, this isn’t — ?

S: So, I got to the point where I was actually getting ready to get baptized. I had met with missionaries and I had planned out, ‘Okay, this is how my ceremony’s going to go.’ I had picked the hymns, I chose the speakers, I knew who was actually going to baptize me, I knew who was going to speak at the institute meeting the next day. I had been pretty far along and it got to the point where it was the day of, the day that I was going to get baptized and submerged in all the water and wear a white gown.

My mom called me, and I had told her what was going on, but she called me upset. And it was not until I heard her start crying that I was just like, ‘Something is very wrong.’ Because my mom and I have, I think we have a pretty good relationship where…I can tell her everything that’s going on. And I had been surface-talking to my parents, but I hadn’t been going in-depth with like, ‘This is what’s been going on and this is how I’m feeling.’ They knew about the traumatic things, but they didn’t know how I was dealing with it. They knew that my day-to-day was okay, and that I had been going to therapy sessions, but they didn’t know that this is the internal battle that’s happening and I’m crumbling inside. So when I heard her start crying, which I had only ever seen her do maybe twice, and it was from stress, it was a giant wake-up call of just, ‘Okay, something is wrong. I am doing something wrong, this should not be happening.’  

A: So it was just kind of like that moment, when you realized?

S: It was that phone call, and there were very small things that led up to that, of people being like, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ and ‘Okay, that’s an interesting choice, why?’ And me, covering up and making excuses and ignoring things. But yeah, had I not had that phone call with my mom, I would probably be part of the LDS church right now. Which is a very interesting concept.

A: So how did that work when you decided not to go through with it? What was their reaction and how did that kind of play out afterwards?

S: I got off of the phone with my mom after crying for a really long time. And I was actually outside of Copeland Hall so I walked into the newsroom and I kind of just sat on the ground and I sent a text to all of my friends first, all the people that are super important to me that I had invited and was just like, ‘Hey, this isn’t happening. I’ll give you an explanation later.’ I told everyone first because that was my way of backing myself up of just like, ‘Okay, I can’t do this.’

I ended up texting the missionaries that I had gotten really close with and I was just like, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry but I can’t go through with this.’ And they texted me and they’re just like, ‘Hey, can we call you, are you okay?’ And I gave myself a couple seconds to calm down. I was slightly in tears just sitting on the ground in the newsroom, and they picked up and they’re like ‘Do you need anything, are you okay, do you want us to come talk to you?’ And I was just like ‘No, I can’t, I cannot do this today. I don’t have any answers right now.’ And they’re just like ‘Okay, we totally understand, just know that we love you and we support you and we hope that whatever you’re going through you can get through, and if there’s anything we can do let us know.’ And I told them thank you and hung up.

Then the following weeks, I ended up meeting up with the missionaries again, and kind of explaining ‘Hey, this isn’t happening for me right now.’ And they’re just like, that’s totally fine, we love you, as long as you know that a heavenly father exists, then we’ve done our job.’ And then I was in Tulsa over the summer, so the Tulsa branch tried to get in contact with me, and I was just like, ‘Sorry, no thanks.’ And then at the beginning of the semester, I met up with one of the missionaries again and he wanted to know what was going on, and I was like, ‘You know, I’ve done a lot of thinking, and I’ve figured out that this just isn’t my thing. I was coming here for the wrong reasons. I love you guys, and I love the atmosphere, but this isn’t for me. And I feel like if I’m going to join, then I need to do it for the right reasons, I need to do it as, this is something that I want to do, not this is something that I’m running away from things.’ And they took it a little harder than I thought they would – one of my other friends from the church was there as well and she took it very hard. But I’ll see them around campus every once in awhile and just be like, ‘Hey,’ and it’s civil and calm. But they were a little distraught.

A: So it seems like you kind of turned to religion in a dark time in your life. Has religion always played a role, whether it was LDS, or was there something before that and since that?

S: The funniest part is that, a year before all of this happened, that’s when I started looking into beliefs and religion just because I was curious – I’ve always been super curious. When I was younger, I was baptized in the Catholic church because my father was Catholic. And then as I was growing up, my parents separated, but my older sister and I kept going to church with my dad and I mean, I was a little kid, I hated it. I didn’t want to wake up Sunday mornings and wear dresses and super fancy clothes, and sit and eat the small little cookie thing that wasn’t even a cookie – it was like a wafer – and have water thrown at me and whatever.

And then when my mom married my stepdad, he was an atheist and she was an atheist, so we kind of just stopped altogether. The conversation was always there, but it was very much just like, it’s kind of known within the family that it’s not a thing. But I always claimed agnosticism just because I wanted to kind of keep that tie with my dad. But it was also just like, it was kind of, I can kind of do without this, I don’t really care at the moment, plus, you know, I’m a kid,  what do I know?

And my parents were always, they’ve always said, like yeah, we’re going to support you no matter what, if you decide you want to join, that’s fine, just do your research and stuff. So when I started looking at religion my sophomore year, I was doing a lot of research, I was going to a couple Bible studies and asking questions and talking to my friends who I knew were religious or were faithful but didn’t have a religion, and that made so much sense to me. But it was never, ‘Oh I’m having a whole bunch of issues, let me pray’ or ‘Man, I’m having a really rough time right now, I think I need to read a Bible.’ It was never something like that, it was just satisfying my own curiosity.

A: And since you didn’t go through with the baptism, have you gone back to your agnostic beliefs or have you continued to look into other things, have you found anything else?

S: As of recent, I think I might always be agnostic, where I believe that the possibility is out there. And I mean, if millions of people on this planet are going to have a belief in some kind of being that exists that can control fates and destinies and stuff, maybe there’s something to that.

Religion is definitely something that I view as like, it’s a hopeful thing, it’s a light, there’s something to look forward to. But the way that I was raised, with science and facts and logic and there’s always an explanation for something, it challenges that – which I always think is good,  challenges are fun – I love looking at things in different ways.

But right now,  it’s kind of one of those things where it’s just a fun thought, where if I decide to explore it later, it’s fine, but right now it’s kind of just like, alright, that’s on the back burner, I’ve got like 30 other things that I should probably focus on.

A: So it seems like you were drawn to the church during that rough time in your life just because of, you mentioned the kindness in people and that kind of thing. Is there anything else that can fulfill that need for you, like something besides religion that you’ve been able to find that kind of lightness?

S: Yeah, I’ve gone to a lot of therapy sessions and one of the things that we talked about a lot was definitely just finding the things that do boost me up and keep me going and what are the things that make me happy. And I’ve been indulging myself in those. For me personally it’s listening to music and playing music and reading poetry and writing poetry and talking to people more and looking at photos and editing photos and taking them. And for me, those are my lights. Those are the things that I’m just like, I will wake up for those things, every day, no matter what it is.

I struggle with depression and anxiety and some PTSD, and it’s not fun, and getting out of bed in the morning is real hard the majority of the time, where it’s just like, I don’t feel like doing this today. But it’s just like, ‘Okay, there are new songs to listen to today,’ or ‘Oh I really want to hear that song again,’ or ‘Shoot, I really want to learn that song on my ukelele’ or ‘Hey, it’s my friend’s birthday, I should totally wish them a happy birthday, I have to get out of bed for that.’

It’s finding those things. So I don’t know if there’s one giant thing that could contribute to that. I couldn’t say one huge, all-encompassing beautiful light that I’m going to put on a pedestal. It’s, there are so many small little things that do exist, it’s time to take those and put it into something else.

A: Is that your religion?

S: According to Webster’s dictionary, no. But it’s definitely my belief.  

Essay: When Irish eyes are smiling

BY ANNA BAUMAN, JMC3023

If not for the gravestones dotting the hillside, a stranger might have mistaken us for a misplaced bunch of St. Patrick’s Day fanatics.

Clad in green from head to foot, we certainly looked the part. It was an overcast June afternoon when we gathered at the familiar cemetery minutes from home and donned feathery green scarves, leprechaun hats and a mish-mash of other Irish-themed items pulled hastily from basement boxes.

My cousins and I wore sweatshirts hand-painted with letters spelling out “O’Sullivan” — relics from decades of marching proudly in the Kansas City St. Patrick’s Day parade. We wound slowly up the hill behind blaring bagpipes, unsure whether to smile or cry or both. Some hands carried flags while others clutched arms for support.

Even in all-out parade mode, the atmosphere turned somber as we neared the gravesite. Deep down each of us knew that, despite our showy and colorful appearance, there was a gaping hole no amount of green could fill.

One vital presence was missing from our midst. His absence was deeply felt and was, of course, the reason hundreds of relatives had poured in from across the city and country to be there that day.

In minutes we arrived at the tented area where a freshly dug hole marked the spot we would lay my grandpa to rest. Beneath the dogwood tree he’d planted years ago and next to three worn headstones, it was a spot he’d frequented too often — eight months ago after his beloved wife Katy’s unexpected passing, 11 years ago when his oldest son Tom lost a battle to colon cancer, 20 years ago when his youngest son Tim was killed in a boating accident — and all the quiet moments in between.

The tree’s slender limbs, now slung with blossoming white petals, reached out as if to catch our tears.

Although our hearts ached, the festive farewell was fitting for a man whose spirit and tenacity will live forever in his greatest legacy: his sprawling, proud and inexplicably green family.


I was in sixth grade the first time I became convinced that Grandpa’s death was imminent.

We were eating dinner one night at Jalapeño’s — a neighborhood favorite with the best salsa and greasiest tacos in town. The waitresses had pulled two or three tables together to accommodate the assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who were gathered, like usual, to celebrate a birthday.

I sat squished between my cousins, kicking each other under the table and sneakily pouring salt into drinks, as the adults droned on about so-and-so’s arthritis or the latest episode of “The Bachelorette.” Grandma threw her hands up with a glance toward heaven and wondered aloud why no one bothered listening to her.

I reached for another chip, and exchanged a bemused look with Grandpa. He leaned over and gave me one of his sly side grins, blue eyes glinting with pride.

“We sure are lucky, you know that?”

Nodding through a mouthful of chips and salsa, I looked around at the laughing faces we called family and felt my heart swell.

The noise of the bustling restaurant and side conversations fell away as I soaked up Grandpa’s attention — usually split between so many of us — bestowed on just me that night as a rare gift from the man I adored.

He delivered nuggets of wisdom with such earnest conviction — our family is better than any other around, Kansas City is by far the best place in the world to live and, without a doubt, he had lived the greatest life of anyone he knew.

I had no choice but to agree as he recounted wild tales as big as the fish he claimed to have caught. At the ripe age of 14 – or was it 12? – he hitchhiked to California on his own. He dangled from an airplane whizzing over Africa while stationed overseas as a fighter pilot. He traveled with the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl in 1970. He ate steak and ice cream every night for dinner.

Most of all, I learned, he loved a good story. And for as boldy as he talked, he lived his life with just as much gumption.

In reality, his life looked more like this: born and raised by poor Irish immigrants in Kansas City, Missouri, educated by nuns at a Catholic school, drafted as an airplane mechanic for four years during the Korean War, married to his beautiful Kate who gave him six children in eight years, broke by a risky career as a stockbroker and worn out by decades of diabetes, heart disease and, toward the end, dementia.

But I like his version better.

That night, as he regaled me with story after story, I’d never felt so special as in that moment when it seemed as if it was just the two of us sitting at the table together.

I went home that night and cried myself to sleep for no apparent reason other than the childish conviction that Grandpa was about to die — and leave me the sole keeper of all his worldly knowledge. I dutifully scribbled everything I could remember from our conversation in a notebook and tucked it away for safekeeping.


My naive 12-year-old self was wrong — nearly 10 years would pass before I got the call I had expectantly dreaded since that night.

Hundreds of miles from home, I was just settling into my reporting internship at a newspaper in the heart of Oklahoma City. It was a Monday morning, and I was sitting at my desk contemplating what to eat for lunch when my phone buzzed.

A text from Dad. He wanted me to call.

My heart sank.

Palms sweaty and a little queasy, I stepped into the cold, white hallway and clutched the phone to my ear. Although I had anticipated the bad news for so long, hearing my dad’s tired voice form the words was a punch to the gut.

Walking mechanically down the hallway with Dad murmuring comforting words in my ear, I stepped into the bright, sunny morning and found myself sitting on a bench. I watched as strangers bustled by, Subway lunches in hand. I wanted them to glance my way, to see my pain and know the world had just changed forever, to offer their condolences. But of course, they just kept walking.

We sat quietly like that for a few more minutes. There was no need for words, and besides, there was nothing left to say.

It was the end.

Even as my heart was breaking, I felt utterly normal and strangely peaceful all at once. It wasn’t until that night, alone in my apartment, when I noticed the color of my shirt — kelly green — and collapsed crying on my closet floor.

It hurt that I’d never again get to lean down and kiss my grandpa on the cheek. Or see him come shuffling through the front door with a grin. Or hear him again sing out, “Oh beautiful one,” when he saw me.

Just weeks before, I had visited Grandpa’s nursing home on my way out of town. His body and mind had withered so he was but a shell of the man who had once taught me how to properly spear a minnow with a fishing hook.

All 87 of his years showed — his papery skin stretched taut over his cheekbones, his pale blue eyes sunk deep into his skull.

We ate ice cream and he insistently pushed play on the CD player that crooned the same song over and over: “When Irish eyes are smiling, ‘tis like a morn in spring.” The rest of us groaned, but the lilting melody seemed to bring him peace.

On my way out, I wheeled him to the lobby where a tacky DJ was playing jazzy tunes from a boombox in front of a line of wheelchairs and their fading occupants. Before I could kiss him goodbye, he wanted me to dance for him. I laughed, and obliged with a little half-hearted hip-shaking and head-bobbing, while he made a silly face, wiggled in his chair and swung his arms to the beat.

So close to the end, his watery blue eyes still glimmered with a mischievous glint of good-natured humor.

Maybe, if I’d have known that would be the last time I’d see him, I wouldn’t have left in such a rush.

If there’s one thing Grandpa taught me, it’s that there is always time enough to dance.

I’m still grappling to see life through those eyes – those watery, pale blue eyes that smiled so lovingly on the world. Joy beamed from his every pore, even in the midst of hardship. He always had a line to leave me laughing when we parted ways, like his favorite joke – “I’m so glad you got to see me!”

“Me too, Grandpa, me too,” I’d say with a smirk.

I hope he knows I truly meant it.