Charlotte Grimes, the first Knight Chair at Newhouse, announces retirement

By Julia Naftulin

April 22, 2014

Three smiling, camouflage-clad soldiers stand next to Charlotte Grimes, whose broad grin contrasts the assault rifle in her hands. The photograph, taken during the 1989 Panama invasion, as well as letters, press passes and other photographs adorn the walls of Grimes’s office in the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.

They tell of a storied journalism career, which she has shared with countless students during the last 11 years as the inaugural Knight Chair in Political Reporting at Newhouse. Grimes announced recently that she is retiring at the end of this semester.

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” says Grimes, who spent 20 years writing about international trade and health care policy for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Even if you’re not a political junkie, almost everything is related to politics. It’s all about the stories that tell you how people’s lives are affected by something.”

Grimes has reported on the 1992 Liberian Civil War, The Persian Gulf War and George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. She has taught political reporting and news literacy during her time at Newhouse. She also heads the Robin Toner Program, which honors the late Newhouse graduate who was the first female political correspondent for The New York Times.

Marwa Eltagouri, Grimes’ assistant and a student in her fall 2013 political reporting class, says the loss will be felt among students.

“I’m sad, not for me, but for future students who won’t get to take her class,” Eltagouri says. “People don’t take her class because they’re interested in political reporting. They take it because they want to take a class with Charlotte Grimes.”

She says Grimes told stories about her own career and reassured her students when they felt disheartened about their work.

“I always tell my students that being a reporter is the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” Grimes says with a Southern accent that gets more noticeable the more excited she gets.

 

Charlotte Grimes stands with soldiers during the 1989 invasion of Panama.

Grimes’s mantra— “Journalism is an act of citizenship”—is clear in her work. In 2007 Grimes launched Democracywise, a website dedicated to her students’ political reporting. She also started The Election Day Project, which showcases stories about local voters as told by Newhouse students.

“What journalism does is it gives people choices,” Grimes says. “I contribute and my students contribute to this country’s democratic health by doing good, reliable, engaging journalism.”

Grimes’ small stature is a poor indicator of her candid personality, as Charlie Miller, an adjunct journalism professor at Newhouse, says he realized soon after meeting the Alabama native.

“I looked at her and remember thinking, ‘She’s gonna be teaching news writing? She’s doesn’t look like a news reporter,’” he says. “But I quickly changed my mind. Her vocabulary wasn’t all that different from mine. She swore like a sailor.”

Miller, who has worked at The Post-Standard for many years, began co-teaching with Grimes in 1998. He says Grimes taught him how to balance being a teacher and friend to students.

Grimes says she views her students as her children, having no biological kids of her own. She takes her job seriously: after every assignment she has students write down lessons learned, she scolds them for skipping assigned readings and she matter-of-factly addresses them as children. Most often, she gives them motherly advice.

“A story has not been done until you do it,” she assures her class. “You will bring something new to the story that no one else has before.”

Aileen Gallagher, an assistant magazine professor at Newhouse, remembers her former professor’s fierce loyalty to students when Grimes invited her to her home before a job interview.

“When I got to my hotel room, the phone was ringing,” Gallagher says. “I picked up and it was Charlotte making sure I was still coming over. When I asked her how she found me she says, ‘Well, I figured there were only five or six hotels you could be in so I just kept calling them.’ She really uses her journalistic tenacity in every aspect of her life.”

Gallagher says Grimes’s romantic journalism career and healthy disregard for authority inspired her to live similarly.

"People don’t take her class because they’re interested in political reporting. They take it because they want to take a class with Charlotte Grimes." Marwa Eltagouri, former student

As a Washington, D.C. correspondent, Grimes lived on a houseboat on the Potomac River for 12 years. There, she and her husband befriended an eclectic group including a CIA analyst, a former national security adviser and a district judge. She made connections that helped her reporting endeavors.

“I would think about what countries I wanted to travel to and would find the reporters in D.C. who would cover those countries,” she says. “Then I would call them and invite them to my Fourth of July party. Building relationships is important. Plus, you make good friends.”

While in Liberia, Grimes says she befriended a British woman named Betsey who had adopted two Ghanian boys. During the Liberian Civil War, the woman’s husband, and the children’s adoptive father, was shot and killed in their home.

“Betsey had to travel back to Britain to bury her husband’s body but didn’t have any clothing for the cold weather,” Grimes says. “I had been carrying a red ski jacket with me for the whole trip and at that moment, I realized the reason why. She wore it to Britain, sent it back to me and then let me interview her about her experiences. You never know what’s going to come in handy.”

Grimes believes the best writers are well read. She has read “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” novels at least 13 times. So when she noticed her students were not reading the newspaper daily, she was in shock.

“Why do we read the newspaper every day? To see examples of good journalism,” she told her students. “Promise me you’ll read it every day!”

Grimes understands her students’ frustrations, but also revels in their work as reporters.

“You get paid to go see people, ask questions,” she says. “It’s like getting paid to be a student for the rest of your life. And you get educated about important things by some of the world’s top experts. Where else do you get paid to do that? It’s fantastic!”

Upon retirement, Grimes and her husband will move to Daytona Beach, Fla. She looks forward to the change of pace and new adventures: sleeping and resting to be exact. Even so, she says she will miss her children greatly.

“I used to think of my stories as a vindication of my existence,” she says. “But now, that’s what my students are. A vindication of my existence.”

Julia Naftulin is a junior magazine major at the Newhouse School.