Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley realized she could turn her love of writing into a living when she took a news writing class in high school.
An hour with a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, after three years of studying engineering, was enough to convince Julian H. Gonzalez to switch majors and become a newspaper photographer. It was a career that included 25 years at the Free Press.
Next month, their contributions to the profession will be recognized when they are inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame during ceremonies at Michigan State University.
“We are truly honored that half of this year’s inductees come from the Free Press’ ranks,” said Executive Editor Robert Huschka. “I’d like to thank the judges for recognizing the epic contributions of these two journalists.”
Author Dixie Franklin and Lou Mleczko, a reporter with the Detroit News for 24 years, president of the Detroit Newspaper Guild for 38 years and the guild’s administrative officer for 18 years, will also be honored during the April 17 ceremony at 5 p.m. at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center in East Lansing. The Hall of Fame is housed at Michigan State University.
“I couldn’t be more humbled and more proud,” said Riley, a columnist for the past 20 years, 15 at the Free Press. A native of Tarboro, N.C., Riley said the grandparents who raised her — Lowney and Bennie Pitt — made sure “I could not only go to the college of my choice but the journalism school of my choice.”
Today, she says, “I’m doing the job I’ve wanted to do since I was 8 years old.” As a child, she loved writing — stories, poetry — and “I kept trying to figure out how could I make a living doing this. A news writing class in my junior year of high school answered the question for me.”
She said she sees herself as a crusader and feels most passionately when she writes about children and “how we prepare them — how we educate them, how we train them, how we get them ready to be adults.” She said she also uses her column to hold people accountable when they “step up to be in charge.”
“I do write a lot about officials who have to live at a higher standard than other people. I like to do things that make a difference.”
Riley, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, got her first job as a reporter at the newspaper in Greensboro, N.C. She also worked at the Dallas Morning News and the Washington Post. In her debut column in 1996 at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky, she took the city to task for not having a museum honoring native Muhammad Ali. The next day, the mayor called her to say she was right, and the column helped spur the community to get behind an $80-million campaign to build the Muhammad Ali Center, which opened in 2005.
She has written about politics and popular culture, race, education and adult literacy. Her columns on the Kwame Kilpatrick corruption scandal were a part of the entry that won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. But her greatest focus has been education. She has written about Detroit high schools graduating students who could not read and the saga of an Education Achievement Authority district principal who confessed to Riley that she took bribes and evaded taxes in a kickback scheme that is part of a widespread federal corruption probe. But she also wrote about a former DPS student who graduated from Harvard and returned home to Detroit only to not be able to get a job. Her column about him led to 16 job offers for the rising star.
“All the things that were a big deal for me … shed a light so people would understand a bigger issue. The columns I’ve written about race, I’m very proud of those. My main theme is that the children are always watching us. … When we say the schools are in shambles and we don’t do anything about that, the children are watching.”
Huschka called Riley “the conscience of our community here in Detroit and across our state.
“Our readers have turned to her analysis to get the real story — as she’s demanded accountability from public officials and public schools,” Huschka said. “She’s written with authority on nearly every major issue in Michigan — from corruption to the city’s bankruptcy, from education to the state’s brain drain.”
Gonzalez said he is honored to be chosen, “because I kind of backed into the profession. I’ve always felt proud to be in the profession and this is icing on the cake.”
Gonzalez was in the Marine Corps when he took a photography class while stationed in Japan. The Topeka, Kan., native had never owned a camera. After more than three years in the U.S. Marines, a friend talked him into going to college.
He’d spent more than three years studying engineering when he decided he disliked the subject and wasn’t going to be a good engineer. He mentioned his interest in photography to an academic counselor at the University of Kansas, who sent him to meet with a journalism professor.
At the end of an hour, the professor turned to Gonzalez and asked: “What are you waiting for?”
“I tried it and I realized what it meant. I was enthused by it.”
He got a part-time job at the newspaper in Lawrence, Kan, while at the University of Kansas and went full time after graduation.
He said it was like being the town doctor. “I knew everyone and everyone knew me. That grew on me. I’ve always been curious about people,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve always loved talking to people about what they did.”
He joined the Free Press in 1990 as a sports photographer and retired in December. He covered every sport — professional, college and high school. Baseball was his favorite.
Shooting sports was a challenge, he said.
“I’ve always felt very proud of being a newspaper person for 30-some years.”
Huschka said Gonzalez is “one of the world’s greatest sports photographers. You always knew Julian would come back with the Moment from the Big Game. He created indelible images that are forever connected to the sports lore of this city.”
This article reprinted from the Detroit Free Press. For information about the Hall of Fame Banquet, visit here.
ROCHELLE RILEY is a writer whose essays here are about her personal adventures. No reprints without permission. You can read her columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley for updates on the #FlintWaterCrisis and the Detroit Public Schools.