A Coal Miner’s Granddaughter | Paula Cruickshank

“Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace;
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go;
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;
But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.”

It was the post-Watergate era when just about every freshly-minted journalism graduate wanted to be an investigative reporter following in the footsteps of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I was no exception.

So when I landed my job interview at a legal publication in Washington, D.C., in February 1977, I knew the competition would be tough. After all, reporting and editing jobs were almost impossible to get in a town where writers were only outnumbered by lawyers and lobbyists.

Nonetheless, a personnel agency I had worked with in the past contacted me about an editorial opening at a well-respected publisher of topical law reports. The job did not require investigative reporting, but at least it would give me a foot in the door.
And so a few days later, dressed in my best suit – a green corduroy jacket and skirt that my mother had made me – and armed with my portfolio of college newspaper clippings,

I arrived at the hallowed legal publication.

As I entered the lobby, a middle-aged receptionist with thick-framed glasses and mid-length, gray wavy hair looked up at me.

“May I help you?” she inquired.

Mustering my best professional voice in hopes it would hide my low-level anxiety, I replied: “My name is Paula Lazor. I have a 10 o’clock appointment to see Mr. McNelis.”
She smiled with her lips pursed in such a way that I couldn’t tell if she approved of me or had eaten something for breakfast that didn’t quite agree with her stomach. “I will let him know you are here,” she said with a high-pitched voice that gave me goose bumps.
I glanced at the plaque on her desk. It read “Mildred Darling.” I stifled a nervous laugh.
As Miss Darling pressed the button on her intercom, I looked around the office, with its fluorescent overhead lights and blue-tinted windows overlooking the District Building on Pennsylvania Avenue.

There appeared to be about a 20 people, all seated at their black metal desks, most of them hunched over their charcoal gray standard typewriters. A few of them were talking on the phone and taking notes.

The desks were arranged in clusters of four. In one group, there were four young women. The two facing my direction had on cardigan sweaters. The two with their backs toward me wore dark skirts just below the knees and practical-looking leather pumps.
I glanced back at Miss Darling. She wore a no-nonsense white blouse, gray knit sweater, and black wool skirt. I began to wonder if there was a well-enforced dress code.
Most of the other reporters were men. They, too, were uniformly dressed in white shirts and dark pants. The older men wore jackets. I guessed they were the managers.

“A Miss Lazor is here to see you,” Miss Darling spoke into her little beige box.

“Send her in.”

The voice sounded friendly enough. The knot in my stomach loosened by at least a quarter-inch.

Miss Darling quickly got up from her perch, opened the door to her boss’s office, and ushered me in. Mr. McNelis looked up from what clearly was my application on his neatly organized desk. He had a photo of his family prominently displayed on the table behind him. He stood up and extended his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Lazor,” he said with a slight trace of a Southern accent. Mr. McNelis, who was vice president of the company’s Washington, D.C. branch, looked to be about 5’11 and in his early 50s. He wore a light gray suit that just about matched the color of his hair.

“Please, have a seat,” he said, extending his hand to the chair in front of him. I sat down with my portfolio and resume on my lap. Then I waited.

He looked down at my job application.

“I see here that you went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Where is that?” he asked.

“It’s in western Pennsylvania about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh,” I explained.

Well, that was easy, I thought, a bit relieved that I had answered the first question with flying colors.

He looked down at my application, then looked up at me with a puzzled expression.“It says here you worked at a place called Futures Network. I never heard of that.”

“It’s a radio and TV production company that specializes in selling news about the future,” I said. I could tell that this explanation further confused him.

I tried again. “It focuses on positive news stories about the future, like breakthroughs in medicine and science.” I added, “Unfortunately, it just went out of business.”

“Well, no wonder. You can’t make any money selling good news,” Mr. McNelis said in a somewhat baffled voice that almost sounded irritated with me for working at a place that apparently had no common sense.

Futures Network had folded only a few weeks before, leaving me and several co-workers without jobs in the dead of winter. The defunct company had been my first employer after completing a journalism internship in DC my last semester in college. I began the job in September 1976 – starting as a receptionist but aspiring to work my way up the ladder to a newswriting position – that is, until the ceiling literally caved in.

A mid-January ice storm caused a pipe to burst in the office. Pigeons that had been roosting in the rafters for several years found a new home for their bird droppings. The pigeon dung splattered on desks, filing cabinets, and the linoleum floor of the studio.
The clean-up efforts were not successful. My company, which apparently had been in dire financial straits for quite some time, gave two weeks’ notice to my-co-workers and me to clear our disease-ridden desk tops and go home. It was not exactly my idea of a promising career move.

Then a call came from out of the blue, a phone call I wouldn’t have received if I had been working at the office. It was Betty Moore from Key personnel agency. I had used the firm in my job search several months earlier. I made sure to research as many sites as possible to ensure I get the best job search sites on my team.

Because of my bad luck with entry-level head hunters, I was determined to strike out on my own. So I was somewhat wary when Moore reached me at my apartment.
To avoid an onslaught of resumes, she said she had gone through her back files and remembered mine. She said it had stood out from the others.

That was exactly as I had intended.

At the suggestion of a career counselor at my college in Pennsylvania, I had designed my resume as a tri-fold brochure. My adviser told me that unless I had connections with a prospective employer, I had to do something different or my resume would end up at the bottom of the heap.

So when you opened up my brochure, the first thing you saw was a black-and-white photograph of me. I was dressed in my best interview suit, holding a clipboard and looking directly at the camera as if I were just about to ask you a question.

The idea was to look serious, but non-threatening. After all, it was the 70s. Affirmative action had only recently become law of the land requiring private employers to meet specific numerical goals for hiring women. It was quite a balancing act, but I made sure the photograph I used not only conveyed my professionalism but also accentuated my almond-shaped green eyes and high cheek bones.

In hopes that would be accomplished, I then counted on the job screener to read the caption below the picture. I had carefully chosen a quote from a well-known nursery rhyme:

“Saturday’s child works hard for its living.”

Two spaces beneath the quote, centered and in bold-faced letters, I wrote:
Paula Lazor
Born: Saturday, July 31, 1954

I knew the day of the week I was born by finding it on a Perpetual Calendar. Also known as a forever calendar, it is designed so that you can determine the day of the week that a specific date is in a specific year. The fact that I even knew how to track down this information, I thought, would show I was an enterprising journalist.
I was hanging on that hope as I awaited Mr. McNelis’ next question.

“So what do you have on your lap?” he asked, as he looked over at my scrapbook of news clippings.

They’re stories that I wrote for my college newspaper,” I replied. I stood up to hand him the portfolio as well as my brochure. I had placed the stories in the order that our university newspaper, The Indiana Penn, had published them.

Mr. McNelis sat down and began leafing through the pages of my portfolio. I waited expectantly. About half way through, he stopped in his tracks. For a second, I thought he looked offended, even angry.

“So, I see you are an expert on birth control.” he said.

I wasn’t sure if that was a question or a statement.

Quick. Think fast. What article is he talking about?

Then it came to me. About half way through my last year at school, I had co-authored an article entitled “The Pros and Cons of The Pill.” Another Penn staffer and I had gone to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Indiana and talked to the director about their reproductive health services.

For an instant, I felt like a large ocean wave had washed over me and I was teetering, ready to fall down in the shallow, salty water – flat on my ass.

Then I inexplicably recovered my balance. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I remembered some of the dos and don’ts for job hunting.

Career Tip #1 – An interview is not a debate.

Looking him calmly in the eyes, I said, “I wrote that article with another reporter from the college paper. We wrote about the services offered at a local health clinic. We focused on contraceptives. I wrote about the possible side effects that could be harmful to your health, like say – a stroke.”

I held my breath and looked at his reaction.

He appeared to be satisfied with my answer — at least satisfied enough not to peg me as a promiscuous coed with a year’s supply of birth control pills hidden in my dorm room.
Mr. McNelis pushed my portfolio aside.

“When I talked to Miss Moore about you from the agency, I wanted to make sure you were a journalist. I shy away from English majors. Their paragraphs are too long.”

Phew. That was a close call.

He continued.

“ We’ve had to hire more women here to meet the quota. But, you know, they are really good at doing, detailed, repetitive work. Much better than a man.”

OH, my GAWD. Don’t say anything!! You need to pay the rent!!!

I sat there. Poker-faced. Praying he might continue without expecting me to respond.

Thankfully he went on.

“I know one woman here who has done the same job for eight years and she loves it. When I hired a man to do the same thing, within six months he said he was bored because he wasn’t learning anything new.”

I held my tongue and counted to ten.

“Take tax court petitions,” he said, his voice growing animated as he further explained how it takes great patience to read through tax court documents and summarize them.
He then shook his head in wonderment at the ability of women to read such sleep-inducing documents with a fine tooth comb and somehow find the mental wherewithal to write abstracts about them.

I held my tongue and counted to fifty.

It suddenly dawned on me. Mr. McNelis was testing me. He was deliberately saying things to see if I was some bra-burning feminist, probably one with a framed photograph of Betty Friedan on my night table next to a signed copy of “The Feminine Mystique.”
Well, two can play this mind game. I need a job and this job sounds like it could be interesting. Why should I let a curmudgeonly old man keep me from getting a job that I’m qualified for? I won’t be working for him directly. He is only interviewing me.

I noticed with his last observation about women that he seemed to be softening a little around the edges. In fact, in a backhanded sort of way, I suspected Mr. McNelis might even be paying his female employees a compliment. He glanced over with a look of admiration that I could be a member of the gender which thrived in a monotonous work environment.

I relaxed for a moment, waiting for his next enlightened observation about the status of women in the workplace.

Instead, he switched topics.

“You know, if you work hard around here, you can move up in this company.”

I looked at him expectantly.

Now this sounds promising. Why would he bother to tell me this unless he was still interested in me for the job?

Then again, maybe it was my cheek bones.

“You know I started here some 30 years ago. In the mail room, but I worked my way up to where I am now.”

I could see how much this meant to him. Having come from a working class family and being first in my family to go to college, I understood that sense of pride.

Mr. McNelis seemed lost in thought. Then he looked at me again wistfully. “Imagine that. Me. The son of a coal miner from West Virginia.” His voice trailed off.

Career Tip #2 – Find something in common with your interviewer. You can be the most qualified candidate in the world, but that probably won’t get you the job if the interview doesn’t click.

The son of a coal miner.

His last words echoed in my mind.

Click.

“You know Mr. McNelis,” I said. “My grandfather was a coal miner in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, near Uniontown.”

Mr. McNelis looked up from his reverie. His face brightened. His demeanor suddenly changed.

“So, you’re grandpa was a coal miner!” he said, quite pleased with my revelation. His blue eyes sparkled.

Looking back on that interview now more than 35 years later, I can’t help but smile. I don’t remember the rest of the session. We must have exchanged a few more pleasantries. I vaguely remember he gave me a quick tour of the office without introducing me to anyone. Then the West Virginian son of a coal miner saw me to the elevator door.

I remember going home. I remember thinking that the interview seemed to go okay.

Now it was just a matter of waiting to hear from the personnel agency.

I didn’t have to wait very long.

To my surprise, the Key Personnel agent told me the news the next day. “You won’t believe this, but you got the job. Mr. McNelis said he wasn’t interested in seeing anyone else.”

I was stunned. All I had to do was return to the personnel agency and sign a few papers.

I started work on February 28, 1977. My first job was a pilot project – an in-house news service. My job was to edit all the stories by other reporters in the office. The project was tabled in early January 1978. Although the company liked my work, the bean counters decided it would be too expensive to do. I was reassigned to cover the Labor Department, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

About eight months later, the office manager, a kindly older gentleman named Mr. Tisdale, quietly asked me to meet him at his desk, which looked over the news room and was within earshot of several reporters on the staff.

He lowered his voice.

“Miss Lazor. We recently were given accreditation for a reporter at the White House. Mr. McNelis would like you to be our White House correspondent.”

It was September 1978. Not quite two years had passed since Mr. McNelis first confessed to me he had hired women because a federal law required him.

Mr. McNelis never explained to my why of all the reporters in the office – and the majority of them were male – he chose me. He did tell me that he liked how hard I was working and that he thought I would do a good job.

So even when Mr. McNelis called me “Our man at the White House,” I’d simply bite my tongue and count to 60.

Over the years, I grew fond of Mr. McNelis. On days when I wasn’t working at the White House, I would come by the office and sometimes see him talking on the phone behind his big mahogany desk. Occasionally, I would be called into his office to talk about the stories I was writing. There were times when we even talked politics. And even though we often stood on opposite sides of the political fence, the conversations were always cordial.

After our friendly chats, I would often find myself musing how similar we were in our upbringing. We both worked our way through college, and although my father never worked in the mines of western PA, he labored as a sheet metal operator for long hours at a factory. And while we both always had food on the table, I’m sure his parents – like mine – struggled to pay the bills on time.

Yes. There is a part of me that believes Mr. McNelis chose me to move up the company ranks because of my hard work and persistence as a reporter. But there is another voice inside my head that laughs at such a notion.

It’s then that I think back on that interview in the dead of winter. I remember how Mr. McNelis brightened when I told him that we shared the same family roots. So, of course, that is why – even if there hadn’t been a hiring quota – he would have hired me. After all, I am a coal miner’s granddaughter.

Paula Cruickshank, a former White House correspondent, covered domestic policy issues during six Administrations beginning with President Jimmy Carter. She is currently a graduate student (MA in Writing) at Johns Hopkins University. When she is not sidetracked by numerous personal interests, Paula spends her time writing a book on the five-year journey to find the right alternative education program for her son.  

 

11 comments

  1. Joan Brown

    Paula, I love it! Not only well written but engaging and witty. Can’t wait to start reading all the books that you will probably write.

  2. Bev Sancic

    Paula, loved your article and am sure I would purchase any book that you will soon write and have publishied. Great Job, cuz.

  3. Lynne Metz Schwartz

    Hey, Cuz… Since I’m not a writer, I’ll ditto the three previous comments. For some reason, I woke up in the wee hours just now and came downstairs… decided to check facebook and found your engaging story. It mysteriously drew me towards it….I look forward to reading your book.

  4. Ron Miksha

    This is a wonderful article – an engaging story. You are such a talented writer. I hope you consider crafting a memoir describing all thirty years you spent covering the White House – from Carter to Obama. I would certainly want that book. And any others you decide to produce. Keep writing. You have fans.

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