BY CZERNE M. REID
On a cold Pittsburgh morning, Nov. 5, 1967, 13-year-old Elaine Ray awoke to the sound of muffled sobbing. Her mother had just been summoned to the nursing home where her father lay dying.
A short time later, Mrs. Stewart, a neighbor, came over with her vacuum cleaner and started on the living room. Thus began a steady flow of attentive neighbors bringing cake, chicken and other goodies. The young girl deduced from all the unusual activity that her father had died, even though no one could bear to tell her.
It was several hours later that her mother called from the nursing home with the "news" -- "Your daddy died this morning."
Exactly 36 years later, Ray, now director of the Stanford News Service, shared that story and others with about 80 people gathered in Memorial Church for the "What Matters to Me and Why" lecture series. "I call it my little 'elephant in the room' story," she said. Twelve-step recovery programs use the elephant metaphor to describe obvious but unpleasant situations that people refuse to acknowledge. As a journalist, what matters to Ray is "shining a light on the big and little elephants in our collective living room" through news coverage of local, national and global issues.
Ray, who has headed the News Service since 2001, joined as a reporter in 1996 and later served as editor of Stanford Report. The campus weekly, which is produced by the News Service, covers a wide range of topics -- from obituaries to Nobel Prize-winning research. Ray said that because the News Service shares the goals and missions of the university, it is often criticized for being a mouthpiece. Others say it is too independent. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, Ray said. "The administration understands that the News Service needs some autonomy in order to be credible."
The news business has always been in some way a part of Ray's life, even though her interest in journalism came after college. Ray's father was a Barbadian immigrant who worked as a typesetter for the Pittsburgh Courier. The Courier led the 1940s campaign for full citizenship rights for black soldiers who fought in World War II and later, along with the Chicago Defender, provided strong support for the civil rights movement. Ray recalled her favorite story about the Courier and the Defender: When regular distribution methods became too dangerous, sleeping-car porters would take the newspapers on the train and drop them off in the black communities along the route.
In the 1960s, when Ray was growing up, black women sooner became teachers and social workers than journalists, she said, but Ray's mother encouraged her daughters to forge a different path. Despite a focus on job security, Ray's family always embraced creativity and culture. As a teenager, Ray was a member of the Pittsburgh Black Theatre Dance Ensemble, which performed African, Caribbean and modern dance. She also took art, drama and music classes. Later at Chatham College, Ray majored in English -- and education, just in case.
She wanted to write poetry and fiction, but financial security concerns led her instead to the Radcliffe publishing program at Harvard University. Through the program she got her first job in the art department of the Houghton Mifflin Co. in Boston, where she hired photographers and calligraphers to write the answers in teachers' textbook editions.
After two years, Ray needed more of a challenge. "I still wanted to work with words," she said. But without adequate work experience she could not move into the editorial field. That was when she decided to go to journalism school. She attended Kent State University in Ohio, where only 10 years earlier students were killed during protests against the Vietnam War.
After graduate school Ray worked in the textbook division of Macmillan Publishing Co. in New York. She later landed a job at Essence magazine. "It was one of the first magazines that really focused on black women," she said. Previously, no magazines existed to celebrate the beauty of black women or focus on the right shades of makeup and pantyhose for them, she explained. In her six-and-a-half years at Essence, Ray rose from careers editor to executive editor. "I loved Essence," Ray said. "It was a great place to work."
After Essence, Ray worked as a copy editor at the Boston Globe's Sunday magazine before becoming an editorial writer there, helping to shape the paper's editorial policies on issues such as apartheid in South Africa, Haitian refugees, domestic violence, public education and civil rights.
Ray's editorials had local and national impact. She found out that they had international impact, too, when, on assignment in Haiti, her meeting with then-Prime Minister Jean-Jacques Honorat was abruptly terminated after he found out that she worked for the Globe. "Your newspaper prints lies about us," he said. "Even at a distance the call for justice can be heard for miles away," Ray said.
In 1995, Ray won a Knight Journalism Fellowship to Stanford. After her studies she returned to the Globe briefly, then came back to the Farm to work at the News Service. As a Knight Fellow, she studied with historian Clay Carson, director of the King Papers Project. "I remember when she was in my class; she was the ideal student, very interested in the subject matter. I was overjoyed to hear that she was going to stay at the university and continue her work here," said Carson, who attended Ray's talk.
What really matters
Ray has a 13-year-old daughter of her own who, she said, would not only point out an elephant in the living room but also take her mother to task for ignoring it. Over the years Ray has had to balance parenthood with a profession in which she is often required to leave the dinner table to answer questions from reporters around the world. When her daughter was younger, Ray would sometimes take her to the office when she had to respond to media requests at odd hours. On the morning of her talk, her daughter was sick with the flu. On days like this, when both work and home seem demanding, Ray said, "What really matters to me is getting through the day."
Ray's spirituality helps her through the day. "To have a fulfilling spiritual life is important to me," she said. Ideally she would like to find a church that is "large enough to be activist and politically influential, but small and intimate enough to minister to people's personal needs."
Writer Anne Lamott tells a story in which she is busy looking at herself in the mirror and asks her friend, "Do you think this dress makes my butt look too big?" The friend -- who was dying of cancer -- said, "Anne, you don't have that kind of time."
Ray agrees. In the final analysis, she said, "It really is about how you spend your time."
Czerne M. Reid is a News Service intern.
Stanford Report, November 12, 2003