On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 11, the 2003 Wells Memorial Key winner shifted slightly from foot to foot in front of the SPJ board of directors.
She was asking the board to recommend adding SPJ’s mission for diversity to the preamble of the Society’s bylaws. The change will happen at next year’s convention, President-elect Irwin Gratz said.
As chairwoman of the diversity committee, Sally Lehrman was performing business as usual.
Lehrman received the Society’s Wells Key this year primarily for her work promoting diversity in journalism, according to SPJ Immediate Past President Robert Leger.
“She has done more than any individual in my time operating as a national officer to raise the profile of SPJ in matters of diversity,” Leger said.
Lehrman spearheaded development of the Rainbow Sourcebook on diversity, as well as SPJ’s Diversity Toolbox. These resources are designed to help journalists increase diversity in their sourcing and newsrooms. Both are available at www.spj.org.
Lehrman has “been the diversity committee” at times during her seven years as chairwoman, Gratz said.
“I admire her deeply,” said Gratz, who took his position as president-elect at the President’s Installation banquet on Sept. 13 at the conclusion of the SPJ National Convention. “As president, it’s important to know you have a core of people under you who know what they’re doing. Sally is part of that core.”
Lehrman’s attitude during her work has made her even more valuable, SPJ officers said.
“I can’t leave a conversation with Sally without feeling better,” Leger said. “She makes you feel so important, like she can’t do things without you. She convinces you that you have a key contribution to make to the success of the effort.”
Lehrman is a freelance writer near San Francisco. Most people become less involved with SPJ when they become freelancers, Leger said. Lehrman stepped up her efforts.
“Anybody who gets this award has pretty much dedicated their life 24-7 to SPJ,” said SPJ President Gordon “Mac” McKerral.
But Lehrman almost didn’t make it to her own award presentation. She had planned to dine with friends outside the convention hotel.
SPJ officers charged previous Wells Key winner Peter Sussman, who is a member of Lehrman’s chapter, with trying to get her to the banquet.
Sussman found out with whom Lehrman planned to eat and contacted those people. He also contacted her husband, Tom, who was unable to fly to Tampa from San Francisco.
Sussman, who received the award in 1999, said Lehrman deserved the honor.
“I’ve never seen a more qualified candidate,” Sussman said. “I include myself in that. … She not only put diversity on the radar screen, but went out and fought the war. She is astonishing.”
Lehrman is also consistently thoughtful, said Julie Grimes, who received the award last year. She brought chocolate suckers to the SPJ convention headquarters room.
“This is a prime example of what she does,” Grimes said. “She thinks about people behind the scenes.”
Her supporters said Lehrman has worked tirelessly to make key contributions to the mission and successes of SPJ.
“No one in my experience has ever done the work she has, and done it with such enthusiasm, dedication and with such cheer, and with money out of her own pocket,” Leger said. “She believes in it. Her belief in it is what makes it happen.”
Blythe Terrell is a student journalist who worked on The Working Press, the daily newspaper covering the SPJ Convention. She attends the University of Missouri-Columbia.