By: Joe Strupp
Emily Shroder was a Virginia high school student with no journalistic aspirations or newspaper experience when she became a key element of one of The Washington Post’s most talked-about stories of 2007, which would go on to win a 2008 Pulitzer Prize.
Gene Weingarten’s feature in The Washington Post Magazine about acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell’s experience playing before commuters inside a D.C. subway station focused on the busy lives of rush hour travelers and how many declined to stop and hear Bell, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso and Grammy winner. Bell, 39, played for the passing commuters posing as just another street musician. Shroder, the daughter of Post Magazine editor Tom Shroder and a violin player herself, was one of several contributors who spent a January 2007 morning scurrying around the L’Enfant Plaza Metro stop asking strangers for their contact information so Weingarten could later interview them by phone.
Shroder, then 18 and a student at Madison High School in Vienna, Va., joined her father and freelance writer Rachel Manteuffe in the project, eventually gathering nearly 40 key names and numbers, more than the other two combined. “I was concerned that Emily would be too young to do that, but she wound up being the best of them,” says Weingarten, who won his first Pulitzer with the story. “I think people were less threatened by a woman. She also found people who were the most interesting.”
Shroder, now a freshman government major at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., also allowed Bell to borrow her violin case to help hide his true identity, although he still used his $3 million vintage Stradivarius. In exchange, Bell gave her the $37 in pocket change he collected from those passersby who stopped to tip him; it was the only payment she received for her work.
Tom Shroder was not surprised that his daughter would do so well and thought of her as a natural for the one-day assignment, despite her lack of journalistic experience. “I knew that she was the most organized, efficient person I have ever come across,” he says. “She, by far, had the best notes.” For her efforts, she earned a credit at the end of the Weingarten opus.
Among Emily’s finds that day was a man who walked past Bell while tuned in to his iPod. Contacted later by Weingarten, it turned out he was listening to The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” a song about failing to notice beauty right before your eyes.