Past Pulitzer Winners Describe What It Meant to Them

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By: Dave Astor

What do columnists and cartoonists remember most about winning a Pulitzer Prize? How much impact did the Pulitzer have on their lives and careers? Here are some answers as other writers and artists enjoy the prestigious award they received last week.

The Plain Dealer of Cleveland columnist Connie Schultz recalls standing in front of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library to get her photo taken with other 2005 winners. “Some were complaining about the heat,” she says. “That was so funny, and so typical of some journalists! Anyone would have traded places with us that day.”

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. remembers going to Harlem’s famed Sylvia’s restaurant after the 2004 Pulitzer ceremony to celebrate with family members, who asked the eatery to add Pitts’ picture to the gallery of notables on the walls. While “very appreciative” of the Pulitzer, Pitts didn’t want his family to draw attention to it. “The restaurant didn’t take my photo,” says Pitts, still sounding relieved nearly four years later.

What Washington Post columnist David Broder recalls most about his 1973 commentary Pulitzer was “the happy experience of hearing from everybody I had known in my life. That was in the snail-mail days, and I was answering mail for a very long time.”

Ben Sargent of the Austin American-Statesman says his 1982 editorial cartooning Pulitzer gave his then-publisher, Jim Fain, an amazing trifecta: According to Sargent, Fain had worked at the now-defunct Miami News when Don Wright won the 1980 cartooning Pulitzer, and at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News when Mike Peters won the 1981 cartooning Pulitzer.

Peters’ strongest Pulitzer memory was attending the awards’ 75th anniversary event. “The master of ceremonies was Russell Baker,” recalls the King Features Syndicate cartoonist. “The room was filled with nothing but Pulitzer winners — old, young, men, women. Baker started by saying, ‘I don’t know most of you people. I haven’t had the pleasure to meet you personally. But I do know the first line of your obituary.'”

Several other creators also mentioned the obit factor. “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau of Universal Press Syndicate tells E&P that his 1975 cartooning Pulitzer “didn’t change a thing” in his life and career “other than the lede on my obit — I presume. Not that I’m ungrateful!”

Sargent says he assumes that “Pulitzer Prize-winner Ben Sargent” will be the first five words of his obit. The Universal-syndicated artist also had the pre-obit perk of getting into a magazine many cartoonists love: Mad recently invited him and nine other Pulitzer winners to illustrate a “Why George W. Bush is in Favor of Global Warming” parody. “It was quite an honor, and I couldn’t have done it without the Pulitzer,” Sargent says with a laugh.

Philadelphia Daily News editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, who received the Pulitzer 10 years after Sargent did, quips that the prize “helped get me syndication, but it won’t get me into heaven. So, short term, it’s great; long term, inconsequential.”

Soon after winning the Pulitzer in 1992, Wilkinson signed with the Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate. She later moved to the Washington Post Writers Group.

Broder of WPWG says his Pulitzer immediately led to more invitations to speak at colleges: “I’ve enjoyed doing that, and still try to fit it in when I can.”

Pitts is not sure his Pulitzer brought him many more speaking offers. “Maybe I haven?t exploited it enough,” he laughs. Indeed, the Pulitzer mention on his resume isn’t in bigger type than the mentions of many other awards he’s won: “It’s not my nature to walk around with a sandwich board saying ‘I’m a Pulitzer Prize winner.'”

The award does give a winner more status in the eyes of journalists, readers, and others. “It has an impact on the way you’re perceived,” says Pitts. “Immediate credibility comes with it.”

But some readers aren’t impressed. “I’ve received negative mail sarcastically saying, ‘Far be it for me to argue with a Pulitzer winner,'” adds Pitts, who’s syndicated by Tribune Media Services.

In some cases, a Pulitzer brings syndicated creators more newspaper clients — and maybe even a pay hike from their home daily. “They gave me a nice raise,” recalls Sargent, who joined the American-Statesman eight years before winning his 1982 Pulitzer.

But the Pulitzer meant a lot more than money to Sargent. “It’s kind of humbling to see your name added to a list of people you’ve admired so much,” he adds.

Peters says “winning the Pulitzer was amazing,” but he tries to keep it in perspective: “The best thing it did for me was take any angst and jealousy out of the Pulitzer announcements — which is a huge thing.”

Why huge? The cartoonist explains that during the early part of his career, he knew a number of great cartoonists who never won a Pulitzer. “I saw one being critical about his work, always joking about never winning the big one,” Peters recalls. “Eventually, he started believing what he was saying and the quality of his work went down.”

That taught Peters never to use an award as a career goal: “I can’t control if a group of editors in New York happened to like some cartoon I did. But I can control if the cartoon was the best I could do.”

Ann Telnaes, who won the editorial cartooning prize in 2001, adds, “Winning a Pulitzer might affect how other people view you and your work, but it hasn’t affected my creative process” — which now includes animation in addition to her print work.

Telnaes, of the New York Times Syndicate-marketed CartoonArts International, says “becoming an editorial cartoonist for the awards is setting yourself up for great disappointment.”

She recalls once hearing Woody Allen remark on National Public Radio: “Don’t believe them when they tell you you’re great. Don’t worry if they tell you you’re no good. Don’t get caught up with awards. Just shut up and make your movies.” That, says Telnaes, “works for me.”

It also helps to have a sense of humor. Pitts jokes that when he has a tough time writing a particular column, “I go over to the Pulitzer trophy case and say, ‘I was really good once!'”
He adds that some Pulitzer winners “have a tendency to rest on their laurels and take their foot off the accelerator. I try to do the opposite.”

Indeed, several creators note that there’s post-prize pressure to keep doing Pulitzer-worthy work — though Schultz says few people would be too sympathetic if a Pulitzer winner complained about such pressure.

She says winning the Pulitzer had an enormous impact on her career: “Without it, I’d still be slamming out two columns a week and people would be asking ‘Connie who?’ I feel incredibly fortunate.”

The Plain Dealer staffer’s 2005 prize led to a book deal with Random House, a distribution deal with Creators Syndicate, and invitations to appear on national TV shows — invitations not often extended to columnists who work at regional newspapers.

But Schultz is careful not to overdo the fame thing. “It can kill the writing,” she says. “You end up squeezing your column into a busy celebrity life.”

The Pulitzer also helps Schultz get more calls returned when working on columns. “People Google me and call right back,” she says. “They often mention the Pulitzer.”

But as life-changing as the award was for Schultz, there are some things the prize can’t provide her or any other journalist. “It doesn’t tell me it loves me,” she says wryly. “And it doesn’t hug me at night.”

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