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The Hospitality of Writing | October 25, 2012

(L-R) Dr. Tim Fulop, Sr. VP for Academic Affairs, Cindy Skrzycki, David Shribman, and President Tom Foley.

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October 25, 2012 | The Hospitality of Writing

Introductory Remarks Thomas P. Foley, President Mount Aloysius College October 25, 2012

Best-selling author Thomas Freidman tells us that we live in an increasingly “flat” world where the technologies of texting and other 24/7 communication formats make “Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda next-door neighbors.” I happen to think we also live in an increasingly “divided” world, geographically, culturally, technologically, in terms of wealth and scarce resources, war and peace, education and illiteracy. We seem more often these days to incline to extremes rather than to common ground, let alone to what

“...In a world so driven by... 24/7 change... we start to lose our place in the world, in our own world—in our haven, our sanctuary, our personal or safe place, our home...” Thomas P. Foley

Martin Luther King described as a “single garment of destiny.” Words like “compromise” and “globalization” and even “diversity” are mostly now loaded terms with pejorative meanings. And so last year, we focused our speaker series on “Civil Discourse”— the idea that how we communicate in person, in public and on the internet should at all times be responsive and respectful, without compromising our beliefs or the passion behind them. We brought 11 speakers to campus, sponsored 15 events around the theme—in the classroom, in our

lecture series and even in the dormitory. And Mt Aloysius received national recognition for our emphatic approach to the topic. This year, we come at the same problem—Freidman’s “flat” world and my “divided’ one— from a slightly different angle. In the midst of all that diversity of opinion—the “divided world” that I referred to—there is one constant. And that constant is change—maybe the only constant in your young lives. The danger in a world so driven by change—24/7 driven—is that the sheer pace of that change—and sometimes the sheer non-sense and unfathom-

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“...In an age when young people are encouraged by their modes of communication to use fewer words in more and more impersonal ways... we do not want to lose sight of the essential gallantry that is inherent in good writing.” Thomas P. Foley

ability of some of it—means we start to lose our place in the world, in our own world—in our haven, our sanctuary, our personal or safe place, our home—as we try to deal with these 24/7 “inputs.” This 24/7 pace means that you are bombarded every time you open your laptop or turn on the TV. This 24/7 pace means that you can get overwhelmed with what Dean of Faculty Dr. Fulop referred to as the “look and lifestyles of the Kardashians” to the exclusion of what he called, in his Convocation remarks, a “liberated mind.” This 24/7 pace means that in keeping up with all that information, all the political, fashion, and lifestyle exhortations that are directed at you (and at you personally with the technology that is now

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available to internet marketeers), the sheer effort of keeping up can cause you to lose your own place in the world, in your world. And so this year, we focus our attention on a theme that responds, we hope, to all that constant change—“Finding Home in a Changing World,” which we symbolize with one word from among the four Mercy core values and that word is “Hospitality.” We have addressed the theme a number of times already this year—and the back of your program lists some of those efforts. Today, we embrace this theme of hospitality—“Finding Home in a Changing World”—with this Fall Honors Lecture on “The Hospitality of

Writing,” delivered by two outstanding practitioners of the art.” When I asked them to come, I wrote these words to them: “The idea here is that in an age when young people are encouraged by their modes of communication to use fewer and fewer words in more and more impersonal ways to communicate with each other, we do not want to lose sight of the essential gallantry that is inherent in good writing. We would like to host a lecture on the “hospitality” of writing, on how good writing can open up new worlds of ideas, of geography, of feelings.” We are grateful that this husband and wife—32 years married— accepted our invitation. We believe that Pulitzer Prize-winner David Shribman and Professor Cindy Skrzycki are almost uniquely qualified as a couple to speak to this topic— David because of your editorial writing work at the Post-Gazette and your superb handling of the Sunday editorial page in general (among many other responsibilities at the paper); and Cindy

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because of your role as a teacher of writing at a major university (one who has just won an award in her profession from her students and colleagues). Thank you for coming to Mt Aloysius College. §

The Hospitality of Writing David Shribman Mount Aloysius College October 25, 2012

The academic world and the press have always had a symbiotic relationship. I said symbiotic, I didn’t say respectful. In 1890, Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard, dismissed reporters as “drunkards, deadbeats and bummers.” So you drunkards, deadbeats and bummers of the school paper and the literary magazine, I greet and salute you on this marvelous occasion. I salute you the way my favorite author, Samuel Johnson would have done. In The Idler, which was a somewhat better newspaper than The Post-Gazette or The Belltower, he wrote in 1758…

“A newswriter is a man without virtue, who writes lies at home for his own profit. To these compositions is required neither genius nor knowledge, neither industry nor sprightliness; but contempt of shame and indifference to truth are absolutely necessary.”

So that is the theme of my talk tonight — genius and knowledge, industry and truth, hospitality and writing. Someone, — H.L. Mencken, it turns out—once said that journalism was “a craft to be mastered in four days, and abandoned at the first sign of a better job.” It has taken me more than 30 years, and I’ve yet to get a better job. But then again, Mencken thought the average American newspaper, especially of the so-called better sort — and maybe he had a paper that describes itself as “One of America’s Great Newspapers” in mind— “has the intelligence of a Baptist evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a Prohibitionist boob-bumper, the information of a high school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer.” Right about that. In any case, this isn’t a bad way to earn a living, and in typing these remarks I discovered that the words earn and learn are separated by one letter, which is a happy thing for people like us. Now, as you know, our topic today is hospitality and writing, which ordinarily might seem two concepts that have nothing to do with each other. Hospitality, after all, is a social noun, and it involves social practice. Writing is a solitary act that in its purest form is a practice of independence. Only in newsmagazines and in calculus textbooks do you see much in the way of collaboration in writing, and you can hardly call either of them writing, or acts of hospitality.

But these words are not contradictory, and in the course of some minutes today, I aim to argue that they are in fact complementary. This may take a few moments, and it will require some mental gymnastics, but the exercise is worth the doing. Let’s start, as we should here in a community of faith — a Catholic college tucked in these pleasant hills — with some remarks from the Catholic author and priest Henri J.M. Nouwen, whose works influenced me as a young man. He had a lot of interesting — incendiary — provocative — ideas about spirituality, and he has a very intriguing definition of hospitality. “Hospitality,” he wrote, “means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” So let’s examine that a bit. Good writing does exactly what Father Henri says it does. It creates free space where strangers can enter. It offers them a chance to change. It does not bludgeon, H.L. Mencken excepted. It welcomes. It offers the ultimate kind of freedom: the freedom to be moved by words, the freedom to think about words, the freedom to let words change our minds. What about this seeming incompatibility between social hospitality and solitary writing?

“Hospitality... means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” J.M. Nouwen

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The Hospitality of Writing | October 25, 2012

Lost, in which God’s ways are explained to man. Macbeth. The Rights of Man. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Das Kapital. Herbert Croly’s The Promise of American Life, written about a century ago. Mein Kampf, written in 1925 and affects us to this day. The General Theory of Economics by John Maynard Keynes. Profiles in Courage by Senator John F. Kennedy.

I never thought of this very much until I was a young reporter and was given a wonderful assignment in 1981 to interview a fellow named William Manchester who wrote several wonderful books: a two-volume biography of Winston Churchill, a wonderful biography of McArthur, and the greatest book, even today, about the terrible events and sadness of November 1963 — the death of the President. We were talking in the lobby of a hotel in Washington. I asked him about a particularly vivid and personal piece of his writing in his book. The book was his memoir as a Marine. And he said, “David, I wrote that book sitting alone in a room with the intention that it might be read by someone like you… sitting alone in a room.” It’s that communion between a man and a woman sitting alone in a room talking directly over the ages, sometimes over the centuries to someone else sitting alone in a room that’s the very richness of this experience. No form of thought is so deep…so deeply revolutionary as the written word. No act of hospitality is so meaningful. I jotted down just a few examples of the written word that might have the same effect. The Old Testament. Paradise

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Writing is the key that unlocks not only the workplace, but the place of worship. Not only the ways to see the world and ways to earn a living, but a way to enhance the mind and to live your life. For it was Sir Francis Bacon who said, “Reading maketh a full man. Conference, a ready man. And writing, an exact man.” And while I’ve provided a kind of Cook’s tour of great writing, in effect I’ve cited the Harvard Classics in a speech by a Dartmouth man to a college run by a fellow from Yale Law School. B.F. Skinner was right when he put it this way, “We shouldn’t teach great books, we should just teach the love of reading.” Now I want to talk for a moment about the other element mentioned in that remark I quoted by Samuel Johnson. That would be the truth. Because as Father Henri might have said, freedom and truth are brothers. Not too long ago I pulled out of a file the famous cover of Time magazine with a picture of Pope John Paul II and the headline, in red: John Paul, Superstar. It is a third of a century old now, and in its zeal to capture the rock-star appeal of the new pontiff, it seems almost trivial and faintly disrespectful. Perhaps that is because we now know what we could not have known then, that before he would die, John Paul would be credited with ending the scourge of communism and carrying an uplifting and irresistible message of hope, peace, and love to

people beyond his flock and to nations that once were beyond the reach of Catholicism. But if John Paul were swiftly identifiable as a media star, then he also should be recognized as an astute student, and a ferocious defender of freedom, of the truth, and of the hospitality of spiritualism. This is of no trivial importance, particularly in an age of mass communications and nave-to-nave coverage. It is not only because the pontiff understood the uses of the media — the way they could be shaped, harnessed and directed; it is also because the pontiff understood the responsibility of the media — the way they should comport themselves, the way they should use their power, the way they should exert their moral authority. And more than anyone of his time or ours, he understood the power of words. Now it may be appropriate to pause for a moment of reflection on the words and images John Paul used to counsel those who work with words. They are deeply inspirational, and they are deeply sobering. As a very young man — I had lived fewer years than John Paul would serve

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as pope — I was given the greatest reporting assignment of my life, the chance to accompany the pope on his six-day trip to the United States. I mention this not to share an editor’s sentimental memories, but to say that the words he said to those of us who accompanied him have been seared in my memory. I know them almost by heart. They are words to live by, and I can only say that I have tried.

“You are indeed servants of truth; you are its tireless transmitters, diffusers, defenders. You are dedicated communicators, promoting unity among all nations by sharing truth among all peoples.” There is a lot of pompous talk in our culture about the truth, and I always cringe when I hear it and, worse yet, when I talk that way myself. We have no more idea what the truth is than anyone else; we’re not equipped with special powers, either legal or corporeal, and we have the same flaws as our critics, except, almost always, in greater doses. All we can do is to offer a fair

“We ought to be truthful — to ourselves, to our readers, to the people we cover — about our motives, truthful about our methods, truthful about our limits... Being servants of the truth is worthy of our best years, our finest talents, our most dedicated efforts. It is the ultimate act of hospitality.” David Shribman

representation of what we believe the truth is. The key word here is fair, a word not unfamiliar to John Paul himself, for if you distill most of what he said, beautiful though the rhetoric was, what he represented, along with faith, was fairness — another form of hospitality. Fairness is a gentle word, far gentler than the ones used to assail or defend the media, but — again, along with faith and truth — it may be the most powerful word on earth.

“Be faithful to the truth and to its transmission, for truth endures; truth will not go away. Truth will not pass or change.”

means here, along with its spiritual sense, is that truth ought to be applied to the work of being fair. We ought to be truthful — to ourselves, to our readers, to the people we cover — about our motives, truthful about our methods, truthful about our limits. That is because truth is a goal perhaps unattainable. I have read more newspaper stories than almost anyone within eye’s length of this podium. I have never read one that was fully the truth. There are stories in which every statement was true, to be sure. But truth is a question not only of what is included in a piece but also of what is omitted. There is no piece of writing long enough, broad enough, or smart enough that it

Now here’s the pope talking again about truth, but I believe that what he

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does not tempt human frailty by being incomplete, or poorly focused.

“And I say to you — take it as my parting word to you — that in the service of truth, the service of humanity through the medium of the truth — is something worthy of your best years, your finest talents, your most dedicated efforts.” That is the best we can do. We can serve truth. We cannot achieve it. We can enlist fairness in the service of truth. Sometimes that angers our readers, sometimes it angers the people and institutions we cover. But that’s our job. That’s our calling. In these days, we in our small corner of the culture can emulate the last pope in searching for truth, but we probably ought to emulate him in another way as well. We should remember what perhaps is the greatest irony of perhaps the greatest figure of our age: the sheer humility of the man. He never underestimated the size of his mission, but he never made himself greater than that mission. That, too, was an example of spiritual hospitality.

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That’s where many of us who are writers have failed. We think we know the truth when we do not. We have been so sure of the truths that we think we know that we have sometimes forgotten to be fair. We are often not humble.

The Hospitality of Writing

A lot of this was easier to remember when — and it is part of my memory if not of yours — we were but scribblers on a page that soon would turn to dust. The technological revolution has changed all that. But it hasn’t changed the potency of the pope’s words from 1979, the text of which was recorded by a typewriter. Being servants of the truth is worthy of our best years, our finest talents, our most dedicated efforts. It is the ultimate act of hospitality. §

Can I bring a gift?

“...Good writing can welcome you into a world you don’t care about or one that you think you already know—but don’t.” Cindy Skrzycki

Cindy Skrzycki Mount Aloysius College October 25, 2012

Bring nothing but yourself. You’ve heard that before, often when you get an invitation to a nice dinner and you are honored and excited to be asked. Here, the host is honoring you, extending exceptional hospitality by telling you to come and just bring yourself. No flowers, wine or other gifts. Just yourself. That’s how encountering exceptional writing should make you feel. Like it was written for you and you are having a special relationship with the author. Or, conversely, you are doing the writing and, by doing it well, you are giving readers the ultimate invitation: Come with me and read what I have written for you.

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Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but every writer seeks readers and, ultimately, publication. In other words, the very intimate act of writing becomes a very public and welcoming one whether it’s a memoir, an account of a battle by a soldier on the field, a blog post by a new mother in a state of wonderment, or a scientist explaining why we need to understand the importance of the three pounds of bacteria we carry around in our bodies. A poem. Writing is a way of knowing and, when shared, it is a remarkable gift. I now teach writing for a living and spent most of my career putting words on paper for large numbers of people to read them. Through that act, and my voice, they got to know me— what I thought about an issue; how I approached a story; what I was willing to put on paper; what kinds of responses I provoked in them. Any of you who are taking writing classes know that kind of writing— where readers can actually hear you—is called voice. And it’s an important thing to develop because it gives the audience an idea of what kind of welcome you are giving them.

Some writers are exhibitionists; some are word engineers, critics, comedians, intellectuals, seers and revisionists. As we get to know them and their voices, we come to view them as friends, opponents, opportunists, mythical relatives or, even, ourselves. When I select readings for my classes, I look for writers who will open up a part of the world that may have long passed; or one where there is so much pain no one really visits there much anymore; or where the words are so beautiful that students can’t help but fall over the threshold into a subject they never considered reading about. Sports is sometimes one of these. Let me share this passage with you, written by John Updike, about the baseball player Ted Williams:

“Williams is an icy star. But of all team sports, baseball, with its graceful intermittences of action, its immense and tranquil field sparsely settled with poised men in white, its dispassionate mathematics, seems to me, best suited to accommodate, and

be ornamented by, a loner. It is essentially a lonely game.” Or this by Tom Boswell on Sugar Ray Leonard’s bout with Roberto Duran in 1980:

“But boxing never changes. One central truth lies at its heart and it never alters: pain is the most powerful and tangible force in life. The threat of torture, for instance, is stronger than the threat of death. Execution can be faced, but pain is corrosive, like an acid eating at the personality. Pain is a priority. It may even be man’s strongest and most undeniable reality. And that is why the fight game stirs us, even as it repels us.” No matter if you know nothing about boxing and don’t much like baseball. This is writing that takes you into a new room where the writing goes to the essence of humanity, with sports as the avatar. Only good writing can welcome you into a world you don’t care about or one that you think you already know— but don’t. It should leave you surprised.

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Writers think about the process of writing a lot and some have very secretive, stealth ways of approaching the page. Again, it’s a solitary pursuit that takes the discipline and practice of an athlete. But all of it involves thinking and discovering what you think. The magic is that you capture thoughts and arrange them in a way that only happens once. The author Peter Taylor, who wrote The Old Forest and Other Stories, said, “Writing is how you discover what you think.” Take Martha Gellhorn. It wasn’t until she encountered as a young journalist in 1937 a war, a battlefield, and the bloody limbs of small children that she came to know what she thought about war and peace. In a piece called “High Explosive for Everyone,” she wrote:

“A small piece of twisted steel, hot and very sharp, sprays off from the shell; it takes the little boy in the throat. The old woman stands there, holding the hand of the dead child, looking at him stupidly, not saying anything, and men run out toward here to carry the child At their left, at the side of the square, is a huge brilliant sign which says: GET OUT OF MADRID.”

Writing is a way of understanding our flaws, of changing our minds. Of inviting others to change our minds for us. Of allowing us to identify with the worst and best of mankind. One of the periods in our history where writing became essential to understanding ourselves was the Civil Rights era. Though television is credited with capturing the hatred of Bull Connor, the sour racism of the Birmingham bombers, and the stubbornness of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, some of the most stark portrayals of racism came from reporters who witnessed the hiss of the crowd when, in 1957, the Little Rock Nine tried to integrate the city’s public high school. Or when they were at the Pettus Bridge in Alabama when Roy Reed of the New York Times used his pen as a camera to capture this:

“The next sound was the major’s voice. “Troopers advance,” he commanded. The troopers rushed forward, their blue uniforms and white helmets blurring into a flying wedge as they moved. The wedge moved with such force that it seemed to pass over the waiting

column instead of through it. The first 10 or 20 Negroes were swept to the ground screaming, arms and legs flying, and packs and bags went skittering across the grassy divider strip and onto the pavement on both sides. The mounted possemen spurred their horses and rode at a run into the retreating mass. The Negroes cried out as they crowded together for protection, and the whites on the sidelines whooped and cheered.” Or the 1960s, when writers like Joan Didion took readers to San Francisco to get a sense of the confused runaways who went to Haight Street “where missing children were gathering and calling themselves hippies.” As America struggled with deep fissures in its social order, Didion wrote this unforgettable opening to her story, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”:

“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967....” And I cannot leave out Theodore White, who wrote the Making of the President 1960, which used slow-cadence writing to show us, for the first

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“Writing is a way of understanding our flaws, of changing our minds. Of inviting others to change our minds for us. Of allowing us to identify with the worst and best of mankind.” Cindy Skrzycki

time, the private life of a presidential candidate—a template. One of my favorite characterizations of the Kennedy-Nixon race:

“For John F. Kennedy, Round One began in euphoria, sagged swiftly almost to despair, then rose to a point of cautious hope. Kennedy had flown directly from Los Angeles and the Convention to Cape Cod and Hyannisport. There the sun shone through milk-blue skies, and the breeze whipped whitecaps off Nantucket Sound as it scrubbed the dunes clean. Home again with wife and child, Jackie and brother Bobbie in the Marlin, the candidate could let his nerve fibers mend...within the compound the candidate and his brother Robert wandered back and forth across the lawn to each

other’s homes, or lounged, stripped to the waist, on beach chairs in the sun and slowly began to talk politics again....” Wouldn’t we be grateful to have that kind of grace note in this election....? The value of a liberal arts education is in learning to think, to let yourself open doors. Reading and writing are the essential bulwarks of a liberal arts degree and they provide the necessary exercises for learning how to think in ways both subtle and grandiose. I tell my students writing is hard. It is a discipline. Writing is addictive. Writing can lead to despair. It calls for empathy, a keen ear, a musical voice, patience, a sharp eye, and most of all, a mind that notices everything and then can shift those images to words.

webpages. Whatever the technological advances or thoughts that the electronic world allows everyone to be a writer, there are constants. William Zinsser, in the 30th anniversary edition of his oft-assigned book, On Writing Well, sends this admonishment:

“I don’t know what still newer marvels will make writing twice as easy in the next thirty years. But I do know they won’t make writing twice as good. That will still require plain old hard thinking...and the plain old tools of the English language.” In the spirit of true hospitality, I welcome you to pull up a chair and write as much as you can and read even more. It may be the one true path to experiencing the best of a liberal arts education: learning how to think. §

The process of writing requires just bringing yourself. No fancy computer programs, no tweets, no personal

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The Hospitality of Writing | October 25, 2012 David M. Shribman, became executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on February 3, 2003. He came to Pittsburgh from The Boston Globe where he was assistant managing editor, columnist and Washington bureau chief. Mr. Shribman graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1976 and was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. He did graduate work at Cambridge University, England, as a James Reynolds Scholar. He joined The Globe after serving as national political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, he covered Congress and national politics for The New York Times and was a member of the national staff of The Washington Star. A native of Salem, Massachusetts, he began his career at The Buffalo Evening News, where he worked on the city staff before being assigned to the paper’s Washington bureau. Mr. Shribman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1995 for his coverage of Washington and the American political scene. His column, “My Point,” is syndicated nationally.

Mr. Shribman was a regular panelist on the PBS show Washington Week in Review and a frequent analyst for BBC radio. His I Remember My Teacher, a tribute to the nation’s great educators, was published in April 2002. He has lectured at universities and colleges around the country. Shribman delivered the Lyndon Baines Johnson Distinguished Lecture at Southwest Texas State University and the Charles Hall Dillon Lecture at the University of South Dakota. Mr. Shribman is an emeritus member of the Board of Trustees of Dartmouth College and of the Board of Visitors of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences at Dartmouth. He is a member of the selection committee for the Profiles in Courage Award given by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and for the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award given by Colby College, Waterville, Maine. He also is a member of the national board of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation, Plymouth, Vermont. Cindy Skrzycki is an award-winning, full-time senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh and is a business correspondent for, a news service based in Boston. She is the 2012 recipient of the Tina & David Bellet Teaching Excellence Award at the University of Pittsburgh, an annual award given to two faculty members. Prior to joining Global Post in 2009, Skrzycki was a business columnist for Bloomberg News, a worldwide financial news service. She then was a consultant to another Bloomberg publication called BGov. She was on staff at The Washington Post for 18 years, covering federal regulatory issues, management, and technology. She has a special expertise in the business of federal regulation and lobbying and wrote a weekly column called “The Regulators” for more than a decade. Before joining The Post, she was an associate business editor at U.S. News & World Report, specializing in transportation issues, and a Washington correspondent for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where she covered the gamut of business topics. She also worked in the Washington bureau of the Fairchild News Service, covering the steel industry, and was a business writer for The Buffalo Evening News. Born in Buffalo, N.Y., she is an honors graduate of Canisius College, where she was editor of the student newspaper, The Griffin, and a member of the DiGamma Honor Society. She is a former, threeterm member of the board of trustees of Canisius College. She also holds a master’s degree in public affairs and journalism from the American University, Washington, D.C. She is the author of The Regulators: The Anonymous Power Brokers Who Shape Your Life. She is a member of the board of directors of the Three Rivers Youth Orchestra in Pittsburgh and a former member of the Pitt News Advisory Board.

Speakers are joined by Belltower Editorial Staffers (L-R) Mindy Gates, Kait Kuzio and John Moist.

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She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, David Shribman. David and Cindy are the parents of two daughters, Elizabeth and Natalie.

The Hospitality of Writing  

Cindy Skrzycki, David Shribman, and President Tom Foley discuss the hospitality of writing at this Mount Aloysius College symposium.