Gail Shister profile

Gail Shister: Inquirer’s irreverent TV columnist tones down for school. NOT!

Gail Shister is not like everybody else. She’s not like anybody else. And if you forget that fact, for just a sec, she’ll remind you that she’s a Jewish, out lesbian who integrated previously all-male sports staffs at three newspapers. Gail Shister, television columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is on a semester-long fellowship at Penn, studying, counseling, editing and generally stirring up trouble.

She’s taking three courses. For the History of Jews in America, she says, “I’ve been devouring the books. I am reading more than I have since college. I asked the professor to recommend more novels. And she did. I’m reading them all. My daughter is 12 and on the bat mitzvah track, and I’m feeling more and more spiritual as I grow older.”

She’s taking an intro to political communication course, taught by Annenberg Dean Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of Shister’s idols. “I had heard stories about what an incredible teacher Jamieson was. She has 130 students in her class, and she has to cut it off at 130. When I read in the catalog that she lectures for three hours, I thought I’d have to bring my No-Doz, but in fact you can hear a pin drop.”

And she’s studying the psychology of women, “my big discussion course,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons I’m really digging being on campus. The students are young, smart, motivated.”

Shister is savoring a Richard Burke Fellowship, which offers a journalist who’s been at the Inquirer at least 10 years a mid-career fellowship at Penn or Swarthmore. During the fellowship, the paper pays the reporter’s salary, and the participating school underwrites up to four courses.

Fellows may participate in other activities at will, and Shister hears she’s doing more than other fellows have done. “The academic stuff is for the neck up,” she says, “and the non-academic stuff is for the neck down. It’s for the heart. I’ve gotten tremendous satisfaction from developing on-going relationships with students.”

At the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Center, she counsels students and runs a weekly women’s discussion group for students, faculty and staff. Compared to the six or eight Shister expected, more than 20 women show up each week – and the number is growing. Calling this discussion “a delightful surprise,” Shister recently arranged to continue it beyond the term of the fellowship.

Occasional evenings, she attends news meetings at the Daily Pennsylvanian, serving as writing coach and mentor. “I help students think through what stories are important and how to cover them. I act as a sounding board and a pseudo McLaughlin. I ask questions, and if they give the wrong answer, I say WRONG. They don’t teach journalism at Penn – they don’t consider it a worthy academic pursuit. So at the DP you have smart, eager kids who don’t know much about journalism or putting out a daily paper. They worked on their high school papers, but at the DP they have no guidance, no faculty advisor.”

The 45-year-old Buffalo native has been “teaching in dribs and drabs” and fantasized about applying for the fellowship for years. “I come from a family of academics, and I have to admit I am an academic snob,” she says. “I prefer students who are very bright and very motivated. Happily all the kids I run into and have coffee with at Penn have been exceptional.”

Describing herself as “always a jock,” Shister captained the women’s basketball team at Brandeis University and wrote sports for the student weekly. After applying to PhD programs in English, “I had an epiphany during basketball practice. I didn’t want to teach. I loved the passion, the spontaneity and the unpredictability of sports. I thought, ‘You love sports. You love writing. Why not be a sports writer?’ I thought that was a great idea, so I went to the career center. The woman at the career center looked at me and said, ‘There are no women sports writers.’

“I’m the type of person, when you say, ‘You can’t do it,’ I’m very contrary to a No.” So she applied for, and got, an internship in sports at the Buffalo Evening News, becoming one of the first women in the country to cover sports. Later she attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Gail Shister, girl reporter, knows a good story when she tells one.

“When I graduated from J School in 1975, it was right after Watergate, and enrollment in J schools had skyrocketed. Everyone thought they’d be Woodstein [meaning Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who covered Watergate]. I interviewed in Oshkosh, Green Bay, all over the country, looking for a job.

“Meanwhile I was stringing [writing freelance stories] for Pro Football Weekly, taking dictation from sports writers. I got 25 bucks and all the pizza I could eat. By sheer luck, I took dictation from a sportswriter from New Orleans twice in a row. As a lark, I asked him if there were any openings in sports. Washington was the furthest south I’d ever been in my life.

“One day I got a call from the States-Item, which was the evening, renegade liberal paper. They flew me down to New Orleans and wined and dined me. I was 23 years old. At my J school, not one person got a newspaper job in Chicago. Some classmates weren’t getting jobs in journalism at all. And I got this dream job.” In 1975 she became Louisiana’s first female sports writer, a role she reprised in 1979 at the Inquirer.

“I was lucky. To my knowledge, I was the first openly gay reporter at a major metropolitan daily. I was a Jewish, out-lesbian, female sports writer in Louisiana. Imagine.”

Which brings us to sexuality. “I was out since I was 17,” says Shister. “I was queer way before it was cool to be queer. I’ve always been ahead of my time. They talk about ‘nature-versus-nurture’ [as in, what causes homosexuality]. I’m on the nature side. I’m grateful for always knowing I was gay, grateful that I never had to go through a crisis of conscience, never had to go through the lacerating break-up of a heterosexual marriage. I know hundreds of women who did.

“I’ve been out for 28 years, and lesbianism hasn’t been an issue for me for 25 years. I’m very committed to being a mentor to gay young people. When I was in college, I did not know one single gay person. To be in an atmosphere at Penn that’s gay-friendly and where there are 10 gay student organizations – I find it astounding. And please be clear on this: I work at the center to help, not to recruit. I’m good at helping to ask questions, helping kids figure out where they want to go and what they want to be.”

Shister has a 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, the biological daughter of her ex-wife, to whom she was married for 10 years. “We unofficially share custody, and Lizzie goes back and forth. My kid has two Jewish moms and two step-moms. We put the psychiatrist on retainer before she was born.”

In 1993 Gail Shister married Penny Jeannechild, an editorial assistant at the Inquirer, in a “moving ceremony” performed before 80 guests by a rabbi at the Ethical Society. The brides, who registered their patterns and groovy tastes at Urban Objects, won the “best wedding” honors from Philadelphia magazine. “The hardest part was finding two brides for the cake.” Mission never accomplished, but an artist friend sculpted the two women in miniature.

As the Mummers return to Broad Street, Gail Shister will return to her television column, which Knight Ridder sends to more than 350 papers, and she will continue running her group at the LGB Center. Whether or not you care about television – or own one – she’s as good a “read” as she is an interview.

This article appeared in the University of Pennsylvania Current.