In memoriam: Dori J. Maynard

The last time I saw Dori, she was in D.C. for a UNITY meeting, looking flawless as ever, dishing with me about her Scandal addiction. I remember that she insisted on having dinner and glass of wine with me before she hopped on a train to New York City. She was always in between places, on her way back from some business, on her way toward some business.

“OK, what have you been doing?” She asked.

I was still freelancing. I was looking for work. She nodded. We had been having this conversation for a couple of years at that point.

The only thing that put a wrinkle in our conversation was the fact that my cell phone rang unexpectedly. Someone was calling about a position I had applied for.

Dori was my journalism guru, a lighthouse of wisdom. Before I considered newspapers as a viable, real choice for me after graduating from Vassar, Dori was part of a committee that read my clips and selected me for the Hearst Newspapers Fellowship. I did not know very much about her until I met her while I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle. This is how she operated. She had power and influence, but she wielded those the way a queen does: Measured. Self-assured. You didn’t have to know about it. She knew. The people who mattered knew.

Anyway, the Chronicle was doing a diversity audit. That was around 2004. It can’t have been the first time I met her, but the thing about Dori is that she made you feel like you had been friends forever the moment you met her, so I don’t remember the first time, exactly. All I knew is that when I decided to leave the Bay Area, Dori gently suggested that I consider not leaving newspapers to become a librarian. “You’re a good writer. Maybe go to another Hearst paper.”

She surprised me by taking me to visit a psychic in Oakland. She was very nonchalant about it, and I thought it was the funniest, most memorable thing that anyone has ever done for me. (The psychic turned out to be right about my next step, by the way.)

I next encountered Dori when I was in Austin. She had the aura of a fairy godmother or an angel. When she appeared in my life, I knew something amazing was about to happen. This time, I was working as an education reporter at the Statesman. Dori wanted to me to take a day-long trip for business to New York City. She put me up in the Algonguin hotel. I was there for 24 hours. I did not feel like I belonged there, but I said some things around some influential people about what it is like to be poor and attend public schools in New York City. It was what Dori wanted, so I delivered, because she had done so for me.

She cared for the work so deeply, and she cared for others so deeply, that when I left the industry, I could tell I had disappointed her but it was what I needed to do. Instead of pushing back and saying I had made a wrong decision, she put me to work, writing pieces for the Maynard Institute. It kept my lights on. It allowed me to feed myself and my dog. It gave me an anchor when an ocean of grief threatened to sweep me away from myself forever.

We presented at South by Southwest together. She was poised and practiced and on point. I was in awe, sputtering a little, being too hammy. I was nervous. She was a pro. It was an amazing education, like so much of our friendship.

When I began working on the book that will be published later this year, on racism and sexism in traditional media, I asked Dori what books she would recommend that I read, people I should reach out to. She, of course, had a very long list. Was there a book about the Maynard Institute, I wondered, that codified its pioneering and incredible work? “Well, when your book comes out, we’ll have that,” she said.

Talk about pressure. That was straight up Dori-style. Lightly applied, delivered with a feline smile.

I did not know she was sick. I only had an inkling something was amiss when I emailed her to follow up about the book in recent weeks and didn’t hear back.

The thing about Dori is that she touched so many lives, so you will hear and read many stories just like this one. We only realize in retrospect just how profoundly moved and changed we are by people like her. I learned so much that I can’t possibly explain it all or say it nearly as well as she would.

What resonates now is that I learned that being a great leader requires great service.

I learned that what makes a woman unique, what makes her stand out, is an incredible gift to others, whether she recognizes it or talks about it, or not.

I also learned from Dori, just today, just in these moments as I process her death, that we just never know when this great journey of ours will be over.

I already miss her deeply. It is the sign of a life well-lived and a woman well-loved.