The words to describe Pat Schneider came as easily as the laughter and tears that flowed freely during a celebration of her life Saturday morning at Madison’s James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
“Fierce.” “Dogged.” “Feisty.” “Tenacious.” “Compassionate.” “Courageous.”
It was clear from every story shared by those who knew her that Pat’s honesty was the hallmark of her relationships with her family, with her friends, in the newsroom, in her church and in her community.
It’s what made her one of the most valuable voices for the “little guy” that Madison journalism has known. And it’s what makes her death such a tremendous loss for both the Cap Times and the greater Madison community.
It’s why I’m so inspired by the news that the Cap Times and the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will partner to create a scholarship that will help three young journalists follow the trail that Pat blazed with the deeply held belief that journalism can make a difference — that it can make the world a better place by challenging the systems and institutions that too often benefit the comfortable at the expense of the vulnerable.
The one-time scholarship will be available to three journalism students with at least sophomore standing at a college or university in Madison who identify as women and who are committed to reporting on social justice. It will be funded by a contribution from the Cap Times and by the proceeds from raffle ticket sales at SPJ Madison’s annual holiday party.
Pat died on Sept. 29 at Agrace Hospice after a protracted battle with cancer. During her time at Agrace, she was given a book filled with memories from her Cap Times coworkers spanning her 30 years at the paper.
Cap Times editor and publisher Paul Fanlund remarked at her memorial service that while he expected to read poignant memories from the older crowd who’d known her for decades, he was impressed and touched by the clear impact she’d had on reporters and editors in their 20s and 30s.
No matter the beat we covered, each one of us had a particular story she’d reported that stood out.
She wrote about efforts to bring fresh produce into food deserts. She wrote about college affordability (or the lack thereof). She uncovered the influence of donors on programming at the University of Wisconsin School of Business. She shined a light on the plight of the city’s homeless population. Her final Cap Times story took an unblinking and nuanced look at the sentencing of Alec Cook, a former UW student convicted of sexual assault.
I should admit that I was terrified of Pat when I met her. Her intensity was often overwhelming. It took me a while to get over that.
But I can tell you now that some of my favorite moments in our weekly news meetings were when Pat had an exciting lead — you could almost feel the energy she exuded as she dug her teeth into the story. Often those leads sent her chasing after tales of misuse of public resources and questionable policy decisions, but her stories went beyond those actions as they demonstrated how they affected people. I still marvel at the way she barreled past the narrative people wanted her to write and dug deep until she found the voices that needed to be amplified.
I admired her doggedness in requesting records, and her knack for knowing which ones to request and for finding gems within them. More than that, I admired her unwavering blend of tenacity and compassion.
And on a personal note, I’ll miss the way her laugh rang out anytime our staff ventured out for a gathering outside of work.
“Like all the best investigative reporters, Pat had no patience for deception and no awe for authority,” Cap Times managing editor Chris Murphy told the Wisconsin State Journal’s Samara Kalk Derby after Pat’s death.
From city hall to the University of Wisconsin, she rankled as many people as she comforted.
"I thought the world of Pat, although, like many others, she roasted me at times," Mike Verveer, the city’s longest-serving alder, told Cap Times reporter Steven Elbow.
I never got the impression that awards or bylines mattered to Pat, but for what it’s worth, Steve counted up nearly 5,000 bylines and several awards from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Milwaukee Press Club.
During Pat’s service, it hit me just how much the awards don’t matter, and that the impact of journalism does. It made me think hard about the kind of journalist I am, and the kind I want to be.
Pat didn’t waste time trying to schmooze her way into insider circles. She didn’t engage in transactional journalism. She questioned authority. She asked difficult questions. She found out who was getting screwed, and by whom, and then let the world know.
The “little guy” couldn’t have asked for a better advocate.
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