Remembering my Hero, ‘Uncle Al’ Neuharth

When I was a teenager, I wrote most of my essays regarding my future dreams about Lois Lane. She was great inspiration, albeit, fictional. I’m pretty sure I even wrote about her in my application essay for the Al Neuharth Free Spirit Award— an award that picked the best teenage journalists in their senior year of high school from each state.

There was another thing I wrote about though. Seeing as the program was about “dreaming, daring, and doing,” I wrote about how I always wanted to start my own magazine– a Christian one for girls that gave them a reality check on life. I wrote about how I thought it would be risky because of the level of controversy I wanted to invoke. But I also wrote about how I knew it was needed in the Christian teen community, and I knew I could do it.

When the deadline passed for when finalists were supposed to hear back, I was devastated. But then something amazing happened– turned out the announcing was just delayed and I in fact won a spot with a $1,000 scholarship and a free trip to D.C. with the other kids to learn about journalism on a whole new level.

And, I got to meet Al Neuharth.

But here’s the best part. Before I even met him, we all received his booked and were asked to read it prior to our arrival in D.C. When I opened my copy, the most amazing signed message was on the title page. I knew probably all the other scholars received a message too….but what he wrote touched me so much, I knew in that moment my life would never be the same.

He wrote the expected/inspirational “Go for it!” message, but he then wrote underneath his name, “Congrats on your good work with Verge.”

You see, Al Neuharth didn’t just start the USA Today. He also started the Florida Today, which I wrote for since I was 13 years old. The Verge was the teen section that I spent almost every waking moment working on, trying to build my clip book to be the journalist I always wanted to be.

Oh, and Al Neuharth lived in Cocoa Beach. I went to school in Cocoa Beach. And yes, he still read the Florida Today.

I nearly dropped my book. Had this amazing man actually read my work? I almost didn’t believe it.

When we finally got to DC and received our “Free Spirit” medallions, Al Neuharth himself was there to shake our hands and put it around our necks. When it was my turn, he stopped mid-handshake and said, “So you’re the one from Cocoa Beach! I love your work!”

I nearly died, and don’t even remember what I rambled back to him as I walked backward to the other side of the stage because the next scholar was about to receive his medallion now too.

But not before Al shouted, “Hey! Watch out! You’re about to fall down the stairs!”

Al Neuharth saved my life that day. But he did much more than that.

When I got home, he sent me a letter telling me to give him a call about college, so I did. I was so nervous that his secretary laughed at me. Our phone call was brief, but he told me I could put him down as a reference for job applications. So I did Employers disregarded it as a kid trying to be funny. But it didn’t matter to me because I knew the truth. I knew Al Neuharth believed in me so much he had written me a letter, he had asked me to call him, and he told me I could put his name down.

It was that day my mom laughed and called him, “Uncle Al” and every day after that, if I referred to my hero, an “Uncle” was thrown in. The idea was basically that he was the epitome of that rich, inspiring uncle you always wish you had. And he did pay for at least a smidgeon of my collage thanks to the Free Spirit program. Al Neuharth wasn’t just my hero. He was family!

That wasn’t the last letter he wrote me. There were two more in fact. The second one was thanking me for a review I wrote about his incredible autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B. The third, which I am sad I cannot find, was congratulating me on the big App State win we had against Michigan. I had written him in college because I had done something crazy and attributed it to him.

You see, one boring summer where I decided to work  in the mountains instead of take another summer camp job, I decided to do something a bit ridiculous. I bought some do-it-yourself books (For Dummies was my favorite series) and I invested my savings to purchase a little corner of the Web.

And thus, that little Christian girl magazine I wrote about so many years ago to even get noticed by the Al Neuharth Award people came to life in REALITY Check Girl magazine.

I did it, not because I was bored, but because the one piece of advice Uncle Al gave all the scholars (and reiterated in his awesome book) was something that stuck with me for years. Actually, I still think about it nearly every day.

He said, “If you do one thing, fail in a big way before you turn 40.”

As a perfectionist kid who ALWAYS feared failure, this was revolutionary to me. Why should we fail before we turn 40? What good does that do?

Al Neuharth actually tried to start a publication before the USA Today that failed hardcore. But that failure made him stronger. That failure taught him what he needed to know to succeed in the future. That failure made him fearless because, HECK, he had already failed before.

Before then, I had always convinced myself that my dreams had to be put on hold. I had to have a college degree. I had to have that perfect internship. I had to have the perfect job with the perfect resume and of course the perfectly coiffed network of professionals to help me up the ladder. It was after all that red tape, THEN I’d be ready for my big risks, my big dreams.

But no. That’s not how Uncle Al taught me to believe in myself. The moment was now, and it always will be.

And so, I jumped in head first and created a magazine that was EPIC. It was popular. It had a staff of 60+ people and I was in charge as a college sophomore. It was even featured on the front of the Lifestyles section of the Florida Today and on their TV channel. Even the Washington Post wrote about me online.

But when it became too much for me because of money and school and other things, I knew it was okay. Because this “failure” was still a success. What I learned from that experience fueled my fire for other opportunities because I wasn’t afraid of anything. It taught me how to be an editor during a time where most of my colleagues were still trying to figure out how to be writers. And it made me Web savvy– a skill that has carried me through many circumstances, even today.

I got to tell Uncle Al all about the “failing” half of this story last fall when I attended the first ever Free Spirit Alumni Reunion at the Newseum. I could tell he was older (he was close to 90 now), and when I stepped up to the mic to thank him once again, I’m not even sure he remembered me.

But it didn’t matter, because I remembered. I remembered every word he ever spoke to me. I remember ever letter he wrote. And when I looked him in the eyes and told him about how my mom and I called him “Uncle Al,” he even smiled.

His daughter, who was sitting next to him on stage, asked me if I considered my magazine a failure. I said, “Sort of yes. But it was so worth it. And I did it before I was 40.”

Friday night, my hero was laid to rest. He lived a very inspiring life, always working hard no matter what– even writing a column to this very last week. But even though he may be gone, he will still be with me in the form of his great encouragement and wisdom.

After all, I have a whole lot of failing to do before I turn 40, and thanks to Uncle Al Neuharth, I look forward to every moment of it.

I will miss you, my hero. Rest in peace, you S.O.B.

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