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By Randy Essex
Editor’s note: The following story was provided by Burnett Society member and former executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald, Randy Essex.
Sometimes, when I’m at University of Nebraska–Lincoln donor events, I pinch myself a little.
That’s not me, I still think. I’m a poor kid from Beatrice. Didn’t have an indoor bathroom till I was 14. Older brother was a local jailbird. Got teased in middle school about my clothing. Went to college on grants, loans and money from my jobs at the Daily Nebraskan and Lincoln gas stations.
I made it through, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1983. That launched me on a career that’s included senior leadership positions at Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers and has allowed me to interview national political leaders and titans of business and enjoy a stint as executive editor of the Omaha World-Herald — where I’d been a news intern in 1979. Most importantly, public education, culminating in that degree from UNL, lifted me from poverty and let me live a deeply fulfilling version of the American dream.
So, in 2002, when I was put in my first bonus program as an editor at the Des Moines Register, I thought I should give back. By that point in my career, I’d edited Pulitzer Prize-winners and supervised graduates of Columbia and Northwestern universities, among other highly regarded journalism programs. I knew that UNL had prepared me to work with the best. I gave $125 to the College of Journalism and Mass Communications’ News-Editorial Excellence Fund. That massive gift was doubled through Gannett’s match program.
A few months later, I was surprised to hear from a University of Nebraska Foundation representative offering to take me to lunch. He further stunned me by suggesting I start a scholarship fund. I said he may have gotten the wrong impression — I wasn’t wealthy and didn’t anticipate making a lot of donations — and they wouldn’t be large. He said I’d be surprised how small donations could grow, that there was no risk, and “it’ll be fun.”
I decided it made sense to give part of my future bonuses to the school that made them possible. The Essex Scholarship Fund was created 20 years ago in May. The fund, now endowed, has awarded 19 scholarships. While recent awards have been as much as $1,000, early awards were as little as $300 — I took to calling it my beer and books scholarship. Joking aside, though, I remember excruciatingly well what a few more bucks can mean to a struggling college student.
I’ve designated a portion of my estate to go to the fund to ensure that I can continue to help students and support the school that, bluntly, changed my life.
And it has been fun. One of my scholars was Herbie Husker (the guy inside the suit). One, largely by coincidence, worked for me for a summer when I was editor-publisher of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent in western Colorado. I’ve gotten to meet several of the students, which is invigorating, encouraging — and humbling, because they have it so much more together than I did at that age.
It also has been deeply gratifying and at times moving. One student’s thank-you note stuck with me through the years. She wrote that her mother had died when she was 11, and her father, earning just $25,000 a year, had borrowed against his retirement fund for living expenses. This was just the type of student I had hoped to help when I set guidelines for the fund.
In preparing to write this essay, I looked up what had become of that student, Katrina Fischman, whom I’d met at a lunch in 2010.
She didn’t go into journalism, moving instead toward working with immigrants, including a role in Lincoln as a Spanish interview specialist for an insurer. And then, LinkedIn told me, Harvard Law.
Today, Katrina Fleury is an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, representing people in immigration court and helping them apply “for lawful permanent residency, employment authorization documents, naturalization … visas for victims of qualifying crimes and human trafficking” and more.
She generously said by email that my scholarship meant a lot to her. But what she has done, what the other recipients have done, means more to me. My gifts clearly are the best use of my money ever.