Ellen Flax was the Features Editor from January 1986 to May 1986.
This piece is part of a series of personal narratives written by Street alumni in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 34th Street.
My turn as the Features Editor, the number two slot on 34th Street, represented a second chance that I never thought I would get.
I had joined The DP virtually the moment I came to Penn, in Fall 1982. Heck, The DP was one of the prime reasons I even decided to go to Penn: as a senior in high school, I visited an alumna of my high school, who herself was an editor of 34th Street, and was blown away by the DP newsroom. Yup, I said to myself, I can totally picture myself here.
So I jumped all in. By the end of the fall semester, I was assigned my first real beat—the student government—and had a tete–a–tete with the then–Editor–in–Chief, who told me that she thought I had the potential to one day be the Editor–in–Chief myself, assuming I plotted my DP career correctly.
The spring of my freshmen year was an exciting time in The DP news cycle. Without question, the story of the year was the charge by a student that she had been gang–raped by a number of fraternity brothers at an ATO frat party—and the University’s botched handling of the case. Meanwhile, on my student government beat, there was a referendum about whether the Undergraduate Assembly should be abolished. (It was voted down, thank goodness, but I got a couple of page 1 stories out of the mess.)
As the semesters passed, I rose in the beat hierarchy. And then, in my junior year, when it was time to decide about a potential Board position, I took a U–turn: I decided I wanted to spend part of my junior year in Vienna, on a program that focused on the then–Communist Eastern bloc. Since Board positions ran the calendar year, and I was going to be away in the spring, the two options were mutually exclusive. I cleared out my dorm room at the end of the fall semester, knowing that my dream of serving on the DP Board would likely never come to fruition.
The following fall, I returned to a somber campus and city. While I was gone, the then–mayor, and Penn alum, Wilson Goode (C ’86), ordered the deadly bombing of a house (and by extension, an entire block) in West Philly that was then home to dozens of anarchist activists—and their children—who were members of the radical MOVE group. As the city, and campus, grappled with the aftermath of this tragedy, The DP, and by extension, 34th Street, devoted resources to covering West Philly.
Beat–less, I spent the fall of my senior year writing news feature stories about West Philly. And then a minor miracle happened: one writer who was herself in line for a leadership position on Street decided to go away for the spring semester, leaving an opening on the Board. In the right place at the right time, I agreed to serve as the Features Editor of 34th Street, and as a member of the 102nd Board, until my graduation in May.
At that time, 34th Street was known for a couple of things: 1) “colorful” editors and writers (I was easily the most vanilla member of the staff); 2) high–quality arts coverage—indeed, a number of our critics went on to careers as reviewers; 3) endless event and TV listings (in the pre–internet era, there was no choice but to devote a lot of space to this information) and 4) a willingness to take risks with our feature stories. Sometimes, these risks definitely crossed a line—I doubt that anyone who read 34th Street in that era can ever forget a former editor’s piece about personally taste–testing dog food(!)—but for the most part, these risks involved tackling complicated stories in a longer, feature format. After paging through my bound volume, I was reminded that during my tenure, students wrote well–researched and sourced pieces about such issues as medical malpractice, pay equity, the impact of the gambling industry on Atlantic City, and race relations in Southwest Philly, where two newly moved–in families with African–American members were greeted with jeers by their white neighbors.
Of course, there were a number of more light–hearted features—such as a piece about a burgeoning retail war between cookie makers, a cover story about comic–book heroes, and long profiles of musicians and writers. While my 34th Street Editor–in–Chief, Chris Downey (C ’87), and I had a good working partnership, we sometimes tussled over tone and content—he was more into entertainment cover pieces, and I favored news features. Probably our most serious disagreement concerned a cover story about ecstasy, timed to run around Spring Fling; I felt strongly that the story, as written, was encouraging the (illegal) drug’s usage, but after a little judicial editing, we were both satisfied with the final version.
Chris and I were fortunate to have the best staff, bar none (yes, I am biased, but these guys were really good!) on the paper. I am grateful to all of them, and to the 101st and 102nd Boards, for giving me a second chance!
After an initial post–graduate career in journalism, Ellen Flax received rabbinical ordination and now serves as the Director of The Hadassah Foundation.