Kiplinger ‘fellowship’ never ends for this gang

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Class of 1993 Fellows Ron Parker, Julie Truck Tatge, Dwayne Bray, Rebecca Theim, Marty Gonzalez, George Estrada, Tom Kertscher, Beth Bragg Henon and professor Mike Masterson.

The year that changed everything for eight journalists lives on in a jumpy analog videotape with a bad ’90s soundtrack.

A woman stands through an open limousine sunroof as her seven classmates quaff champagne at her feet. The group mug pictures with Sam Donaldson and Geraldo Rivera. One raps about Ira Hackey, Bob Woodward and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The video snapshot, with its big hair and bigger shoulder pads, recaps the more waggish moments of the 1993 Kiplinger Fellowship, at that time a one-year graduate program for mid-career journalists at Ohio State University.

That year, Fellow Ron Parker deadpanned about one day visiting his fellow Kippers in their mansions, maybe every five years or so.

No one ever got a mansion. But the group remained so tight that they did reunite the next year, and the next, and nearly every year since.

“We’ve centered reunions around weddings, 25th wedding anniversaries, babies being born, job changes, political campaigns that we were working” — nearly 20 gatherings in all, said Fellow Beth Bragg Henon. “Not a month goes by that I don’t touch base with one of them. I get chill bumps just saying that.”

They’ve come together in Las Vegas, Chicago, Daytona Beach, Austin, Atlanta, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Chattanooga and Dallas. They once returned to Columbus, and in 2013, gathered in Bristol, Connecticut, to celebrate Fellow Dwayne Bray’s new position at ESPN.

Each time they meet, they fall right back into step with one another, says Fellow Julie Tatge.

“We all have a journalistic sense of humor — very cynical, with a lot of good natured teasing and bantering,” Tatge said. “There’s a lot of laughing at life’s ridiculousness, about getting through situations at work or something goofy going on with somebody’s kids. When you have these very deep ties with people, they are pretty honest.”

Humor is “the connective tissue” that holds the group together, said Bray.  “We find humor in everything we do. My fellow Kips laugh at almost anything and the humor goes from comedic to gallows. That keeps us fresh and energized.”

Discussions are weighty, too, about politics and journalistic conundrums, the directions their lives and careers are going.

“Everybody’s got their own take on things, which keeps it interesting,” Tatge said.

Parker is the conscience in the corner, piping up with zingers when someone is not on point. Henon is the social gatherer, keeping everyone together and lending her infectious Southern wit to the cocktail of personalities. Becky Theim is the keeper of memories, with her photo scrapbooks and video files. Marty Gonzalez is the peacemaker, always willing to lend an ear and accommodate disparate views.

They generate a mix — a “secret sauce” as Henon calls it — that even they cannot explain.

“I don’t think you can try for it, or achieve it,” said Fellow Tom Kertscher, a politifact reporter at the Milwaukee Sentinel. “It just happens.”

It first “happened” as the Fellows crowded around the Kiplinger table in Room 651 of the Journalism Building 22 years ago. One hailed from a Cleveland ghetto; another was an ex-California rock-band eccentric. One identified as conservative Christian; others were devoutly liberal.

“We were very different personalities, but we all seemed to think that was endearing and interesting, as opposed to feeling annoyed or frustrated,” Henon said. “Our differences . . . we all just found fascinating.”

Several turned 30 that year — a marker in their lives. Each was passionate about journalism. Many had quit jobs to accept the Fellowship, a tremendous risk even during the economic boon of the 90s.

Kiplinger director Mike Masterson was intentional about building group dynamics, the Fellows say, because he knew the relationships would far outlast the fellowship. Early on, he hosted get-togethers in his home. When they weren’t working their tails off reporting, the group took weekend jaunts to Chicago. Henon hosted the Jorge Film Festival, featuring music videos produced and starred in by Fellow George Estrada. The group formed a softball team.

It didn’t take long for the eight to fall into sync.

“The older you get, the more you realize that Kismet like that seldom happens in grown-up life,” Theim said. “It wouldn’t have happened with a different set of people, and if anyone had not been in the mix, the experience would have been lesser and not as memorable or significant. Eight people of different ages, temperaments and backgrounds from all over the country, serendipitously were brought together, and we just clicked in a way few people ever get to experience.”

“It was one of the best years of our lives,” Kertscher said. “You kind of recognize that while the year was going on, that it was really something special . . . But you really have no sense at that stage that it’s going to (continue).”

The mojo lived on. When Theim became communications director at Playboy, the group took a tour at the headquarters. When Estrada went to University of Texas to get his PhD, they showed up to encourage him.

“The tentacles of the relationship are endless,” Henon said. “It is rare when any of us makes a career move that we don’t consult with one or two of the others. It is an invaluable, priceless bank of wisdom, experience and expertise and everybody truly wants the highest and the best for the others.”

Because the Fellows celebrated so much life together, it was inevitable that they would experience the bittersweet sting of death. In 2010, Estrada passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

“It was surreal that we were at that point in our journey together,” Henon said. “We’d been celebrating births, weddings . . . beginnings. This was an end.”

At their next reunion, several Fellows wore their Jorge buttons and made a toast to their talented colleague. George would have liked that, they said.

In the end, it doesn’t matter why they meet, who hosts the reunion or where they choose to gather. It just matters that they do.

“I always felt a better person — more alive, more fulfilled — each time we get together,” Kertscher said.

There’s talk of a September reunion of the Class of 1993 at Fellow Beth Henon’s Tennessee home, she says, if she gets her barn built.

A peek at the Kiplinger Fellows in 1992-93.

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