Nancy Day, ’79

Day has chaired the Journalism Department at Columbia College Chicago since 2003. Previously, she was an associate professor at Boston University and a journalist in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco

The scene: Harvard Faculty Club, spacious room with piano and comfortable chairs
Main characters: Two middle-aged white men, one who grew up in Nanking, China, one in the Eastern Cape of South Africa

Back story: The Nieman Class of 1979 was unusual in including not one but two fellows from South Africa: John Mojapelo, then of the Rand Daily Mail, and Donald Woods, who metaphorically parachuted into Cambridge at the urging of James C. Thomson Jr., curator of the Nieman Foundation. Thomson, an East Asia specialist, resigned from the U.S. State Department in 1966 to protest the Vietnam War, then lucidly dissected the policy for The Atlantic. His curatorship was marked by an increasingly inclusive range of Fellows, more women, broadcasters, people of color—even the occasional photographer and editorial cartoonist. Mojapelo, like other black South Africans studying at Harvard that year, kept a low profile, getting the most from a reprieve from apartheid. Woods, a government target after he exposed police brutality leading to the death of Steven Biko, fled South Africa clad as a nun. Their intertwined sagas became the basis for the movie “Cry Freedom.” Donald was of our class, yet not a regular member, since he was often away speaking at anti-apartheid gatherings around the United States and in the UK, where he, his wife Wendy, and six children settled. On the night of this scene, however, violence and government cruelty were far away.

Stage directions: People stand and sit. Noise level increases as libations and animated conversations flow. Suddenly, Donald calls for attention. Drink in one hand, conducting with the other, he leads the group in song, accompanied by Jim. Through the evening, they take turns on piano as the supporting players sing along and shout requests.

Author’s note: This scene evokes the alchemy of the Nieman experience, serendipitous defining moments. Although I took courses in social psychology on the nature of prejudice and at the law school on civil rights, the joy and spontaneity of singing with people from so many cultures that evening fostered a spirit still with me. Donald died in 2001, Jim in 2002. I first visited South Africa in 2010, including the Mojapelos and plan to return soon. I teach at a college that actively encourages diversity and co-founded a journalism program to teach Chicago teens to investigate problems of their communities and cover moments of grace and hope.