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Mom Takes the Prize

Be honest: We’re at the point in our lives where we routinely expect our children to be collecting the awards and accolades.  Our glory days are past.  Or are they?  Does being a mother of adult children–the headmistress of an empty nest–mean that we are shunted to the sidelines?  Now that we don’t have to race home to supervise homework or cook dinner, many of us fill the time productively whether it’s taking on more challenging work or training for a triathlon. Still it’s the kids whom we expect to come home with the Oscar. 

 Why can’t a mom win an Oscar? (Please note that Meryl Streep, mother of four, didn’t last year!)  The Oscar of journalism is the Pulitzer Prize, and this year among the notable winners is a mom with grown children, Barbara Laker of the Philadelphia Daily News.  She and Wendy Ruderman won the 2010 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for the series “Tainted Justice.”  

 The Pulitzer citation noted their “resourceful reporting that exposed a rogue police narcotics squad, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases tainted by the scandal.” 

Philly Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky also lauded:  “What puts Barb and Wendy in their own league is a potent blend of patience, doggedness and ferocity fueled by what I can only describe as a maternal instinct to protect the vulnerable and vindicate the wronged.” 

Barbara, 52,  mother of Josh, 24, and Anna, 21, recently took time out of her more-busy-than-ever schedule to talk to mothering 21.com about how she and her children reacted when mom takes the prize. 

Barbara Laker, left, with Wendy Ruderman and editor Michael Days; photo Sarah J. Glover

 That “resourceful reporting” required knocking on hundreds of doors in Philadelphia in search people whose homes and stores  had been raided by the narcotics squad. Barbara and her partner spent weeks in the depths of winter 2009 walking up and down city streets, talking to local residents, business owners, and  hookers, pimps and prostitutes.  While interviewing one resident, the woman’s daughter, a police informant, smacked Barbara in the face twice, knocked away her notebook and chased her out of the house. “When I got away I called Wendy and told her, ‘Don’t worry I still have the notebook,’” she said, laughing. 

 The incident didn’t deter the duo. “Wendy and I are both kind of fearless,” Barbara said.  “We’re both obsessive compulsive so once we started down a path we kept going.”  

 The reporting and writing for “Tainted Justice” was nonstop for months. Barbara admits that she could not have worked those hours—indeed choose not to work them—until three years ago when Anna left for college in Arizona. In the past, she often turned down reporting assignments that involved travel. “There’s no ‘do over’ with children. I put them first and the career second hoping as long as I kept going and doing my job well the career would always there.  The children, I knew,  would be gone one day.” 

Barbara’s career as a newspaper reported started after her graduation from college in 1979 and took her across the country from Clearwater to Seattle and finally to Philadelphia in 1993. 

 Her son was a multi-sport athlete and her daughter, a dancer. Her husband traveled constantly for business so for many of those years Barbara raced out of the office to drive her children from one sport or lesson to another.  Several times a week when her son was in high school she drove three hours roundtrip to Wilmington, Delaware where he played on a competitive ice hockey team. 

 “When I was driving around all over wondered, ‘What will life be like without hockey?’  Then it was gone and I missed it. Then my daughter went to college and the house was no longer filled with sounds of teenagers talking, giggling and crying.  I realized I had to make the most of my changed life, not reinvent myself; now I could put more energy into my career.” 

 That energy translated to “begging” her bosses to let her leave the predictable-hours editing desk and get back to reporting. That move led to the investigative series and the Pulitzer.  

 On April 13, the newsroom erupted in cheers as the Pulitzer winners were announced. Amid the clamor, Barbara grabbed her phone and called her children. Her son’s response:  “Now it’s my turn to brag about you!”  Her daughter’s:  “It’s like you’re a rock star.” Then both children went off to classes and told other students and their professors and texted their friends across the country. “They made a huge deal out of it,” Barbara said. 

 A week later she received another award for the series in Florida, where her son is in law school.  In the middle of studying for finals, he drove four hours across the state to witness the award ceremony. 

 Barbara recalls that he was beaming with pride as she accepted the award.  

“You expect your children to call you about the honor roll, internship, or a summer job.  But when they are so excited for you and your accomplishment it’s like payback 150 times for all the driving to hockey games and dance lessons and everything else.  It’s like the circle of life.” 

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