BAR Awards Profile – Rochelle Riley ’81

2010 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumna Award
Rochelle Riley ’81

Rochelle Riley ’81 answered her phone during a journalism conference and heard a woman who identified herself as Dr. Janet Southerland ’82 say that Rochelle had been selected for the Harvey Beech Distinguished Alumni Award. After the woman hung up, Rochelle’s journalism instincts kicked in. She found the number for Janet Southerland, called her and asked, “Did you just call me to tell me I’d won the Harvey Beech Award?”

Trust, but verify.

Rochelle has notched 10 years and counting as a metro columnist for the Detroit Free Press. Her resume shows her climb up the career ladder as a reporter or editor for the likes of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., The Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Washington Post. Her commentary can be heard on National Public Radio and local TV programs. Twice the Michigan Press Association has named her the state’s Best Local Columnist, and she won top honors in 2009 from the Michigan Associated Editorial Association and the Metropolitan Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. She’s been honored by the National Association of Black Journalists and the Scripps Howard National Journalism Awards.

A Tarboro native, Rochelle got her start at The Daily Tar Heel and Black Ink. That she knew at age 20 what she wanted to do with her life impresses Reuben Blackwell ’80 to this day.

“She was very intentional about what she felt her life plan would be,” he said. “And you look at her today, and she’s done it. She’s still in love with what she does.”

At Carolina, he and Rochelle were part of “The James Gang” residents of Hinton James dorm. He remembers her long bangs and her Colgate smile, and that she was always writing; she never put down her pad and pencil. While other students partied, Rochelle would be in a corner, observing and writing.

Rochelle had the ability to walk in and take over a room, said Jim Hummel ’82, who credits her tireless work on his behalf when he ran for editor of The DTH and won by 23 votes out of 6,500 cast. But Rochelle was most impressive when she worked quietly, he said, and when she wrote. “Rochelle had voice,” he said, referring to a signature style of writing that lets readers know who wrote it without looking at the byline. “That’s difficult to teach to somebody.”

Journalism professor Harry Amana recognized Rochelle’s talent before she did. One day, he buttonholed her after class and asked her what she was going to do with her life. She said she was going to be a journalist. “Then you’d better get started,” he told her. She claims she never went to another party the rest of her time at Carolina.

There’s no doubt she takes her calling as a journalist seriously. Throughout her career, Rochelle’s writing has inspired others to act. Her debut column for The Courier-Journal in 1996 demanding a museum to honor boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali spurred an $80 million capital campaign to build The Muhammad Ali Center, which opened in 2005. Through her columns, she has campaigned to combat adult illiteracy — 44 percent of adults in Michigan read at the fourth-grade level or below — and she has recruited 2,000 volunteers to teach adults to read and raised nearly $500,000 for literacy centers. After her story about a high school graduate who couldn’t read, the public schools’ emergency financial manager called for an immediate end to social promotion. Her yearlong series about what happens to children once they age out of the foster care system prompted a state overhaul of how Michigan treats former foster youth.

Michigan’s Gov. Jennifer Granholm calls Rochelle “Detroit’s conscience.” Margaret Williamson, director of ProLiteracy Detroit, calls Rochelle a friend. “But I can never tell her what to write,” she said. Rochelle breaks stories because people trust her with the unvarnished truth and know that she won’t use it to exploit them.

Nearly 30 years after she left Carolina, Rochelle is still writing nonstop. She has written a biography, some screenplays, a couple of essay collections and, most recently, an account of what she’s learned parenting the little girl she adopted almost 20 years ago.

Being a columnist, Rochelle said, gives her the opportunity to tell people’s stories and provide a voice they otherwise might not have and a chance to make a difference. “That is the type of thing that good journalism can do,” she said. “That is why I haven’t stopped doing it.”