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Ann-Eve Pedersen's near-mythical leadership was the stuff of sagas

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What the Devil won't tell you

Ann-Eve Pedersen's near-mythical leadership was the stuff of sagas

  • Ann-Eve Pedersen smack-dab in the middle of things — right where she belongs.
    courtesy of Jen DarlandAnn-Eve Pedersen smack-dab in the middle of things — right where she belongs.

The first time I saw Ann-Eve Pedersen she was trying to sprint in suede, calf-high dress boots with tall heels and her signature shock of hair down her back.

She was a woman in a hurry and that's how she would live the rest of her life — changing journalism, nonprofits and the K-12 funding debate because she was a dervish, checking off goal after goal on her to-do list.

Ann-Eve died unexpectedly last weekend at the age of 55 and with her went enough organizing energy to spin a small galaxy.

The term "natural leader" can get tossed around a lot but Ann-Eve could have led Ted Cruz and Tucker Carlson into battle and still won Gallipoli with those frail snowflakes in her ranks.

The woman was a freaking shield maiden.

Read more: Ann-Eve Pedersen, journalist & education advocate, dead at 55

Ann-Eve could had strode into either of the Tucson newsrooms she helped run and announced: “Guys, I have a confession to make. There’s something I’ve been hiding from you. See, I’m not like you. I’m a Valkyrie — not the racist kind; the regular kind. I'm 1,500 years old and report to Odin.”

We all would have glanced around at our colleagues, looked at her and shrugged. “And? Sure. Makes sense. Do you still need the Board of Supervisors advance story?"

Just like the mythical Norse (and Celtic) women warriors who separated the worthy from the wanting, Ann-Eve carried herself with a near-mythical ferocity that was somehow laced with a doting mom who worried you might need a sweater.

This is what I mean, by way of slight exaggeration: You are working on a story for Sunday. After a 10 a.m. editors meeting on Monday, Ann-Eve might emerge making some offhand remark about how she wonders if you should scale Mount Everest to add some color to the package. You’d roll your eyes.

Then an hour later she’d be at your desk unloading goggles, ice cleats and three oxygen tanks, with a Sherpa standing next to her. Suddenly it hits you. “Oh, wait. You are serious!”

Ann-Eve would be sitting on the floor, futzing with one of the tanks muttering, “We gotta get your O2 to work. Your flight is in 90 minutes.”

By Thursday, you’re on Everest’s Southeastern Ridge with the bony black rocks of the Geneva Spur behind you. It’s climb or die.

And she’d be mother-henning you the whole way up by satellite phone: “Are you OK? Keep your mask on and watch your feet. Some of those crevices can fall a quarter-mile. You should drink some water now. Do you have enough water? I can send Gary Gaynor up with more water before you enter the Death Zone… it’s just this story really has to run on Sunday.”

You’ll either reach the summit or be a straight-up goner. But you wouldn’t be dead because you wouldn’t want Ann-Eve to look at you with her brown eyes suddenly soft with disappointment.

This, by the way, is why Invest In Ed passed. It's why a whole bunch of journalists are better at their craft than they would otherwise be. Because Ann-Eve could marshal order out of chaos and could make sure difficulty and skill level merged, when that prospect seemed less than probable.

The Hammer of South Park Avenue

The first time I formally met her she handed me a $20 bill and an ATM card.

I'll get back to that.

When I came back to Tucson to take a job at the Tucson Citizen, she had just taken over the Arizona Daily Star’s city desk. Things got weird fast.

Suddenly, the Daily Star was FOIAing everything. There were these little SWAT teams of reporters who were digging into everything.

In particular, there was a case of Edith Campos’ death at Desert Hills. Campos was a California teenager whose parents checked her into the psychiatric treatment outside Tucson. A small infraction provoked a restraint hold, that left Campos face-down on the floor with an orderly on her back until she died.

The Star was so all over that story and so all over the Campos family and so all over anyone tangentially involved in a way that produced an awful lot of really good news reporting.

The intensity of the coverage, and the zeal with which they got into it, prompted eyerolls about the morning paper among the PM daily news staff. One veteran and highly venerable journalist got to the point where they said, with a shake of the head, “You know what? I would have sat on Edith Campos.”

Before readers freak, that reaction was less a commentary about the justification for using force than a reflection on the war cries coming out of the Star city desk as their reporters hacked and slashed their way toward journalism Valhalla.

The truth was, Ann-Eve was becoming something of a legend. She had taken a very talented Daily Star newsroom that had despaired under prior management and put it on a strict diet of caffeine and ginseng.

Then I met her. I forgot where it was but somehow she knew that a certain curly-haired Citizen reporter was going to be there. I was kind of shocked and invigorated that she walked right up to me and not anyone else. “Hi Blake,” she said and reached into her purse. “I have something for you.”

She handed me my ATM card and a $20 bill. What the …?

And then I was eye-rolling at myself, "Oh, Jesus Mary Josephine Peppercorn" and my gut sunk.

I started at the Citizen in January 1998 when it lost ace scribe Rhonda Bodfield to the Star. The thing is that I applied for that Star job, too. I’d been sick that week and was tripping on a concoction of Theraflu, cough syrup and Benadryl when I went to the Flagstaff post office to get my resume down to Tucson before the application period closed.

So I’m at the counter in constant pre-sneeze agitation when I realized I needed money. I swore I just went to the ATM. So my girlfriend who had put the clip package together now had to lend me the money to send it overnight to the city editor, Ann-Eve Pedersen.

Months later as Ann-Eve was handing me back my $20 and my card. I understood that I had mailed both to her while whacked-out on a stew of flu meds. Suddenly the Hammer of South Park Avenue was chuckling with a playfulness I would learn is totally in character.

“I was wondering if you were trying to bribe me and if I should be offended you thought my price was $20. I think I’m more expensive than that.

Row! Row! Row!

It was a few years later, the new Citizen Publisher Mike Chihak decided to shake things up and brought Ann-Eve in to run the Citizen newsgathering operation. When we heard the word, the staff didn’t eyeroll but perked up. “Oh well, this is cool.”

Motherhood mellowed her some but just a little bit.

Somehow I got on the anti-war protest movement beat in the run up to the war in Iraq. One day, I was road-side with a flat tire and called Ann-Eve to tell her what was up. Under the old regime, the attitude would have been an employee-friendly “Don’t worry about it, we’ll send someone else.” Ann-Eve’s reaction was “Well, can you walk?” No, I’m like three miles a way. “Oh, Okay. I’ll come get you and take you there … wait. I have a budget meeting, a big hit (front-page centerpiece) to edit and Loki to wrestle but just stay there. I’ll be there in five minutes.”

No, that’s OK. I’ll just make like an Indy Pit crew member and then break land speed records to get there.

“Cool. You are awesome.”

I was on Team Ann-Eve and would happily sacrifice the donut tire in my trunk to do my part.

There was the time she got the drop on how the Tucson Police Department had infiltrated protest groups with plainclothes officers. In some cases, they forwarded names to the FBI. The story was good and when I thought I finished, Ann-Eve just wanted this bit of information and another source to talk about this other angle. If there was a way to get such and such, that would be amazing. Do I have any ideas?

The story was held back from publication over the course of a week as we fleshed it out more, and finally, the day it ran in the afternoon, a version of it was in the Star that morning. The staff of the other paper had figured out what I was working on and threw together a pale imitation.

Ann-Eve felt sooo baaaad. She spent the next week apologizing and buying me Cokes to make it up to me. “You did such a great job and I screwed up so it looks like you got scooped. I’m so sorry …”

But by that point, if I was fine if I met Ann-Eve’s expectations. Five years before I’d been shaking eyes at how she wielded Thor’s hammer. By 2003, I was just happy to be rowing alongside her on the way to Lindisfarne.

School crusader

She left the Citizen in 2003 and was about to go statewide.

Her real legacy may not be journalism, but instead her 15-year fight to put more money into K-12 funding.

It’s a constant struggle to bring Arizona funding out of the bottom two, three, five states in the country in terms of per-pupil K-12 funding. Arizona’s right wing seems insistent that to spend the national average (or just be among the bottom 15 states) on public schools would somehow turn us into a Venezuelan socialist wasteland. They’re not quite clear on how the average red-blooded American state pulls it off without food riots.

Ann-Eve joined the forefront of the efforts to change that chronic condition. That’s another way of saying Ann-Eve joined the effort and became the forefront, because of course she did.

She co-founded the Arizona Education Network in 2008. Very few people could catalyze ideas into action like she could. Stop bitching. Collect signatures. Get the question on the ballot.

She did just that in 2012 with Prop. 204, which would have made permanent the sales tax increase that Ann-Eve had helped spearhead in 2010 to buttress school finances through the depths of the Great Recession.

She again led the charge statewide and was pitted against a somewhat unknown state treasurer named Doug Ducey, who saw his political future tied to defeating Prop 204. Did he ever. The ballot measure failed by 25 points and Ducey became governor two years later.

Think that beat her? Nope. Any reporter who ever worked for her knew she’d just keep coming back for more. Last November, her efforts paid off in a changing state when voters approved a whopping income tax increase to fund public schools.

And of course, Arizona’s right wing greeted that success as if the Red Army had stormed up Central Avenue in Phoenix and hoisted a sickle and hammer over the state Capitol dome.

Ducey attacked the dedicated funding source with a flat tax proposal. The Legislature is moving a bill to let small business owners get out from under the obligation of providing those additional funds. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry is suing to overturn the initiative because they think it's somehow unconstitutional for our state to rank anywhere higher than 43rd in the nation in school spending.

Unfortunately, Ann-Eve won’t be there to help rally the forces of normality against the persistent extremists who treat teachers like Nazis while actual Nazis are “very fine people” if Donald Trump says so.

Why we oughta

Maybe John Donne is right and any man's death (or woman) diminishes me.

But Ann-Eve's passing is a personal thing. She made me better at my craft. Life that followed under Jennifer Boice, Ann-Eves's successor, was also cool. I wouldn't have followed her into battle because she wouldn't have led me into war. Jen helped me find my voice. Ann-Eve gave it value.

Ann-Eve was one of those people who was wonderfully dangerous to know because of her capacity to turn "someone oughta" into "we're all gonna." 

She was also among other things a champion fundraiser for nonprofits, an expert in setting up those groups (no easy task) and lending her time to help others do the same.

She was also, of course, a wife and mother and of course my heart only goes out to her husband Pete Eckerstrom and her son Lars.

Relationships and moms are never easy, especially when they are bolts of lightning in a bottle of Everclear like Ann-Eve Pedersen. 

But it was probably a hell of a ride.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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