N&O columnist Sheehan leaving for law school

Sheehan will leave The N&O after almost 20 years

Staff WriterAugust 4, 2010 

Longtime News & Observer columnist Ruth Sheehan, who has an ear for a story, an eye for detail and a strong sense of justice, is swapping her reporter's notebook for a legal pad.

Sheehan's last column for the paper will appear in late August. She will begin classes at the University of North Carolina law school this fall.

"There is no better job than being a columnist. None," said Sheehan, 45. But she's ready for a new challenge.

Sheehan knew she wanted to be in newspapers from the day, back in 3rd grade, when her teacher told the class to imagine that aliens had landed on the south side of Milwaukee and they were the first reporters to arrive on the scene.

"I realized that if an alien did land on the south side of Milwaukee, I would love to be the first one out there to cover it."

As it was, Sheehan became the visitor to the foreign land, leaving her native Milwaukee two days after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a job at the Burlington Times-News in North Carolina. A year later, she was covering North Carolina government and politics for the Freedom Newspapers chain.

Sheehan joined the N&O in 1991 as a reporter in the Chapel Hill bureau, where she covered the university and the Orange County board of commissioners before coming to Raleigh as a general assignment reporter.

Eight years later, there was an opening for a columnist. Sheehan applied.

When she got the job, she recalls, then-Managing Editor Melanie Sill warned her, "Your panties are going to be hanging out."

Sheehan launched a conversation with readers in which she had a lot hanging out: her picture and her name, details of her own life, her ideas about the way the world worked or ought to work.

It has been a give and take, she says. Readers have always felt free to call and e-mail in response.

"I saved a few of the nice ones," she said, but only a few. "I never really felt like I deserved those."

The ones that took her to task were more interesting, she says. One of her favorites, which earned a place on her cubicle wall as her desk moved around the newsroom, was a note that came in the mail. It includes a copy of her photo clipped from above her column, with an arrow pointing at her naturally blond tresses.

"IT IS HARD TO TAKE ANYONE WITH HAIR LIKE THIS SERIOUSLY," it said.

A reporter first

N&O Executive Editor John Drescher said Sheehan's columns are based mostly on fresh reporting that goes beyond what appears in the daily news pages.

"She's the hardest-working reporter in the newsroom," he said.

Carole Tanzer Miller, who has edited Sheehan's columns for the past year, knew when Sheehan had a winner of an idea, one she really liked. Her voice would go up several octaves. Her eyes would twinkle.

"You don't even need to wind her up," Miller said. "She just goes."

Sometimes, family matters and deadlines met in the paper for Sheehan, the mother of three boys. There was the column in which she made a public plea to husband Harry Payne to get a vasectomy. Payne is manager of compliance for the N.C. Office of Economic Recovery and Investment and an accomplished lawyer in his own right.

Drescher, who thinks the worst column is one that garners no response, could seldom make that complaint of Sheehan's work. She still gets calls about a piece she wrote after the arrest of members of Duke University's lacrosse team on rape charges, saying team members should tell police what they knew about the events of that night. She apologized for the column once the charges were found to be false.

Sticking with a story

Once Sheehan took on a story, she stayed with it. She followed the travails of Phil Wiggins, a patient in North Carolina's troubled mental health treatment system, for five years, beginning when he was about to be discharged from Cherry Hospital with pyromaniac tendencies and no suitable place to go.

Wiggins' sister, Louise Jordan of Raleigh, said Sheehan spent hours with her brother, sitting in on meetings with social workers and caregivers, or just visiting with him in the group home where he settled after leaving the hospital. Sheehan continued to visit Wiggins until he died in 2008, writing updates on his condition and the shape of the system that was designed to help him and others.

"She wanted to be honest as a reporter and serve the greater good," Jordan said. "But she didn't want to do anything that would hurt him. I came to trust her completely."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989