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'Out of sight, features writer left her stamp'

Last modified: 9/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
Fans of the 1970s sitcom Rhoda know that the character holding a show together can sometimes be the one stationed far off-screen. Viewers never actually saw Carlton (Your Doorman), but he provided big laughs in every episode nonetheless.

In the Monitor Features Department, Vicky Shouldis is a little like that. We nearly never see her in person, but there has rarely been an arts section without her - not in the 21st century, for sure, and not for many, many years prior to that.

Vicky is a freelance writer for the Monitor - perhaps the longest-serving freelancer we've ever had. Unlike newsroom staffers, she doesn't work in the building. She takes assignments, one per week, every week, works from home and communicates with her editors via email and telephone.

Well, she did take assignments, up until a few weeks ago. Vicky is suffering from end-stage cancer and is no longer able to report or write stories for us. It seemed like a good time to tell you some stories about her.

First, Vicky is prolific. The Monitor website story archive goes back only until late 2004, but it includes 408 Shouldis bylines! Consider that for 20 years she also had a day job at the state hospital. How has she managed to write all those stories? A mystery indeed.

And what a range! Vicky has covered art exhibits, interviewed musicians, previewed local theater productions and more. She has written humor columns and - what a good sport! - always agrees to cover a town meeting or two in March (even the Deering variety that seem to last clear in to April) and a high school graduation or two in June.

In 2006, she wrote a story titled "Hillsboro selectmen stick with water board" - not waterboarding, mind you, but the municipal water agency. Trust me, at the time, it was a doozy.

Vicky is funny, too. That's hard to do in writing, let alone in real life. I happen to know she's funny because we once debated it via email. She was trying to persuade me to publish a humor column I had reservations about. Turns out, she was right.

Here, for instance, are her 2007 nominations for the worst Christmas songs ever: " 'Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.' I wish the Reindeer Death Squads would run over whoever wrote this. I hated it the first time I heard it. I hate it still. I don't think it's funny. And I liked my Grandma. Also, 'All I Want For Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth,' by The Chipmunks. That awful Chipmunk voice makes me want to throw the radio out the window."

Hard to argue, really.

Last year, she wrote a deeply personal column about her mother, who had died two years earlier. It was somehow silly and sorrowful all at once - a remarkable piece of writing that kept readers engaged till the end.

She wrote, "In 2008 we faced, as the book says, a series of unfortunate events. We lost our beloved cat, Molly Goldberg, after 19 years. I had a health issue that we were assured was probably nothing. It turned out to be very much not nothing. It was and remains something that is going to take my life. That summer, my mother, at the age of 71, had to cope with the idea that she might just outlive me. I'm not sure how any parent deals with that. My mother suddenly became acutely ill, then one health thing piled on another. She died on Sept. 1. She'd been in poor health, of course, but I also have to think that she made a decision - somewhere deep inside - that she could not go on. I understand it. And I'm still a little mad at her about it."

Hans Schulz, the newspaper's longtime city editor, got to know Vicky only after her mother's death.

"The obituary that appeared in the Monitor was clearly Vicky's work: It was vivid and beautiful and full of telling details," he says. "I sent Vicky an email to tell her how much I had loved reading about her mother. That correspondence would be the first of many between us over the next few years. Through those emails from Vicky - funny, snarky, candid, unsentimental - I gained a friend."

Schulz corresponded with her about her own cancer and his sister's - but it wasn't always so heavy. "For all the serious topics that have come up between us - Vicky, I learned over time, had had a very complicated life - we never carried on a discussion that didn't lead back to music somehow. We've exchanged more lists than you can count - from our desert island discs to the best (and worst) Beatles songs. People should know she's a big fan of "Rocky Raccoon" and Leonard Cohen, and has an online album of Squeeze concert photos that she took herself. She's cool and dorky, all rolled into one."

Sarah Earle, a former Monitor arts editor, also became a friend - as well as a connoisseur of Vicky's signature style. "If you gave me a stack of articles, all without bylines, and asked me to pick out her work, I think I would get it right every time," she says. "She loves hyphenated descriptions, Hampton Beach and Rick Springfield."

These days, Clay Wirestone, editor of the Thursday A&E section, is Vicky's main contact at the paper. He marvels at her range of interests - and lack of burnout. "People who can write engagingly about art, music, theater and museum exhibits are rare," he says. "People who keep doing it and keep learning from it are rarer. And that's what Vicky did, for the entire time I worked with her. I knew I could send her a seemingly random assignment - an artist she'd never heard of, or an obscure event in another town - and she would do her homework and write the story. What's more, she'd send it in early."

Vanessa Valdes, a former Monitor arts editor, appreciated Vicky's range of interests too - a rapper named Iceman, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, renovations at the Currier Museum in Manchester. As it turns out, when Valdes left the newspaper, she also gave up a steady stream of small gifts: "I have fond memories of Vicky's thoughtful gestures - she'd bring Easter treats, mixed CDs, and handcrafted jewelry to the Monitor office, each gift a touching symbol of her appreciation," Valdes says. "Vicky's dedication to her subject matter and her gracious manner are a great inspiration."

Indeed, Vicky has managed to make some terrific friends at the Monitor, even if she rarely appears in person.

"She and I worked together for nearly a decade, building a friendship through email and phone calls (though anyone who knows Vicky knows that it's nearly impossible to get her on the phone) without ever meeting in person," says Jen VanPelt, a features editor. "During this time, we shared huge life events, discussing them as old friends - the births of my two children, the loss of her mother, the loss of my brother, her illness. Even though the only face I had to put with the person at the other end of cyberland was an ancient Monitor mugshot, she was always there when I needed her."

That's the highest compliment you can pay to a friend, of course, "always there when I needed her." In a strange way, it's also high praise for a journalist from her many editors. For years (and years!), Vicky Shouldis was always there for the Monitor. We're already feeling the loss.

(Felice Belman can be reached at 369-3370 or fbelman@cmonitor.com.)


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