As she neared the end of her collegiate career, Susan Headden’s goal was “not to graduate without a job. I wanted a cool communications job in Manhattan. That changed when I heard from friends who were working in Manhattan and not finding it particularly satisfying.”
Headden switched focus, turning to her journalism and English majors to seek a new path. “I got a crummy job at a local newspaper in New Jersey, where I was lifestyle editor and photographer at $115 a week. I chose that over something that wasn’t journalism. It was an awful job, though. The darkroom was a little hole in the wall next to a Chinese restaurant—and I was living with my parents.”
Not the most auspicious beginning for a future Pulitzer Prize-winner, but Headden’s luck was about to change. “Thanks to my OWU network and Gordon Witkin ’77, I got a job at the Indianapolis Star, and I was there for ten years. I covered everything from consumer issues to federal courts and the legislature. What I always tried to do was to take on a little extra—a lot of different assignments.”
It was at the Star that she and her partner, Joe Hallinan, dug into the issue of medical malpractice and developed a three-part series on the subject. Their stories revealed that several Indiana doctors had lost multiple large lawsuits, yet continued to practice medicine and maintain their hospital privileges. They also reported that Indiana had a cap on economic damages, “so even if you were injured so badly it was going to cost millions over your lifetime, the most you could get was $250,000,” Headden says. “We wrote about the influence of the Insurance Institute. We worked on it for nearly a year. I had not worked on many medical stories, and I learned so much about medicine and terminology. It was rewarding to expose such an injustice.
“I never believed in a million years that we would win the Pulitzer Prize for it,” Headden continues. “We heard we were finalists, and I remember going to the office the day the announcement was going to be made. I also recall looking particularly bad that day. My hair was a mess and I was in jeans. I’ll never forget sitting in my office, when one of my colleagues came in with the AP wire and said, “You won!” It was my first introduction to the other side of the story. I did many interviews, and it was exhausting.”
Another perk of working at the Star “was the guy seated next to me from the AP, who explained a lot of things. He later became my husband.”
Her friend Gordon Witkin once again entered Headden’s life, this time connecting her with U.S. News and World Report. She served that publication as assistant managing editor for national news, investigations, and education, and as managing editor of the magazine’s newsstand book division. She also supervised the magazine’s annual “America’s Best Leaders” project in collaboration with the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Today, Headden is senior/writer editor for Education Sector, where she supports the organization’s editorial and writing efforts and writes original articles on education issues. Reflecting on her career, she says, “Don’t let anyone define success for you. Have confidence that what you value is the right thing for you to do. Don’t define success financially; it’s not about having the most stuff or the most prestige. I would say that success comes only with with hard work and self- confidence. If you haven’t worked hard for it, it’s not valuable.”
Headden’s major goals today include trying to do more for the community, making contributions in areas she’s passionate about, taking care of the planet, and “getting into the classroom and doing some tutoring,” she says. “I feel I’ve always been an educator because that’s the kind of journalist I was—helping to create a more informed populace. I feel like I have more to give back there.”
Her journalistic curiosity shows in her desire “to continue to be a highly educated person. I’ve always had a goal to learn something new every day. It doesn’t stop when you leave college. OWU gave me the tools to go out and do that every day. I built a whole career by asking questions and analyzing information. I feel I’ve succeeded in making the most of my liberal arts education.”