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Correspondent Pam Fessler Bids Farewell After 28 Years At NPR


We try to take some pride here at considering all things, if you please, from the who, what and where of a news story to the how and why of a persisting condition like poverty. The correspondent who currently reports on poverty for NPR is leaving after an admirable career. She's our own Pam Fessler. Boy, I'm going to miss saying that. And she joins us now. Pam, thanks so much for being with us.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott. I'm so happy to be here.

SIMON: You've been a working journalist for 47 years - newspapers, Congressional Quarterly, the past 28 here at NPR, where you've covered the White House and Homeland Security, voting issues and, of course, as we say, poverty. Seen a few changes?

FESSLER: Yeah, a few (laughter). First, I think the big change I've seen is who's actually in the newsroom. When I first became interested in reporting, I was a little girl. And my only role model at the time, believe it or not, was Lois Lane of Superman because I didn't know of any female journalists. Fortunately, by the time I started working in the 1970s, that had started to change. I think the second change I've seen has been technology and information. You know, when I first started, I had a typewriter. I had a glue pot and a ruler on my desk because when we wanted to change paragraphs around on our copy, we actually had to rip up the paper and reglue the paragraphs.

SIMON: Hence cut and paste, yeah.

FESSLER: Exactly. We didn't have a word processor, cellphones or the Internet. But I look back and all the information I got from my stories I got firsthand. I went out. I talked to people, I heard their stories. I watched what was happening. And today, the technology is a lot better. But, you know, we have to spend so much time today wading through all this information, you know, trying to determine, you know, what's true, what's false. And we often have to respond to those falsehoods and correct misinformation. And that takes a time away from going out in the field, I think. And, of course, that's the beauty of working at NPR - is, you know, we really value those stories when we can bring people's voices and their sounds to listeners from around the world.

SIMON: And you've been able to do so much memorable work with your reporting on poverty to bring voices to the ears of people. What are some of the stories that really stayed with you?

FESSLER: Well, I mean, the overarching one, obviously, is the income inequality in this country, you know, its impact and what can be done about it. You know, I started covering this beat right after the Great Recession, you know, when we saw that widening of this gap. And here we are in a pandemic when it's probably going to get even wider. Most of my stories, a lot of my stories, I focused on single mothers who are trying to make ends meet because these, to me, were the families that were on the front lines of poverty. A lot of them worked, but they, you know, have low wages. They have problems with child care, transportation, and they get government assistance often but not always. But they're barely making it. So I did a lot of stories about the impact of this on children growing up and the big gap between some white families in this country, especially when it comes to accumulating wealth. But I think the most memorable ones to me were about homelessness. And one story that really sticks out in my mind was - I followed this couple in Baltimore, an older homeless couple, for a story about how the homeless population is aging. And, you know, they were just worn out, especially the man Tony, who was very worried about his girlfriend.


TONY LITHGOW: I got to get her off the street, but I can't do it. Nobody's helping us.

ANDREA MAYER: And we're getting tired.

LITHGOW: I'm tired. I'm tired. I'm exhausted. This is not a joke anymore. I'm hurt.

FESSLER: Tony stands up. Andrea watches concerned, as he walks away.

MAYER: I never seen this, seen him so emotional.

FESSLER: And, Scott, I did that story in 2013 when there were 590,000 homeless people in this country. Now there are about 580,000 - not that different. And those numbers are going up.

SIMON: And what's it been like for you to report these stories again and again?

MAYER: Well, you know, it can get very depressing at times. But, you know, one of the biggest surprises I had was all these extraordinary people I met, you know, on the poverty...

SIMON: Yeah.

FESSLER: You know, these people who - they faced so many obstacles. They were up against so much. But some of them somehow just, like, really picked themselves up and they did some incredible things. One of my favorite stories that I did a story about a homeless veteran in California. And he got housed after 30 years on the street. And I found out later that he wrote a thank-you note to every - the property owners at every single place he had camped out over that time just to tell them how much he appreciated that they helped him get through these difficult times, which is extraordinary. I did another story about a Somali American cab driver in Georgia. And he built a whole organization, you know, from scratch just to help refugees in his community adjust to life in the U.S. And then one of the most inspiring people that I met, Scott, was a young man named Emeka Nnaka. This was in Tulsa, Okla. He was paralyzed from the waist down after a college football injury. So I followed him around for a story I was doing about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act just, you know, to see what he was up against. And here's just one little clip of what happened when he drove his handicapped accessible van to apply for work.


EMEKA NNAKA: You see that little strip?


NNAKA: That's not enough for me to get my ramp out and...

FESSLER: Really?

NNAKA: Not at all.

FESSLER: The handicapped space is a bit too narrow, so he has to park over the line. When Nnaka wheels to the front door, there's also no button he can push to open it. I asked Nnaka what he'd do if I weren't there.

NNAKA: If you weren't here, I would...

FESSLER: He wedges the side of one arm under the handle, cracking the door open slightly. He then wiggles his chair back and forth like a crowbar until he's inside.

Yeah, Scott, he couldn't even reach the elevator button to press the floor. And it was just, like, one thing after another. But the thing is, Scott, Emeka is one of the most optimistic and resourceful people I've ever met.

SIMON: Well, thanks for helping us meet folks like him and all your good work for so long. NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks. Thanks for everything.

FESSLER: Thank you, Scott. And I'm really honored that my last interview is with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.