Margaret Bernstein

by Olivera Perkins

Plain Dealer reporter Margaret Bernstein says she specializes in positive news. Given the standards in most newsrooms, few journalists would admit this.

But she offers no apologies for her calling. It's one of the many reasons she has been honored with the award named in memory of her former colleague, Chuck Heaton, who also specialized in positive journalism and community service.

Margaret is more than an author of pretty words and pleasant thoughts that might make a reader smile and then move on to the next story. Bernstein specializes in stories of personal triumph and solution-seeking. Often readers can't just move on. Margaret may have made them think by challenging a stereotype. She may have made them question what they could do to help out: make a donation, call a legislator, volunteer.

Who could have found a positive story in the Imperial Avenue serial murders, where each layer revealed yet more turmoil and tragedy?

Margaret, with writing partner Stan Donaldson, did not write just about how the 11 female victims often fought drug addiction and other demons, neglected their children and burdened their families. Instead, she found the stories of how four sons of some of the victims vowed to stop the cycle of neglect by vowing to be good fathers.

Whether she set out to do it or not, she has developed a brand with such stories. Her colleagues know it: They sometimes call these stories "a Margaret Bernstein." Her editors know it, too.

"They let me do it," she said. "I am really satisfied with that. They appreciate the fact that I bring something else."

This past summer, one of her colleagues brought her "a Margaret Bernstein." It was the story of Edna Sutton, who had just started Compassions Training and Awareness Center to show home health aides how to work with efficacy and sensitivity. Sutton became a quadriplegic after an ex-lover knocked her out of a second-story window.

It was a story of personal triumph that Margaret wrote onto A-1. She discovered this was also a story about mentors. She saw how Sutton's three home health aides in their 20s adored Sutton for the life lessons she gave them that had nothing to do with their jobs.

Margaret has become a renowned mentor herself. Twenty-one years ago, Margaret was paired with two young sisters in Cleveland, Cora and Ernestine Edinburgh, who were being raised by their grandmother. Today she is still their "Big Sister." In 2000, Margaret was named the National Big Sister of the Year for her long-standing relationship with her "little sisters."

"For so many people who receive that honor, that's the end for them," said Margaret Mitchell, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Cleveland. "That was really just the midway point in her journey of being a mentor. She just carries with her such a deep passion for the work."

In recent years, Margaret has come to view mentoring as one of the best solution-driven options for addressing everything from low academic performance to fatherless homes.

"I get very frustrated by people who complain about how ignorant today's young people act, but they never share their time to mentor a youth," she wrote in an e-mail.

Margaret also speaks nationally about mentoring for Big Brothers Big Sisters. ("I have become a bit of a preacher," she said.)

Her professional work has also been honored nationally. In 2008, she received the National Association of Black Journalists' prestigious Community Service Award, in part for a series of stories that led to more than $100,000 in donations to needy schoolkids. That same year, she was part of a team that was honored by Columbia University for its coverage of the Mount Pleasant section of Cleveland in a series titled "Can We Save Our Neighborhoods?"

In 2005, the subjects of The New York Times bestseller, "The Pact," about men known as The Three Doctors, picked Margaret to co-write their critically-acclaimed follow-up memoir, "The Bond: Three Young Men Learn to Forgive and Reconnect with their Fathers."

A native of Los Angeles, Margaret lives in Cleveland Heights with her husband, Shaker Heights Chief Prosecutor C. Randolph Keller. They have two children, Randy, 16, and Alexandria, 15.

She is a long-time volunteer for the Urban Journalism Workshop for high school students, which gives Margaret a chance to combine her loves of journalism and mentoring. Margaret recently began mentoring Denisha Gholston, a junior at Whitney M. Young School in Cleveland.

Denisha still gets excited when she talks about shadowing the veteran journalist last summer when Margaret covered Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children's Zone, a nationally recognized comprehensive education program in New York City.

Denisha marvels at how Margaret's extensive community contacts allowed her to find someone she had never met, but needed to interview, in a crowd of 1,000 in a matter of minutes. She also saw how Margaret had to educate an editor, who was filling in, about who Canada was.

"I'm not resentful about the fact that I consider myself the one who explains these things to editors," Margaret said. "It is part of my unwritten job description."

Laughing, she reflects on the extra work she's brought onto herself, fielding frequent calls and e-mails from community folks who see her as a gateway to getting coverage in the paper. But she is satisfied with the niche she's carved, just as Chuck Heaton did before her.

"I do see myself as an important cog at The Plain Dealer," she said.