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I am a notorious packrat. My preteen summer-camp tees are stuffed into memory boxes, as are the artfully folded notes friends passed to me in high school. I also like to keep compliments, to reread as pick-me-ups after a tough day. I still have the first one ever given to me by Emmis editorial director and IM columnist Deborah Paul, when I was still an underling at another Emmis magazine, Atlanta. The fashion feature I helped produce as one of my first assignments was “better by far” than the previous ones the magazine had done, she wrote to my then-editor.
I didn’t really know anything about Debbie back then, other than she oversaw the direction of Atlanta and our sister Emmis magazines. I didn’t know that this powerhouse of a woman stood only a breath under 5 feet tall, or that she was dubbed “Xena, Warrior Princess” for her ability to fight for editorial integrity. But I had heard that her critiques—handed down via monthly issues she’d tagged with her signature “stickies,” Post-its filled with her neat, tiny script—were often ruthless. “At a lot of magazines, there’s no one to push them to be better,” she explained to me later. So I printed out this first bit of praise, and floated home.
This month, Debbie retires (“Free Time”). Though she has agreed, thank goodness, to continue her column, she’ll no longer be keeping watch over us from her office here on Monument Circle. But what she has taught me—and the effect she has had on IM—will endure. When she arrived here in the early 1980s, the magazine was in dire straits: bankrupt, with only 18,000 subscribers. “It was my job to put the thing back on track,” she says. She wrote under three different names, so the staff looked bigger than it was. And when the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists awarded the publication first place in the city-magazine category, Debbie ran down the street to buy champagne—a memory she still recalls as one of her proudest: “I was just so thrilled we were finally on the map.”
One recent afternoon, Debbie plucked an old mechanical crank pencil sharpener from an office cabinet. Her predecessor had left it behind, those three decades ago. “I will always keep it,” she says. “Because I got the job. I got a chance.” She gave me a chance, too. And she’ll be missed dearly, sticky notes and all.
Amanda Heckert is the editor of Indianapolis Monthly. See her bio here.
This column appeared in the April 2013 issue.
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