The legacy of the late journalist Sally Kalson runs deep in her beloved hometown of Pittsburgh, where her insightful, bold and sensitive facility with words moved readers for more than three decades.
That she also was beloved was amply evident at “Sally Kalson: The Early Years,” a program presented by the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives at the Heinz History Center on Sept. 5, where more than 250 friends, fans and family members turned out to get a glimpse of Kalson as a young reporter with values as unwavering as her abundant talent.
Kalson, who died in 2014 from cancer at the age of 63, is most widely remembered as a longtime columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, taking on controversies with a strong voice shaped by earnest convictions. The foundations of those convictions — as well as that strong voice — are evident in a trove of her effects which her husband, Ed Feinstein, delivered to the Heinz History Center earlier this year. Those effects include reporter’s notebooks, short fiction she authored, photos and press credentials, and were on display at the program.
Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives, used Kalson’s documents and relics to tell the story of how a young Jewish girl from Mt. Lebanon coming of age in the 1960s grew to be an accomplished journalist.
“Sally could always bring out a crowd,” her younger brother, David Kalson, told the audience at the commencement of the program.
“She was already a force of nature growing up in our house in Mt. Lebanon,” he recalled. “Sally seized every opportunity … to demonstrate her buoyant personality and considerable talents.”
“A force of nature” also was how longtime friend and colleague Mike Fuoco of the Post-Gazette described Kalson.
“She was young, eager and full of fire,” Fuoco said. “From the beginning, I was in awe of her. She was the coolest person I ever met.”
The documents that Kalson saved from the early part of her life, Lidji said, evidence a “voice looking for a microphone.”
Lidji read and displayed on a screen early examples of Kalson’s writing, the first being a humorous “thank you” letter she wrote in 1968 while in high school, as well as her initial byline in the Post-Gazette, a letter to the editor about Vietnam War protests.
She was young, eager and full of fire. From the beginning, I was in awe of her.
A 1968 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, Kalson attended the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in communications.
When, after she graduated from Pitt, her father saw an ad in The Jewish Chronicle for a society editor, he suggested she apply for the position. She was hired and worked at the Chronicle for two years.
While society editors at the time were generally relegated to listing such events as bar mitzvahs and organizations’ meetings, Kalson transformed her position into something else entirely.
“What she did with that position was really remarkable,” Lidji said, explaining that when she would see that a notable figure would be coming to town to speak at an event, she would nab an interview.
“She wrote about 40 articles in the two years she was there,” Lidji said, including pieces based on interviews with national and international figures, allowing her to build a portfolio of work.
Following her time at the Chronicle, Kalson became the public relations director for Israel Bonds, took a creative writing course at Pitt, became associate editor of Pittsburgher Magazine and wrote for a publication in Harrisburg called Pennsylvania Illustrated.
Sally’s voice is the voice of a friend. A friend who is always there to listen…
In those early writings, readers can see the roots of Kalson’s wit as a writer as well as her resolute respect for her subject matter, Lidji noted.
Prior to her time at the Post-Gazette, which began in 1984, Kalson enjoyed an eclectic freelance career, writing for esteemed publications such as The New York Times Magazine while at the same time working for journals of less renown — like Guest Informant, a travel guide placed in hotel rooms.
The Kalson collection also includes articles and other documents from her early years at the Post-Gazette, most notably papers relating to her investigative reporting in Nicaragua during the war, and her efforts to make those stories personal and relatable to her Pittsburgh readers.
The exhibit will be displayed in the reading room on the sixth floor of the Heinz History Center, following Rosh Hashana through the end of September.
“Sally’s voice is the voice of a friend,” Lidji said. “A friend who is always there to listen, a friend who is sometimes funny, a friend who tells you the truth even if you don’t want to hear it, and a friend who has your back.”
At the end of the program, Kalson’s husband, Ed Feinstein, announced that the Feinstein and Kalson families would be establishing the “Sally Kalson Courage in Journalism Fund Award” to honor Kalson’s legacy. The $3,000 yearly award will recognize a piece of journalistic work from “print, broadcast or social media” that “embodies the characteristics of Sally’s body of work.”
The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments have each granted $12,500 to help establish the fund in perpetuity, Feinstein said. PJC