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April 1, 2002

Keeping the wheels turning

By Eric Rangus


Eileen Smith is nothing if not up front. “I’m like a real boss,” says Smith, general manager of The Emory Wheel, the University’s student newspaper. “If I’m having a bad day, you’re going to, too. There are some days when I don’t care about your feelings. When the students get a real job, that’s the way it’s going to be—we don’t care about your personal life.”

As far as the newspaper business is concerned … Smith is a natural.

“Being a part of Campus Life, it’s always, ‘How do you feel about that? You’re such a leader,’” Smith continues her voice getting sarcastically higher and higher pitched with each word. “I think the people in Campus Life are outrageous.”

It’s pretty clear from the get-go that Smith is an atypical member of the University’s most upbeat, touchy-feeliest division.

This whole tough-chick attitude, however, makes Karen Salisbury laugh. “She’s totally soft,” says Salisbury, director of student activities. All student media, including the Wheel, falls under the administration (but not control) of Salisbury’s office. “Eileen’s all about developing skills in the students she works with.”

For instance, often when new advertising executives join the Wheel staff, Smith takes them selling.

“You really need to advertise in the Wheel,” they say, verbally twisting their prey’s arm as ad execs are wont to do. They drop in references to the University’s 11,000 students with discretionary income and the 19,000 staff and faculty their ad could reach, as well as all the money that can be had by all involved.

All the while, Smith stands just beyond the door, listening. When the pitch is done, she will escort the young exec back to the Wheel’s fifth-floor office, discussing the positives and negatives she noticed.

“She’s a bottom-line person for the Wheel, and they need that,” Salisbury says. “Her students learn so much, and they have a great loyalty to her. What she’s doing is student development. When we tell her that, she’ll put up two fingers and shake her head, ‘No, no, no.’ She’s right there with us; she just uses different words. I tell her, ‘Whatever you do, just keep doing it.’”

The students say the same thing.

“She is always very supportive and is very good at explaining everything,” says Carol Danko, a senior majoring in psychology and political science. She has worked as an advertising executive at the Wheel since her sophomore year.

“I remember she would always tell me the same thing over and over, and I kept thinking, ‘I get it, I get it.’” Danko continues. “But then all this repetition just molded in my brain, and it made a difference. It helped a lot. My classes have been wonderful, but working at the Wheel has given me more valuable experience than I could learn anywhere else.”

Eventually, the tough-talking Smith’s façade fades away.

“I’m here as a safety net,” she says. “Everybody will make mistakes, and we’ve had some this year. [I say] if you knew how to do this right all the time, you wouldn’t have to go to college, you’d already be running your own newspaper. It’s okay to make mistakes. I’m just here to make sure they don’t happen real big.

“These kids—I don’t know what to say—they’re wonderful,” she continues. “They really are a blessing. I love them so dearly. They are here nearly 24 hours a day. When you figure it out, some writers make 30 cents an hour. It’s pure passion.”

Advertising can be a little more lucrative for the wallet than writing. Some students earn as much a $500–$600 a month on commission, and many times they join the Wheel with zero experience in the field. But it’s not always easy.

“It’s quite a learning experience,” Smith says. “We’ve had some kids”—that’s the word, “kids,” Smith most frequently and fondly uses to describe Wheel employees—“who thought they could sell. Then [when] they actually had to sell something, they freaked out and said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

“I was told when I came here that when you deal with students you can have years that are absolutely phenomenal—every student will mesh and it will be just fantastic,” she continues. “In other years, you just won’t have it. This year has been amazing.”

A native of Providence, R.I., Smith moved to Atlanta shortly after earning her master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1972. For years, she worked as a contractor selling advertisements for publications at several universities, including Emory. Through her work, she got to know Richard Daigle, then Emory’s media advisor.

In 1997, Daigle asked Smith if she’d be interested filling a position that was just begin created, general manager of the Wheel. She declined. The next year, Daigle asked again. This time, Smith accepted, and became the only Emory employee on the Wheel’s masthead.

“When I first came here, the kids didn’t know what to make of me,” Smith says. “It took a good year or so before they would even come over to ask me things. They are very proud and fiercely loyal to the fact they are [editorially] independent of the school. If I had come in and tried to take things over, I think they would have freaked.”

Now, after four years on the job, Wheel staffers don’t know the paper without her. Smith’s presence, and her advice, now comes with the territory.

“I had never done newspaper before, and it’s a hoot,” she says. “These deadlines—they’re twice a week whether you want them or not.”

As business manager, Smith’s contributions to the Wheel’s editorial side are minimal. Where she wields her clout is in advertising—getting the money and training others to get the money that keeps the presses rolling.

While the Wheel offices are located in the Dobbs Center, the paper receives no University funds. It must generate its own revenue and pay all its own bills, including Smith’s salary.

“I have a very vested interest in our not losing money,” she says. And this year, they haven’t. Using money earned from advertising, the Wheel was able to buy several new computers and were able to send student workers on several trips.

As Salisbury alluded, the bottom line is of prime importance.

“This is a business,” Smith says. “My line is, ‘Don’t mess with the money.’”

Despite her insistence on dollars and cents, Smith leads a pretty balanced life. A 10-month employee, her summers are laid back and she spends most of her time with daughter Dana and their dog, Tiffany. Once a week she’ll drop in the Wheel office to return messages.

Next year will mark a significant milestone. Dana will begin her freshman year at Emory. Now 17, Dana is graduating from Ben Franklin Academy, a matter of yards from campus on Clifton Road, a year early.

“I don’t know what they do over there,” Smith says. “[Teaching] is one on one, and they give kids tons of self-confidence; it’s all based on principles started over here at Emory.”