Stephanie Salter · 2019
“Mostly, I wanted to be Paul McCartney’s wife,” quipped the soft-spoken Salter with her trademark sarcastic wit and flashing blue eyes.
Born in Vincennes on Nov. 11, 1949, to parents Morris and Patty Salter, she didn’t get bitten by the journalism bug until she was a freshman at Purdue University and joined the Exponent newspaper staff. By her junior year, the two-finger typist was the first female editor-in-chief since World War II.
Her sports editor and mentor Kent Hannon went on to work for Sports Illustrated. With encouragement and a job opening tip from him, Salter interviewed and was soon hired by Sport Illustrated in New York City after graduation in 1971. She recalls, “As a lowly fact checker, I learned about great writing by working intimately with the words of some of the best wordsmiths. I learned the rhythm and melody of excellent writing.”
Her heart took her to San Francisco in 1975 where she freelanced for a year before being hired as a sports writer by the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. “I loved covering and traveling with the Golden State Warriors and the Oakland A’s, but I slowly grew tired of the insular and repetitive world of sports,” said the recipient of the national Mary Garber Woman Sportswriter of the Year award.
That’s when she moved to cityside (1982) for general assignment and higher education beats until 1985.
From 1985 until 2002, Salter became famous as a revered, ultra-liberal columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and post-merger Chronicle. According to author, former Examiner and Chronicle columnist, and current San Francisco Giants media consultant Joan Ryan, Salter was so popular with readers that hundreds of fans held two protest marches trying to reverse the publisher’s decision to end her column after 16 years.
Ryan remembers, “Steph was the journalist’s journalist, the writer’s writer. She was fearless and elegant, analytical and homespun. Refrigerators all over the Bay Area had her columns taped to them. What set Steph’s column apart was deep empathy and clear-eyed focus on the people nobody sees: the poor, the marginalized, the dismissed.”
National honors followed, including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Susan B. Anthony Media Award.
In 1989, then-Examiner Managing Editor Frank McCulloch nominated her for a Pulitzer Prize for her overview of the special edition done on the 1989 Loma
Prieta earthquake. “He was a giant in journalism who worked for Henry Luce, Otis Chandler, C.K. McClatchy and, finally, William Randolph Hearst III,” Salter said. “So just his nomination was an honor.”
During those column years, Salter, who is a Catholic convert, collaborated with two other Examiner reporters on a major investigative reporting series exposing financial corruption and clergy sex abuse in the San Francisco Archdiocese. She and another Examiner reporter wrote another series about dozens of families damaged by implantation in grown children of false memories of childhood sex abuse.
Salter said of the church series, “The Examiner and our trio of reporters were condemned from pulpits around the Bay Area and called liars. The then-Archbishop dubbed our stories, ‘journalistic terrorism.’”
The Bay Area Society for Professional Journalists didn’t agree. In 1994, the organization presented them with its Best Investigative Reporting Award.
Phil Bronstein, executive chair of the Center for Investigative Reporting, was the Examiner’s editor-in-chief during the series. “Her extremely thorough investigation into corruption at the San Francisco Archdiocese brought down the full wrath of the Catholic Church and righted egregious wrongs long before The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series was published.”
Bronstein continued, “Stephanie had the most profound and unique combination of fearlessness and compassion. Her stellar journalist work and beautifully crafted prose was a gift to her readers in her column. San Francisco lost a powerful talent and voice when she left for Indiana. If there were a San Francisco journalists’ Hall of Fame, she would be in there. Beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Salter’s love of opera was never in doubt. The woman who took ballet, tap and jazz lessons as a kid went on to be a supernumerary (extra) in 28 different productions with the San Francisco Opera. “My worst costume was in ‘Rigoletto’ where I had to wear a pig nose, skull cap, 10 pounds of heavy tapestry and Frankenstein-like platform heels,” she recalled laughing.
Although after 29 years hopelessly in love with opera and the City By the Bay, Salter moved home temporarily to Terre Haute to help her adored father through his chemotherapy. “My dad was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer in May 2004 and mother had her own health problem,” Salter said. “My younger sister, Debbie Fenoglio, lived in Danville (Indiana) with her husband Dave. At that time, she was a full-time special education teacher at Greencastle Middle School.
“My Chronicle editors kept me on the payroll but by late summer, I knew I’d have to move back to Indiana for good. My going-away party at the Chron was, by choice, held in the old composing room that had separated the Chronicle and the Examiner for decades. Hearst’s prohibition against alcohol on the premises was broken with many bottles of Champagne. A friend and I drove the 2,175 miles east in four days. But my dad died not 48 hours after I got home.”
The Terre Haute Tribune-Star welcomed her back home with open arms and a job as an enterprise reporter and columnist. She won many Associated Press and SPJ awards before finishing her career there as an assistant editor for opinion.
Salter said, “The first year after dad died was the loneliest of my life.” She credits working for Max Jones and Susan Duncan for saving her from despair. “So often, I’d finish a long day at the paper, come out to get into my car and only then, remember I was in Terre Haute, not San Francisco. The work was the same and it delivered me.
“When I moved back home, many people predicted my brand of politics and social justice stuff would never play in Terre Haute. But the great surprise was how many closet liberals there were in the Tribune-Star’s readership. I heard repeatedly that my column gave them hope,” said the unabashed ultra-liberal who was honored with a national Friend of the First Amendment award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Duncan said, “I worked with Steph before she put a -30- to her newspaper career. She emboldened colleagues. The less experienced reporters gravitated toward her because they sensed there was honesty in her tutelage. The seasoned staff sought her out because she reminded them why what we do matters, why our sacrifices are worthwhile, why giving up and giving in are not options.”
At age 61, Salter married Bill Fenoglio, the brother of her sister’s husband. A Terre Haute native and widower, Fenoglio is a retired executive and former vice president of a General Electric division. He was also chairman of the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Board of Trustees. Salter got an instant family with Bill’s three grown children and eight grandchildren.
The couple now live in Indianapolis in a charming, spacious home atop a hill overlooking a lake. “Because I’m a feminist and was a first-time geezer bride, I did not take Bill’s name. But I told him any kids we have together are welcome to be Fenoglios.
“When Bill and I got together and I wound down my career, the affectionate joke around Terre Haute was that Bill, a lifelong Eisenhower Republican and free-market capitalist, had been sent by the GOP to neutralize me,” Salter quipped.
Now there’s a column looking for a refrigerator door.
By Julie Slaymaker