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Guideposts Classics: Diane Sawyer on Aiming High

In this story from March 1986, broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer shares the story about how she decided to make journalism her career.


Many of us, I think, can look back and recall certain specific moments in our lives that take on greater importance the longer we live.

“The past has a different pattern,” T.S. Eliot wrote, when viewed from each of our changing perspectives.

For me, one of those moments occurred when I was 17 years old. I was a high school senior in Louisville, Kentucky, representing my state in the 1963 America’s Junior Miss competition in Mobile, Alabama.

Along with the other young contestants, I was doing my best to hold up under the grueling week-long schedule of interviews, agonies over hair that curled or wouldn’t, photo sessions, nervous jitters and rehearsals.

In the midst of it all, there was one person who stood at the center—at least my psychological center—someone I viewed as an island in an ocean of anxiety.

She was one of the judges. A well-known writer. A woman whose sea-gray eyes fixed on you with laser penetration, whose words were always deliberate. She felt the right words could make all the difference. Her name was Catherine Marshall.

From the first moment I met Catherine Marshall, I was aware that she was holding me—indeed all of us—to a more exacting standard.

While other pageant judges asked questions about favorite hobbies and social pitfalls, she sought to challenge. She felt even 17-year-old girls—perhaps especially 17-year-old girls—should be made to examine their ambitions and relate them to their values.

During the rehearsal on the last day of the pageant, the afternoon before it would all end, several of us were waiting backstage when a pageant official said Catherine Marshall wanted to speak with us.

We gathered around. Most of us were expecting a last-minute pep talk or the ritual good luck wish. Or at most an exhortation to be good citizens, but we were surprised.

She fixed her eyes upon us. “You have set goals for yourselves. I have heard some of them. But I don’t think you have set them high enough. You have talent and intelligence and a chance.

“I think you should take those goals and expand them. Think of the most you could do with your lives. Make what you do matter. Above all, dream big.”

It was not so much an instruction as a dare. I felt stunned, like a small animal fixed on bright lights. This woman I admired so much was disappointed in us—not by what we were but by how little we aspired to be.

I won the America’s Junior Miss contest that year. In the fall I entered Wellesley College, where my sister, Linda, was beginning her junior year. I graduated in 1967 with a B.A. degree in English and a complete lack of inspiration about what I should do with it.

I went to my father, a lawyer and later a judge in Louisville’s Jefferson County Court. “But what is it that you enjoy doing most?” he asked.

“Writing,” I replied slowly. “I like the power of the word. And working with people. And being in touch with what’s happening in the world.”

He thought for a moment. “Did you ever consider television?”

I hadn’t.

At that time there were few if any women journalists on television in our part of the country. The idea of being a pioneer in the field sounded like dreaming big.

So that’s how I came to get up my nerve, put on my very best Mary Tyler Moore girl journalist outfit, and go out to convince the news director at Louisville’s WLKY-TV to let me have a chance.

He gave it to me—and for the next two and a half years, I worked as a combination weather and news reporter.

Eventually, though, I began to feel restless. I’d lie awake at night feeling that something wasn’t right. I’d wait for the revelation, the sign pointing in the direction of the Big Dream.

What I didn’t realize is what Catherine Marshall undoubtedly knew all along—that the dream is not the destination but the journey.

I was still working at WLKY when, in 1969, my father was killed in an auto crash. His death—coupled with my urge to make a change—spurred me in the search for a different job and also seemed to kindle my interest in the world of government, law and politics.

I racked my brain. I put out feelers. And then one of my father’s associates said, “What about Washington?”

Several months later, in the autumn of 1970, I said goodbye to my mother and Linda and to the good folks at WLKY, and boarded a plane for Washington, D.C.

Now, I know this may sound incredibly naive, but when the plane landed at National Airport, I got off with a very firm idea of where I wanted to work. At the White House.

True, in the eyes of official Washington I might be right off the equivalent of the turnip truck, but working in the White House was exactly what I had in mind!

Thanks to a few kind words of recommendation from a friend of my father’s, I was able to obtain an interview with Ron Ziegler, the White House press secretary, and I was hired.

Those were heady days. The Press Office, located in the West Wing of the White House, was the hub for information flowing between the White House and the media. I worked hard and I worked long and loved every part of it.

Then came Watergate.

In the summer of 1974 the President resigned. Immediately I was appointed to his transition team in San Clemente, California.

My assignment on the West Coast was supposed to last only six months. But a few days after my arrival the President made a request that I was totally unprepared for.

He asked me to consider staying on in San Clemente—along with several other writers and aides—to assist him in researching and writing his memoirs. I had to make a choice, and a choice that I knew would have consequences.

“Career suicide.” mumbled some of my friends.

But I had worked for this man and he had been good to me. Now he was asking me for something that I was in a position to give. I have never regretted the decision. I stayed.

One day in the long exile, Catherine Marshall and her husband, Leonard LeSourd, called to say they were nearby. They came for a visit, and once again I felt the searching gaze and, implicit in it, the words. “What is next?”

Again I came to appreciate the immense power of someone who is unafraid to hold other people to a standard. And again I realized the way a single uncompromising question can force reexamination of a life.

Today, after three years as co-anchor on the CBS Morning News, I’m co-editor of CBS’s 60 Minutes television newsmagazine. We work at a breakneck pace with long hours and constant travel thrown in.

I keep a suitcase packed at all times so that I can be ready to fly out on assignment at a moment’s notice.

My New York apartment, which I see far too little of these days, has become my refuge, the place where I’m free to pad about in jeans and a sweatshirt—no makeup, no contact lenses, no hairspray.

Sometimes I unwind by playing the piano. Or I relax by doing something simple but satisfying—baking a pan of muffins or cleaning out an old junk drawer. These are the times of silent reassessment.

When I go out into the world again—and who knows where I’ll be flying next?—I can almost hear a wonderful woman prodding me with her fiery challenge to stretch further and, no matter how big the dream, to dream a little bigger still.

God, she seems to be saying, can forgive failure, but not failing to try.

Read more Guideposts Classics!

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