From Bowdoin to CNN: Anchor reports 'excellent adventure'
This is the first in an occasional series profiling Bowdoin alumni who have gone on to lead interesting and exciting lives after college.
When Judy Fortin '83 first became a Bowdoin student, she never envisioned herself interviewing future newsmakers and celebrities, like John Glenn, Sally Ride, members of the famed 1980 Olympic hockey team, or musician Yo-Yo Ma. She never saw herself sitting 10 feet away from the defendant-OJ Simpson-in one of the most scrutinized trials of the century. And she certainly never thought that she would become one of the top anchors at CNN, a cable network that was only coming into existence during her college years.
"I've been the accidental journalist," she said.
Yet 21 years after her graduation, Fortin looks anything like an accidental journalist. Pacing the stage without notes or a script at last Friday's Common Hour, she recounted stories of her journey from the College to national television. She also offered advice to current students, with whom she shook hands as they filtered into Kresge Auditorium.
"You have to reach inside yourself and find passion in what you do," she said.
Fortin anchors the three-hour block of morning news on CNN Headline News, starting at 9:00 a.m. each weekday. Her path to this position started at the College.
At Bowdoin, Fortin majored in Government and French. It was here that Fortin first discovered her love of journalism. She started working for the Orient during her freshman year.
"I put a lot more time into the Orient than I did my studies," she said. "I'm a news junkie."
Her work at the newspaper led to her interest in professional journalism. "It was so much fun for me, I couldn't imagine not doing it," she said.
She encouraged today's students to do the same and find out what they love before they enter the workforce.
"You have a very small window of opportunity in which you can really find that niche-the thing that you want to do," she said. After that, she said, comes the "two D's:" debt and diapers. The time is now, she said, to find things that you enjoy and try to work those things into a career.
She credits the College's liberal arts curriculum for helping her on the job. Since students come away with a wide breadth of knowledge, she said, "[Bowdoin graduates] have the ability to look at an event or a story or a situation better than someone who just has the mechanics."
After college, Fortin continued her news career at a radio station in Plymouth New Hampshire. She worked an abnormal shift-getting up early for her regular hours, and often offering to cover stories outside of her regular schedule.
"For the first seven to ten years after I graduated from Bowdoin I thought, 'What am I doing?'" she said.
She later discovered the answer to this question. "I was building a career," she said.
News directors traveling through the White Mountains on the weekend heard her on the radio. She also built up her courage and knocked on doors-getting in touch with news directors and trying to prove herself. Through this, one opportunity led to the next. She was hired to work for a New Hampshire television station, and then a Boston station.
In 1990, she was hired to work for CNN Newsource. She traveled around the United States and made live reports to CNN affiliate stations throughout the country. Eventually she moved to her current position.
Fortin credits her current job to these earlier experiences. "I like to think of myself as a hard news anchor or a hard news reporter," she said. "There's very little glamour at the core of what I do."
She has covered some of the biggest and most horrific news events of the last two decades. Within hours of the Oklahoma City bombing, she was on the scene. The building was still smoking, and paramedics were still assisting victims.
"After a while I couldn't look at the building," she said. "I'll never forget what the smoke smelled like there."
Similar feelings came when Fortin reported about the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. When it exploded, she was in her hometown of Concord, NH, at the high school where Christie McAuliffe taught. McAuliffe was the teacher on board the flight.
"I didn't know if I wanted to cry or keep reporting," she said.
She was also on the air anchoring Headline News's coverage of the September 11, 2001, attacks and last April's explosion of the space shuttle Columbia.
Through tragedies, she said, reporters must be sensitive to their demeanor. "You just cannot project your feelings on the air," she said.
Such trials are just part of being a journalist. There are better times: she points out the happy stories, chances to interview "someone really cool," and she loves reporting on political stories.
Fortin continually referred to her life from Bowdoin to CNN as "my excellent adventure." She hasn't forgotten about the college that is her alma mater. She calls professors here her mentors, and said if she could have done anything differently while in college, she would have studied more history.
Sometimes, the College even comes back into her life unexpectedly.
Fortin pointed out the first question Yo-Yo Ma asked when she interviewed him. "He asked me what it was like to be a student at Bowdoin," she said.
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