RSJ grad Parlette, known for ‘Alicia’s Story,’ passes away

4/22/2010 - By: John Trent

Alicia Parlette, a graduate of the Reynolds School of Journalism who wrote movingly and memorably about her more than five-year battle with cancer for the San Francisco Chronicle and in a well-received book, passed away on Thursday, April 22 in San Francisco.

She was 28.

Reynolds School of Journalism Dean Jerry Ceppos said Thursday that the school will be establishing the Alicia Parlette Fund for Aspiring Journalists in Parlette’s honor. He said the fund would help students who need to take unpaid internships.

“Our intern program was dear to Alicia’s heart,” Ceppos said.

Warren Lerude, a longtime professor in the Reynolds School and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was a teacher and friend to Parlette, said the young journalist would be remembered for sharing “poignant information, courageously, with hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide who needed to know about this tragic disease that strikes families everywhere.”

“Alicia was a joy to teach because with her it was always a student/professor collaboration,” Lerude said Thursday. “She was inquisitive, the best trait of the fine journalist she was. Her curiosity led her to dig in depth and challenge the worlds she explored both as a reporter and as an editor and really as a very good, thoughtful person. “

He remembered how Parlette was selected by the dean and faculty of the Reynolds School of Journalism to be honored as the Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer in 2005, just a year after her graduation, “based upon her remarkable writing of her ‘Alicia's Story’ series of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle.”

“The Laxalt program brings top national writers to the Reynolds School annually to honor the late writer Bob Laxalt and to inspire new generations of writers,” said Lerude, who knew Laxalt, a University alumnus and considered Nevada’s greatest writer, well. “Alicia was every bit the caliber of the distinguished national writers honored in this program.”

Paul Mitchell, a longtime professor in the Reynolds School and the school’s recruitment and retention coordinator, fondly remembered Parlette, who he helped to recruit to the University following her graduation from Granite Bay High School near Sacramento, Calif.

"Alicia was such a gifted person,” said Mitchell, who traveled recently to San Francisco to visit with Parlette. “Not only as a journalist. Just as a human being. I remember she received an internship at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She was so excited and I was excited for her. Great paper. My hometown. A couple weeks later several students who had been in my reporting class, and friends of Alicia's, said they were going to go with her. I thought they meant drive to the east coast, spend a couple days, and fly back. No, they meant find jobs, get an apartment and live with her.”

Mitchell said what transpired next spoke volumes to Parlette’s natural ability to bring people together.

“They were different ethnicities – black, white, mixed race, Filipino – different backgrounds with different experiences,” he said. “They were guys and girls. I know one had never been to the east coast. To be honest, being from Philadelphia, I was concerned. But those kids had a blast. On weekends, they traveled the east coast. That was what, eight … nine years ago? The one who I thought would not have found the adventure to the east the least appealing still lives in Philadelphia. That trip would not have happened without Alicia. She was the commonality. All are still friends to this day.”

Mitchell added, “Through her ability, she enriched her life, the lives of her friends, the lives of several of my colleagues and the lives of thousands around not just the country, but around the world who read her missives. I'm proud to have known her and, through her writings, her gifts, her spirit will live on."

Parlette graduated summa cum laude from the Reynolds School of Journalism in 2004. After earning a prestigious Hearst fellowship, she became a copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. In March 2005, she was diagnosed with alveolar soft part sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects less than 200 people per year. She recalled later that when the cancer was discovered, it was in her hip, lungs, breast and brain.

Parlette, who had always wanted to be a writer, began writing privately about her feelings soon after her diagnosis. She then shared some of her thoughts in emails to friends and colleagues. Chronicle managing editor Robert Rosenthal discovered one of Parlette’s emails.

The veteran newsman was immediately impressed.

“I said, ‘My God, this girl can write,’” Rosenthal later recalled.

He asked the young copy editor if she would be interested in sharing her story for publication with the paper.

“I told her if she really wanted to do it – and she did – it could be a really positive thing for her, an outlet for her emotionally and spiritually,” Rosenthal said.

Parlette’s series, “Alicia’s Story,” became an instant online and print success. Told in seven chapters on page one of the Chronicle from June 5-11 of 2005, readers were riveted by Parlette’s story. The series, made even more poignant by the fact that Parlette had lost her mother, Pam, to cancer in 2002, generated more than 3,000 letters and emails.

The first lines of the series, which first appeared on the morning of June 5, 2005, in the Chronicle, read: “On March 2, I found out I have cancer. I was 23 and on my own in San Francisco, working at The Chronicle as part of a two-year fellowship. I had wanted to be a journalist since fourth grade, and I had wanted to work at The Chronicle for almost as long. I was working as a copy editor, but for a few months I had felt unsettled about that decision. I wanted to do something more creative. Like write.”

National Public Radio’s Alex Chadwick wrote of the series, “The series is garnering rave reviews for its heartfelt and deeply personal musings on mortality and life’s balance of sorrow and joy.”

National reaction to the series was immediate. Parlette was featured on NPR . She was named ABC News’ “Person of the Week.” Reader demand for more updates on Parlette’s condition spawned three more chapters throughout the summer of 2005.

In late 2005, the Reynolds School honored Parlette with the Laxalt Distinguished Writer award. In a November 2005 interview with Reynolds School student Erin Granat, Parlette showed the kind of thoughtful mindset that had characterized her time as a student at the school, as well as the distinctive, emotionally resonant writing style that had given her series such lasting tone and texture.

“I guess people saw the big deal as being that I’m young and I have cancer,” she said. “Sadly, it’s not that unique. A lot of young people are on the front page and a lot of young people have cancer. I just have both.”

Parlette said she thought that writing, and in particular her writing for “Alicia’s Story” – which was later compiled along with subsequent chapters 11 and 12 into a book – was more than therapy for her.

“The story, at its heart, was a gift to me,” she said.

In March 2007, “Alicia’s Story” morphed into a blog when Parlette had to transition from a fulltime Hearst employee to disability.

“It’s not because I’m suddenly deteriorating,” she wrote. “I just can’t keep up with work. Since I have the opportunity to put work on the shelf in order to get more aggressive about prolonging my life, I’m going to take it. But I’m not disappearing. Writing this series has been everything to me these past two years. It has been my comfort object and my therapy; my emotional protection and my emotional pipeline; my loving retreat and my connection to the world.”

On April 9 of this year, another blog was started, in an effort to keep friends updated on Parlette’s condition. The blog, Ms Parlette, quickly attracted more than 2,000 visitors, becoming one of Word Press’ fastest growing blogs.

Rosenthal was one of Parlette’s visitors in ICU at a San Francisco hospital. After having not seen each other for a few years, the two quickly re-connected. Rosenthal later wrote on Parlette’s blog that if anything, Parlette’s journalistic instincts were still unfailing and strong, still focused on getting stories right and telling them with a humanist’s grace and insight.

Perhaps sensing that her former boss needed the restorative outlet of composing a story, Parlette encouraged Rosenthal to write.

He wrote:

“After a few minutes I asked her if she wanted to write anything. She said, ‘Yes, but you can write something, too.’ I had my laptop and soon I had it out. I was standing up and the laptop was resting on her bedside food and all-purpose table attached to her medical bed.

“‘You want to dictate to me,’ I asked.

“‘No, just write what you see, write about what’s happening here,’ Alicia said.

“That’s how this happened, why I wrote this, and why I, or others, might write more.”

Funeral details are pending. Parlette is survived by her father, Dave, and her brother, Matthew.

Gifts to the Alicia Parlette Fund for Aspiring Journalists can be sent to the Reynolds School of Journalism, Mail Stop 310, University of Nevada, Reno 89557.


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