by Elizabeth Coady
You can take former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jane Von Bergen out of the newsroom but you’ll never take the newsroom out of her.
After a 35-year career at the metropolitan daily, the West Mount Airy resident officially retired from the newspaper in December. Yet there’s no shelving the curiosity and energy that has propelled her journalism career. It’s in her DNA.
“Retiring is just the only word that exists,” said Von Bergen, 63, an Allentown native who began reporting for her elementary school newspaper at the age of 10. “All I really did was leave the Inquirer.”
Even that is up for dispute. When reached by telephone for a short conversation on her decades-long career as an ‘Inky’ reporter, covering everything from courts to corporate CEOs, an impending deadline delayed the talk.
The interfering task at-hand: filling out the requisite paperwork to submit one her last projects — writing stories for The Reentry Project — to the Pulitzer Prize committee for consideration. The year-long project documented the challenges and successes of convicted felons rejoining society after spending time in prison. Staff from 12 newsrooms across the city produced 200 stories for the project.
“I had no idea how complicated it was to nominate something for a Pulitzer Price,” Von Bergen observed when she finally had time to chat. She confesses to being ”really really proud” of participating in The Reentry Project, which she called ”unbelievably fantastic.”
Yet during a brief telephone conversation, there was no topic on which Von Bergen did not effuse enthusiastically. She’s thinking of penning a book (“but I’m not going to say what the book’s about”), fantasizes about traveling to New Zealand, France and Italy, and is actively looking for ”adventure of any and all types.
“I have so much energy. I enjoy everything so much. The main thing that I loved about being a reporter is the opportunity to meet people and hear their stories, and I’m actively involved in that. That’s just part of my existence.”
Stories have been Von Bergen’s raison d’être since as long as she can remember. Journalism, she says, “is a job that gives you perpetual joy.”
At 10, she had a poem published in her elementary school newspaper, then followed that up with stints at her high school and college papers. She met her husband, freelance photographer I. George Bilyk, while working at the Temple News. After graduating college, in the 1970s she ran the Welcomat, a center city tabloid that became the Philadelphia Weekly in 1995. She also worked at the North Penn Reporter for six years before joining the Inquirer in 1982.
She started her Inquirer career with a stint in a Neighbors section covering Abington, Cheltenham, Jenkintown and Rockledge, then covered criminal and civil courts in Camden County. The arrival of two sons, Joey, now 28, and Michael, 26, led her to work the night copy desk for another five years.
In 1994, Von Bergen joined the business news department, where she initially covered retail and the eventual demise of two storied Philadelphia retail legends, John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier.
One of the highlights of Von Bergen’s career was rappelling down the exterior of One Logan Square for a story on innovations in corporate philanthropy. “There’s just so many [highlights]; that’s the beauty of the job.”
In what other profession, she muses, can you get an idea in the shower at 7:30 a.m., start working on it by 9 a.m. and finish it by the end of the day? “Immediate gratification is a wonderful thing,” she said.
Since 2001, Von Bergen’s “beat” has been covering the workplace and trends in labor and health insurance. During the last three years, she has profiled a CEO for a weekly feature interview. In her last column for the Inquirer, she named the CEOs who most inspired her and the reasons why. Affability, honesty, moxie and helpfulness helped company leaders score with her.
But she says persistence — the refusal to give up — is the key trait according to both CEOs and the struggling. Also the importance of networking. “I learn lessons from everybody,” she said. “The CEOs, they have lessons, but so do people who overcame great hardship. Many of the people I interviewed over the years are on the low-wage side and are struggling against great odds. They have lessons to teach. A difficult lesson to learn in life is optimism and hope, and those lessons I’ve learned very often not from the CEOs.”
Von Bergen covered two economic downturns and witnessed many people lose jobs that defined their entire identities. “How they gathered the courage to go on day after day, how they struggle to redefine themselves, that’s an inspiration. I found a lot of inspiration from those people.”
Inspiration seems the byproduct of her curiosity, for which Von Bergen has no shortage. She is also relentlessly positive, if first impressions are reliable. For instance, despite enormous changes to the Philadelphia Inquirer over 35 years, Von Bergen brooks no negativity.
“Everyone knows what’s happened with the internet taking over and the declining quantity of print advertising,” she said. “That’s just been happening all along, but I think the Inquirer has a good future. There are a lot of new reporters and a lot of energy there.”
Von Bergen is a new jogger who describes herself as so frugal that she would ”freeze cleaned vegetable scraps from dinner until I had enough to make vegetable stock.” She also hates shopping and loves hand-me-downs.
“Right now, for example, I’m wearing a sweater that my friend’s daughter gave me,” she wrote in an email, “and my co-workers at the Inquirer were used to seeing their clothes on me in the office.”
A member of West Mount Airy Neighbors, Summit Presbyterian Church and ”of course, Weavers Way.
“I really loved working at the Inquirer,” said Von Bergen. “I was proud to work there. I was literally a reporter all my life. If I’m going to do something else, now’s the time. We don’t know how much time there is in life.”
Ms. Von Bergen can be reached on Twitter at @JaneVonBergen