Journalism calls

When Mary Ann (Bergerson) Ahern ’76 decided to leave teaching to pursue a career in TV news, her principal thought she was nuts.

“Are you kidding me?” she recalled him saying.

But Ahern wanted to find out if her lifelong love of news could translate into a satisfying and successful career.

“As I was getting closer to 30, I thought: ‘If I don’t do this, I’m going to have regrets,’” she says.

More than two decades later, Ahern, a political reporter for Chicago’s NBC 5 News, has done more than satisfy a curiosity. She’s carved out a successful career that earned her a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chicago Headline Club, the country’s largest chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Ahern, who’s worked at the Chicago station for 23 years, appreciates the award but doesn’t want it to signal an end of her reporting days.

The Ahern family (from left): Sean, Colleen, Coady, Mary Ann, and Tom

“I have three kids to put through college, so I’m not about to leave my job,” the 58-year- old says.

Ahern’s love of news began as the youngest of seven children growing up in Michigan City, an Indiana suburb that sits on the edge of Lake Michigan about 60 miles from Chicago. The family devoured news from the Windy City and sat around the kitchen table discussing it. She was editor of her high school newspaper and followed two of her older brothers, Martin ’72 and Michael (Bergy) ’74 Bergerson, to John Carroll, where she became known as Little Bergy. She wrote for the Carroll News, but her mother, a high school English teacher, urged her to be more practical. So Ahern earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in education and a master’s degree as a reading specialist. She landed a job at an all-boys Catholic high school in Chicago where some students read at a sixth-grade level.

“When you were able to get these kids to read something, you felt good about it,” she says.

But her next job, at a more affluent high school teaching kids to improve their SAT scores, was less satisfying. So one day, after five years as a teacher, she marched into the principal’s office and told him she was leaving to go back to school for journalism. She earned a master’s degree from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism – Northwestern University and set out to find a job. She landed in Peoria, Ill., but quickly became lonely and eager to work in a larger market. That’s where her Carroll connection paid off.

Her brother, Marty, attended JCU with Tim Russert ’72, the well-respected journalist from NBC News who hosted “Meet the Press.” Russert would come to their home every year for a big summer party and entertain the family with his stories. When Ahern was desperately trying to leave Peoria, Russert became her secret weapon.

“He called TV stations vouching for me,” she says. “Who better to give me a last push over the finish line than Tim Russert.”

Ahern landed a job at the NBC station in Atlanta, where one of her sisters lived. When she applied to the NBC affiliated in Chicago, Russert called on her behalf again.

“Terrific guy,” she said of the late TV newsman. “He was really wonderful.”

In Chicago, Ahern established herself as a well-respected and groundbreaking religion reporter. She covered Pope John Paul II, including his trip to Cuba and his visits to World Youth Day. Life was challenging: traveling the world, racing to meet daily deadlines, and raising a family with her husband, Tom, a special agent for the federal government. The couple has three children: Coady, 21; Sean, 19; and Colleen, 16. She said a longtime babysitter, who has become a part of the family, made having a career and raising a family possible – but so did reducing her hours for awhile.

“I begged to work three days a week,” she says.

Ahern finally got her wish, and for 10 years, while her children were growing up, she worked part time, which allowed her to spend valuable time at home.

“You can’t just show up at the recital; you’ve got to be there at practice,” she says. “You just can’t be there at the report card; you’ve got to be there for the homework.”

Ahern returned to work full time five years ago to take over the political beat. It was just in time to cover the city’s rising star and future president, Barack Obama.

“This isn’t an easy job,” she says. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job, but I’ve had an interesting run.” JCU

– Sue Valerian

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