After storied career at Chicago Sun-Times, Maudlyne Ihejirika is ‘redefining retirement’ 

When Maudlyne Ihejirika, an award-winning journalist, asked me to meet her at her office recently for our interview, I was surprised. Hadn’t she retired from the Chicago Sun-Times? What was she doing at a high-rise office in downtown Chicago?

Ihejirika was in the lobby, waiting for me so she could escort me to the third floor. She greeted me with a big hug and a smile even though we had only met once before.

She wasn’t expecting a job at the Field Foundation after she left the Chicago Sun-Times after three decades. But people at the Field Foundation saw her social media posts about retirement and got in touch. They had a media and storytelling manager position and thought she’d be the perfect fit, Ihejirika told me. 

The Field Foundation is a private foundation that gives grants and awards to organizations working to address systemic issues in Chicago, issues that Ihejirika has been writing about all her life. It has scooped up other prominent journalists of color in the city, including Lolly Bowean, who covered race, poverty and the city’s Black community for the Chicago Tribune.

Likewise throughout her career, Ihejirika has written about Black and brown communities across Chicago, worked for nonprofits she believes in, worked for the Department of Family Services and supported politicians who she believes will make a positive difference.

Maudlyne Ihejirika co-moderates a mayoral candidate forum in Chicago on March 18, 2023. The forum for Brandon Johnson and Paul Vallas was hosted by the Coalition of African American Leaders at Kenwood High School. Johnson went on to win the April 4 runoff election. (Photo by K’Von Jackson)

It was 5:30 p.m. when we met, and everyone had gone home for the day. The Field Foundation’s office had that classic, beige office feel, decorated with light green accents throughout the space, the Field Foundation’s signature color. 

We sat down at a circular table with a humble, uneven tilt that shifted back and forth as the evening went on. 

She got comfortable as she took off her mask and adjusted her hair, and made sure I was comfortable as she offered me water and directions to the restroom. Her welcoming character felt not out of politeness or practice, but out of genuine care. 

I opened my composition notebook to the 65 questions I had for Ihejirika, all scribbled down messily as I kept on thinking of more on the train ride over. There felt like so much to ask.

My first question “Where were you born?” required an answer longer than simply a city or a state. 

CHILDHOOD – A tale of three cities
Ihejirika was born in Gombe, a city on the northeast side of Nigeria. She was a child of the Nigerian Biafra war — a civil conflict fought between Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra over Biafra’s independence. 

Her mother was taking care of her and her five siblings at the time as her father was abroad attending Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management on a scholarship. He wanted to go into accounting or finance.

Ihejirika remembered her mother anxiously waiting to hear from her father, not knowing if her husband knew she, and her children, were still alive. She recounted the starving tribe members in her community as Nigeria put a blockade on Biafra, not allowing food to go in, and nothing and nobody to come out. 

Ihejirika’s mother was able to sneak a letter to the US through an Irish missionary nun who was volunteering, allowing her dad to confirm his family was alive. With the support of his colleagues at Northwestern, her father was eventually able to bring his family to the US in 1969. She was five years old. 

Her family moved into a townhouse in the South Commons, a housing enclave on Chicago’s south side, close to the lake. The South Commons was created with the intention of having a mixed race and mixed income community. Ihejirika’s family was one of the low-income families in the area. She was surrounded by people of all different races and incomes. 

“It was a wonderful, wonderful experiment, because I grew up learning not to see color,” she said. “I grew up learning not to see class.”

As a kid, Ihejirika spent lots of time in the library, with her dad making her and her siblings go every Saturday and check out at least three books. He would then have them write book reports for all three books, which he would later read and grade. While some of her siblings complained and pleaded not to go, Ihejirika loved going, often checking out more than three books. 

“I was the child who, at night, when he would come and say ‘lights out,’ he would wait by the door and count to three,” she said. “And then open the door and say ‘Maudlyne, turn off the flashlight.’ He knew I had waited for him to leave, and then got under the blanket to finish my book.”

Her father fostered her love of reading and writing, telling her, “One day, you’re gonna write books other people are gonna want to read.”

By the time Ihejirika graduated elementary school, white flight kicked in and the neighborhood was changing. The community around the South Commons became more segregated, and families with a higher income left. 

Violence started to grow in the neighboring communities, and some kids, knowing that there were a few wealthy families in the South Commons, started waiting around the commons to beat and mug kids of their lunch money and valuables. Ihejirika was beaten at the age of nine. That was her parents’ last straw. They moved to the family to the suburb of Woodridge in hopes of a safer community. 

They didn’t find it in Woodridge.

Ihejirika remembers that before the move to Woodrige, her parents warned her and her siblings of racism. But nothing could prepare her for what she encountered.

“We were the only Black family, and the first Black family for miles around,” she said. 

A brick was thrown in their window, “Go Home N*****” was spray painted on their garage door and a burning cross was placed on their lawn. She endured race riots in high school, experiencing incidents of white students throwing bottles and food at Black students across campus.

Turning 18 and leaving Woodridge, Ihejirika went to the University of Iowa to study creative writing, but quickly switched to journalism. “Once I got there and enrolled in the program, it was about a year in that I realized, ‘wait a minute, someone’s got to pay the bills while I’m writing books?’” she said, “So I walked across the street to the journalism department and said, ‘Maybe I need to be a journalist.’”

She was happy with her decision. She fell in love with journalism after only one class. 

CAREER – A love for writing about what’s right

“The thing that made me fall in love with journalism was learning about the power of the pen,” she said. “Learning that as a journalist, you could potentially make a difference with your words, as a child that came from war, that came from the utopian community, that came from a community where she confronted racism, now I’m being told you can make a difference in journalism. I was absolutely drawn to that. I wanted to make a difference.” 

She went on to go to graduate school at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University where she landed her first internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. “It was a dream. The Sun-Times was the paper my dad read when I was growing up. I used to sit in his lap, or look over his shoulder as he read the Sun-Times,” she said. 

Once she graduated, she started sending letters to the Sun-Times, lots of letters. “I kept in touch,” she said, saying she sent letters and made calls for six months until eventually the Sun-Times said they had an open position. 

Ihejirika described how she felt on her first day at the Sun-Times as “floating.” “Nothing could worry me, I got the job,” she said, “I felt very much that God had led me to where I was.”

During her first few weeks on the job, all she wanted to see was her name in the paper. 

“My brothers and sisters got tired of the phone call, ‘Hey, did you see the Sun-Times today? I got three paragraphs on page four!’” she said.

She first covered general assignments, then moved to housing, then education then philanthropy. Eventually, Ihejirika was promoted to weekend city editor. 

Mary Mitchell, a long time columnist at the Sun-Times, was an intern when Ihejirika was working as a reporter. Mitchell worked her way up in the newsroom quickly, and one day was assigned to “a really big story, which really was above my head,” she said. 

Mitchell said Ihejirika sat with her till the lights went off in the newsroom, helping her with the story until they got it right, together. 

“She was very, very instrumental in me becoming the journalist that I am today,” Mary said. 

In 1997, Ihejiika decided to try something new and get more involved in the subjects that she was writing about. She worked for Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, the Illinois Department of Family Services, started her own PR company and did public relations for nonprofits that had a mission aligned with hers. 

She enjoyed the direct impact she was making, wanting to “drive change.” Yet she missed writing, and eventually decided to come back to the Sun-Times in 2003. 

But she couldn’t just pick up from where she left off; she needed to start again, cycling through all of the beats she had written for before. “That was hard. Because you come in, having done all of this stuff, and when you come back in, you’re back at the bottom of the totem pole, because all the beats are taken,” she said. “You have to make your way back up.”

She made her way back up for 13 years, until one day when her editor at the time, Jim Kirk, came up with an idea for a column for her. At the time in 2017, early in the Donald Trump presidency, there was a national distrust of the media, with one complaint of the media from minority groups being the lack of accurate and positive reporting of their communities. 

Kirk wanted to address this issue, and decided to create a column that would share positive and nuanced, diverse narratives of people in Chicago with a focus on Black and brown communities called “Chicago Chronicles.”

“It was the job of a lifetime,” Maudyne said. “Every journalist lives for the day, they will be able to write about whatever the heck they want to write about, which is a column.” 

She did the column for six years, producing 900 hundred words weekly for a committed readership. She would sometimes find herself driving around the south and west sides of the city and look for interesting places and people. The more comfortable she got amongst the communities she was writing about, the more people started reaching out to her with story ideas and interview subjects. 

Candi Meriwether, Ihejirika’s editor for the Chicago Chronicles for four years, said Ihejirika was “a dream to edit.”

“She is a consummate storyteller. She really wants to give a different kind of story, one that looks beyond the surface and finds the richness and beauty that is in all cultures, but especially in marginalized cultures in the city of Chicago,” Meriwether said.

Meriwether said Ihejirika trusted Meriwether’s edits, being open to insight and critique, making the two work well together. 

“As confident as she is as a writer, she’s extremely trusting of me, as her editor,” she said.

Some highlights of hers from the column was her series on Sandra Bland, where she became close with Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal and was able to get exclusive interviews that no other journalist received. 

“We became friends,” she said. “She would reach out to me whenever there was some news happening on the Sandra Bland case.”

Ihejirika said her favorite part of the column was the relationships it created with her subjects. She said the column also carried a great responsibility.

“I felt like I absolutely had to show people that there was more than just the negative stories in those communities of color,” she said. 

Meriwether said Ihejirika was an ally to her as a Black woman in a newsroom.

“I thank her for being a true ally. She never said the word ‘ally’ to me. Others have called themselves an ally. Ihejirika demonstrated to me that she was an ally,” Meriwether said, “She was my sister in this work that we wanted to do to illuminate the richness of Black culture.” 

Mitchell said that Ihejirika was the person in the newsroom that people felt comfortable complaining to about experiences of racism.

“She was able to bring that out in people,” Mitchell said. 

During this time, Ihejirika became the president of the National Association of Black Journalists Chicago chapter, as well as the Chicago Journalists Association. 

“It was more work than I’ve ever done in my life,” Ihejirika said. 

Stephanie Choporis has been at the Chicago Journalists Association for 10 years and has worked her way up to her current position of president. 

She worked as Ihejirika’s vice president for two years until being bumped up to co-president with her during the pandemic.  

The first time Choporis met Ihejirika, she was working as a reporting intern at an education magazine called Catalyst Chicago covering a student walk-out at Roosevelt highschool. She had just finished grad school at Medill and recognized Ihejirika from her work at the Sun-Times. 

Ihejirika “came up to me and asked me a question about the walkout,” Choporis said. “I was surprised that she was approaching me to ask me a question, because I probably looked at the time like I just mixed in with all of the fellow high school students.”

Ihejirika went out and got some more information on the walkout, and to Choporis’ surprise, when Ihejirika got her answers, she went back to Choporis and shared them with her. 

“Sometimes reporters can be kind of cagey with their information, not wanting others to scoop them. But I didn’t really get that vibe from her,” she said. 

Eventually, Ihejirika joined CJA as a board member, then was asked to be president. Choporis worked up the ladder, being asked to be associate board chairmen and secretary, then vice president then eventually co-president alongside Ihejirika. 

“Being Maudlyne’s vice president involved a lot of late night phone calls,” Choporis said “minimum of one hour on the phone, late nights weekends.”

Choporis remembered one morning, after a late night on the phone with Ihejirika planning a virtual awards ceremony in 2020, Choporis picked up Ihejirika’s call and said, “Hi, Honey, how was your day?” Ihejirika laughed in her iconic, booming way and said, “I know, that’s like the only thing missing from our relationship is the ‘Hi honey, how was your day?’”

CJA work was remote except for a monthly meeting; thus, a lot of their work was done at odd hours, anywhere the two found themselves. Their work was diverse, sometimes planning the future of the organization and other times crafting invites and making decor for events. It was all volunteer work.

“I laugh because you think ‘Who would do that? Who would sit there on the phone with you, and craft letters like that?’ Maudlyne,” she said. 

Ihejirika is the definition of an extrovert — expressive and incredibly welcoming. 

“Maudlyne is very exuberant,” Choporis said. 

She remembers during a luncheon, the first event Ihejirika hosted as president, Ihejirika was meeting many of the board members in person for the first time, with all of the meetings prior being over Zoom. 

Choporis said that Ihejirika improved CGA, taking it from a “dormant phase to raising the profile.” 

She and Ihejirika have very different leadership styles, Choporis describing herself as “very laid back” and Ihejirika delegating more.

“She wasn’t a loosey-goosey kind of leader,” she said. 

Though lots of effort and hours, Choporis loved the work she and Ihejirika did together. 

“As much as you maybe didn’t want to take the time to do it when you were going through it, when you finished with it, it was like, you were going through withdrawals. It’s like ‘What, I don’t have a call with Maudlyne today or this week?’” Choporis said.

The two got close over the years, Ihejirika calling Choporis “Lil Sis” as she rose to Ihejirika’s leadership role. 

Ihejirika did all of this, on top of being president at the National Association of Black Journalists, on top of writing a weekly column. 

Retirement – Redefined
After six years, she retired in November 2022, ending her 30-year career at the Sun-Times.

The decision wasn’t easy. Ihejirika asked herself, “Do I really want to give up the thing that has become my baby, this thing that I really feel has made a difference?”

She said she wanted to explore other passions. These other passions are not typical retirement activities like cooking or arts and crafts, but larger endeavors like working for the Field Foundation, public speaking on issues she cares about, writing long-form stories for national publications, Diversity Equity and Inclusion advocacy and mentoring young journalists. 

Meriwether said Ihejirika is “redefining retirement.”

Ihejirika said people keep asking what happened to her retirement. “But I’m happy. And I’m at peace. And I’m not rushing. I’m gonna move in a different direction and explore. I want to see how I can contribute to journalism.”

Zoë Takaki is a Los Angeles-born journalist based in Chicago. She is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, where she studied journalism and creative writing.

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