To the family of Joe Schlaerth (my former boss/news director at CBS in Buffalo),
Eleven years ago, I was sitting in my brother’s blue and green room in the house where I grew up 45 minutes northwest of New York City when I found Joe Schlaerth’s email on LinkedIn. At the time, he was the news director at the CBS affiliate in Buffalo, New York (WIVB), and I was a young sports reporter working at a local high school sports network and searching for my next opportunity. He was among hundreds of news directors I emailed hoping to land an on-air sports position.
Several months later, I was devastated after finishing second for a job in Austin, Texas, that I wholeheartedly thought was in the bag. While still mourning the job in Austin, a reply email appeared in my inbox. Joe wrote me back, requesting to chat via Skype. After our Skype conversation, he flew me up to Buffalo for an in-person interview.
When I arrived at the station, Joe was warm and welcoming, but as I sat in his office, he turned on my reel, and we watched it in full together. At different points, he paused the tape and provided me with feedback. While I knew he was giving me constructive criticism, I thought his critiques also meant that he didn’t think I was good enough or ready for the job.
Buffalo was a top 50 market, and I had no experience working as an anchor or doing live shots. Most of my previous job was assembling pre-taped featured packages and serving as a color analyst for live-to-tape games. I knew there were other candidates with more experience than me, and I was aware that Joe knew that as well. When I boarded my flight after my interview, I was almost certain I didn’t get the job, but I tried to remain hopeful. However, after three weeks came and went without hearing a word from him, I was 100 percent sure I wasn’t getting an offer.
Then, I was sitting in a chair at my dentist’s office in New York City on August 15, 2012, when my phone rang. It was pouring outside, and it was my late paternal grandfather’s birthday. My grandpa died when I was 13, and he used to tell me the rain was good luck. I always believed when it rained, my grandpa was signaling to me he was still with me. And even though my grandfather had been gone for more than a decade, I still celebrated his birthday. So when I saw the 716 area code on my phone, I knew it was Joe, and I decided not to answer. There was no way I was going to be rejected on my grandfather’s birthday. I planned to call him back the next day, but he left a voice message and specifically asked that I call back right away. So I begrudgingly called him back in the lobby of my dentist’s office.
Immediately, he answered.
He said, “I am sorry it took so long to get back to you, but I had to explain to corporate (the corporate office) why I wanted to hire someone with significantly less experience than other candidates. I explained to them that I don’t think someone like you will come across my desk twice in my career.”
From day one, Joe believed in me, and that’s why, as green as I was, he offered me the weekend sports anchor/weekday reporter job. I accepted while holding back tears. As soon as I got off the phone, I rushed to my car while calling my dad.
Uncontrollably crying, I said, “Dad, I got the job! It’s Grandpa’s birthday, and it’s pouring out!”
That is a moment I will cherish and remember for the rest of my life.
I would love to tell you it was a happily-ever-after story from there. But unfortunately for me, that was not the case. My brain had no idea how to read a prompter without sounding like a robot, and I had never anchored live TV. For the first three-six months, I stumbled on words. I froze on live TV. I said Montreal Canadiens when I meant to say Toronto Maple Leafs. And I did it all with a noticeable New York accent that stuck out like a Patriots fan in Western New York. There was a local TV News critic who was unforgiving and highlighted my every mistake. He didn’t only criticize me for my errors but also Joe for hiring me. While the critic has since become supportive of me, throughout those first six months, there were so many days I thought I would get fired. But that never happened, not even close.
Joe was never bothered by the mistakes or backlash. He either gave me advice on how to improve or warmly smiled as he told me I was doing a great job and to keep getting in my reps. That first year Joe gave me the grace, time, and encouragement I needed to grow.
Ultimately, I became more and more comfortable on-air and at the job, and I started to pursue exclusive interviews with local former and current professional athletes. I created a segment called Athletes 4 Inspiration (We were channel 4), interviewing NFL and NHL players in Buffalo who had overcome adversity. Every week during football season, I would get a player to sit down with me on their day off, at their home, and tell me their story, which the then-president of the Buffalo Bills told me had never been done with so many players. The segment won an AP Award for Best Sports Reporting. And the players started coming to me, asking if I could tell their story instead of me asking them. Many athletes shared delicate parts of their lives for the very first time.
Also, Joe wanted me to break sports news. So, through a lot of hustle and a little luck, I developed several reliable sources and broke stories quite often. A few of the other sports journalists in the market weren’t happy. One, in particular, harassed me on social media and tried to intimidate me in private messages.
Frustrated and upset with the constant bullying, one female sportswriter in the market kindly explained, “Lauren, no one wants to get beat, but NO ONE wants to get beat by the young woman in a skirt with pink lipstick.”
Sadly, that made sense to me, as the don’t-get-beat-by-a-girl mentality still existed for some.
When I went to Joe, he encouraged me to continue breaking stories and helped me stand up to the bullies. After Joe left, I broke the biggest story of 2014: I was the first sports reporter in the market and country to have the correct sale price for the Buffalo Bills when the Pegula family bought the team. I beat out Forbes, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who initially reported the wrong price. That’s when I silenced many of my naysayers, and fans teased the reporters who had previously and publicly dismissed me.
After Buffalo, I moved to the ABC station in Cleveland, Ohio, a top-20 market. I received my seventh Emmy nomination, broke national stories, and went viral multiple times for my blogs and commentaries. It was in Cleveland I decided to write an open letter to sexual assault survivors and share with them my personal story and journey. When my letter went viral, I was motivated to use my passion for storytelling to help people who, like me, have faced challenges in life. I founded The Unsealed, a platform where people can share their stories of perseverance to empower themselves and inspire others. Some people submit letters, while other people I interview and ghostwrite their letters for them.
In a massive leap of faith, I left behind my career as a sportscaster, and within five months of starting my company, we reached 250,000 people in more than 175 countries around the world. I have been on the cover of magazines and billboards across the country. Major outlets worldwide have picked up The Unsealed’s letters, from TMZ to People to ESPN. More importantly, a former foster child told me I made her feel seen for the first time. A teenage rape survivor wrote me that I am the reason she feels hope for her future, and countless people have expressed that my platform and community have given them the courage to face their pain, speak their truth, and chase their childhood dreams.
Last Friday, a day after Joe passed, I received a message on Facebook from a young woman who currently works at 14 News WFIE, the station where Joe most recently served as News Director, in Evansville, Indiana. She told me she also had a painful past, which she shared with Joe on Wednesday, the day before he died. He told her my story and how proud he was of me. Then, he suggested she reach out to me for guidance as she, like me, wants to share her story in hopes of helping other people.
I always knew, but never really thought about until now, that Joe didn’t just believe in my talent, but, like so many others who worked with and for him, he genuinely cared about me and my happiness.
While I am not done yet (not even close), I am where I am today because of Joe’s unwavering support and kindness, and I will forever be grateful.
Thank you for sharing him with us all.
I am so very sorry for your loss.