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Jane Pauley finds a calling with segment for 'Today' show

SARASOTA

To the outside world, Jane Pauley seemed to have it all. • The broadcast journalist who delivered the news with equal parts sweetness and gravitas shot up the ladder of success three rungs at a time. • Her first job after graduating from Indiana University was at a TV station in her hometown of Indianapolis. • Three years later, at age 25, she was at the NBC affiliate station in Chicago, reportedly the youngest woman in the nation co-anchoring a nightly newscast. • The very next year, she had a nationwide audience as co-host of the Today show. • She spent 11 years as co-anchor of Dateline. Her memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue became a New York Times bestseller. • She and her husband, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, raised three children who have become successful adults. • By any estimation, she had an enviable life.

And then it happened.

That existential question that eats at many of us — Is this all there is? — apparently knows no bounds and has no biases.

"On one hand, I had some regret that I was blessed with a life I might have made more useful. On the other hand, gimme a break," Pauley, 61, said. "I had a job, raised three kids and had parents who needed me."

Try as she might, she couldn't convince herself to be satisfied with her achievements, though she says her lone failure did give her an odd sense of accomplishment.

"I spent an awful lot of my life underestimating myself and, as a result, not exceeding my own expectations," Pauley said.

"No baby boomer has a completely original idea, but after 13 years on Today and another 11 on Dateline, almost 30 years total at NBC, I felt the urge to find out what was 'behind the camera.' I had the feeling there was 'something more,' though 'more' might be less."

That's when NBC approached her with her "something less," a daytime alternative, The Jane Pauley Show. It lasted only one season.

And yet, she said, she cherishes a large promotional poster for that failed show that hangs in her office.

"The woman in that Jane Pauley Show poster had the courage to try. I'm proud of that year. It was the hardest year of my life, but the best job I ever had," she said.

Reflecting on reinvention

"Your 40s are a major trough," Pauley said. "About the age of 50, feelings of satisfaction begin to rebound and keep rising into your 50s, 60s and 70s, with health being a major factor."

Pauley was on her way out of that trough when her trademark energy and enthusiasm gave way to depression. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness marked by extreme highs and extreme lows. It was brought on at age 50 by a reaction to medications she had been given to cure a serious bout with hives.

"I was diagnosed in February of 2001, coincidentally on the first day of a scheduled sabbatical from NBC (to write a book). I returned to work six months later, specifically on Sept. 10, 2001. I won an Emmy for work that first week back," she said.

Despite that triumphant return, inner peace eluded her. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do, but she knew she always wanted to work.

"I'm just not that interesting a person without the structure of work," she said.

And so, she set off to "reinvent" herself, a word she had been tossing around since she had used it in a speech to Radcliffe graduates more than 20 years ago.

"My reflections on reinvention were inspired by my departure from Today after 13 years; it had been a tumultuous year," she said. "My first project for NBC post-Today was a (1990) prime-time special called Changes, which essentially told three stories about people in the process of reinvention."

Little did she know she had found a calling.

'Oriented to change'

She's been called "the poster child for second acts."

She's been called a "reinvention evangelist."

Almost 20 years after she first gave credence to the possibility that, yes, there can be something more to life, even for perfectly happy people, Pauley now devotes her time to people who have made, or want to make, abrupt changes mid-life.

"Many people come to reinvention when life changes around them, but people come in all different stripes. I'm oriented to change."

After she left Dateline, she became increasingly focused on what she could do to help herself and other baby boomers stay fulfilled and enjoy the second part of life.

"I'd moved away from the idea of more TV in my future, until one morning in a hotel room. My daughter turned on the TV to watch Today. Seeing both my old pals, Gene Shalit and Willard Scott, (making guest appearances) that morning, I realized my ideas about reinvention could be packaged in a TV segment.

"I pitched Your Life Calling to Today about three weeks later."

Today was interested in the segment about the myriad ways people over 50 were reinventing themselves. And then Pauley convinced AARP to produce and sponsor the show.

Now in its third season, Your Life Calling came to Sarasota last month to feature Gid Pool, a 67-year-old North Port resident who, six years ago, traded in his earlier life to become a stand-up comic. That's where the Times caught up with Pauley.

She's charming and personable, movie-star thin with an infectious smile. She spills engaging stories like an overflowing volcano.

She talked about her favorite Your Life Calling segment, which featured the owner of a well-digging business in Maryland. He had a big piece of machinery for sale and a buyer for it — a church group with no money.

The church members wanted to buy the big rig and take it to Africa to dig water wells for impoverished inhabitants.

You might guess where this story is headed.

The man still owns the Maryland company, but now his sons run it.

Because he's in Africa helping dig wells.

Patti Ewald can be reached at pewald@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8746.

Yearning for more?

If you, too, are hoping to find more meaning in life — just do something, anything.

"Don't worry about getting your ducks in a row, just get a duck in the water," Jane Pauley said during a recent interview in Sarasota.

"Don't overthink the quest for your authentic self. Just get something going: Help a neighbor, volunteer, take a course," she said.

Here are a few tips:

• Follow your passion

Nothing is insignificant if it's important to you. Love to knit? Do something with it.

• Don't let choices overwhelm People are often paralyzed by having too many options. Don't be. Make a choice and do it.

Start with an idea

For instance, look for ways to be helpful. Running to the store? Ask your neighbor if he or she needs anything. Made some banana bread? Share. Then ratchet that idea up as far as you can.

• Have the courage to try

That's success. You'll learn more from failure than anything else.

And, when you hit rock bottom (or more likely feel as if you have hit rock bottom), take comfort — as Pauley did — in the words her obstetrician so convincingly buoyed her with at the height of her contractions during childbirth:

"It won't get worse."

Jane Pauley finds a calling with segment for 'Today' show 05/22/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 7:35pm]

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