On the first day of her first semester, Lane DeGregory walked into the the Cavalier Daily’s offices, intent on reporting for the newspaper, and spent the next four years working her way up to editor.“That, to me, was the best time of journalism ever. Being on the Lawn with all the other student leaders was a highlight. It’s hard for the Pulitzer even to top that time.”
DeGregory won a Pulitzer Prize for her St. Petersburg Times feature story, “The Girl in the Window.” The story, published in July 2008, was a collaborative effort between DeGregory and photographer Melissa Lyttle. “It started out as a nice adoption story,” DeGregory said. “But the more people kept saying ‘feral,’ and the more we started researching how rare that was, the whole thing elevated.”
“The Girl in the Window” tracks the horrific discovery of a “feral child” in a Plant City, Fla., home, and the child’s eventual adoption and development. When she was discovered by law enforcement officials, 7-year-old Danielle was malnourished and lived in a closet full of insects and her own dirty diapers. She could not speak, let alone interact. She had been denied basic human nurturing, and was deemed feral.
DeGregory worked on the story for six months, running the gamut of emotions. “Emotionally, it was the hardest story I’ve ever worked on. I’m a mother and my youngest son is about Dani’s age, and I had to ask myself, what kind of mother could do that to her kid? And then, here I am, feeling guilty for not making baseball practice.”
As DeGregory pondered the notion of “doing the best I can as a parent,” she found herself in front of Danielle’s biological mother’s trailer. Interviews with Michelle, Danielle’s mother, form a particularly compelling section of “The Girl in the Window,” in which DeGregory attempts to answer some of the questions about what sort of woman could neglect her child to a dangerous and damaging extent.
“At first, I did not want to talk to that woman,” DeGregory says. But when she walked up to Michelle’s trailer and asked to talk to her about her daughter, “her eyes got real big and she said, ‘Nobody’s ever asked me for my side of the story.’ I decided to sit there and listen and suspend judgment.”
This kind of reporting typifies DeGregory’s work, which focuses on people in the shadows. While she continues to write less extensive pieces for the newspaper, her next big feature will chronicle a love triangle among street youths that came to a tragic end.
DeGregory, who previously worked as a writer for The Virginian-Pilot, spent years chasing ambulances and churning out items about breaking stories. She says it takes a different strategy to write human interest pieces. “You have to be willing to tailor your life around the world that you’re covering,” she says. “People’s lives don’t happen nine to five.”
Getting to the core of “The Girl in the Window” required a similar level of commitment. DeGregory spent significant time with Danielle’s adoptive family. “We got to watch her evolve, be potty trained, learn to feed herself,” she says. Adding that it was tough to write a story in which “the main character is completely inaccessible.”
DeGregory’s hard work paid off in a way most newspaper writers only dream of. The Pulitzer Prize announcement came as a complete surprise to DeGregory, who had been told her nomination had not made the final round. She was at home in Gulfport, Fla., working to make a deadline. The murder at the center of the love triangle story she is currently working on had happened that day, and she went home to work on the story, ignoring the ringing phone. When her editor drove to her house in the early evening, she was sure she was in trouble for missing her deadline. The news he delivered was much more welcome.
“I had to sit down on a chair on my deck,” she says. “I just started laughing and crying.”
When asked if the Pulitzer changed her day-to-day life, DeGregory laughs and says, “I’m still writing daily stories about things like the crossing guard of the year. But I feel fortunate to have a job that lets me tell people stories and do what I love.”
Danielle and her adoptive family, the Lierows, have moved on, appearing on Oprah and relocating to Tennessee. But DeGregory has tucked her prize away and remains at the St. Petersburg Times, searching out stories and just as headstrong as she was when she first walked into the Cavalier Daily offices back in 1985.
“Newspaper journalists are charged with giving context and depth a little more,” DeGregory says of the value of her work. “The intense human interest stories that make us feel and access the world in the different way, those are the important ones.”