Aurora Public Schools alumnus David Von Drehle is currently an editor at Time magazine and has worked for the Washington Post, the Miami Herald and The Denver Post. He is the author of numerous journalistic articles as well as three books, including the New York Time’s bestseller The Fire That Changed America.
We interviewed Von Drehle about his journey from an APS elementary school student all the way to his current prestigious career. Von Drehle attended Lyn Knoll Elementary, South Middle School and Gateway High School. He graduated from Gateway in June 1979.
When you look back on your time in APS, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
When I look back at my years in Aurora Public Schools, I think mostly about how lucky I was to come under the care and guidance of so many nurturing teachers. It wasn’t always easy to be a teacher in Aurora, which was growing so fast that the school district could scarcely keep up. We had very large classes even in the lower grades, and when I reached high school, Gateway was almost brand new but already severely overcrowded. Yet I always felt that my teachers took a genuine interest in me and tried to encourage my enthusiasms. I loved school, and tended to hang around long after hours. Yet I always felt welcome and at home.
What are some of your fondest memories of going to school at APS?
Many of my fondest memories are of the after-school activities: helping my 3rd-grade teacher put up a new bulletin board, organizing a 6th-grade color guard to raise the flag each morning, decorating the South gym for dances, playing basketball, putting in a season as the world’s worst wrestler, traveling with the Gateway stage band, track meets—that sort of thing.
How and when did you know that you wanted to pursue writing/journalism?
My introduction to journalism came in 10th grade. I had switched from the football team to the cross country team (probably the first offensive lineman ever to make that switch), and I felt that the school newspaper was not giving enough attention to the cross country team. So I wrote a letter to the editor and carried it over to the journalism room, where the teacher, Pete Mindock, read it and told me that I could solve the problem by joining the newspaper staff and writing the stories myself. Which I did. Over the next couple of years, we made the Gateway paper one of the best high school papers in the state, thanks to Pete and our supportive principal, Dick Sharkey. One of the editors, Michelle Howard, went on to the U.S. Naval Academy and became the first African-American woman ever to command a Navy warship in a combat zone. She’s an admiral now—amazing woman. Anyway, in my senior year, Pete helped me get a part-time job in the sports department of The Denver Post, and I have been writing professionally ever since. Other than manual labor, it is the only thing I really know how to do.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges our schools and education systems will face in the next few decades?
"Schools have to go beyond teaching a set of skills to teaching students literally how to think, how to adapt, how to learn and re-learn and re-learn again all through their lives."
I think schools face an enormous challenge in the United States, because we are both the most advanced economy in the world and the most culturally diverse country in the world. In the globalized future, America’s continued success depends on our ability to think more flexibly, creatively, quickly ... to see opportunities and patterns and react on a dime ... to welcome frequent change and adapt easily and with brainpower. Schools have to go beyond teaching a set of skills to teaching students literally how to think, how to adapt, how to learn and re-learn and re-learn again all through their lives. And somehow we have to do that in the context of a society in which people are coming from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures. I don’t think we can do this unless the schools themselves find ways to embrace and adapt to change more easily. Our schools often resist change—they must become engines of change, constantly renewing. Easy to say, hard to do.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment is my family. I love and admire my wife, journalist Karen Ball, and together we are raising four kids: Henry, Ella, Addie and Clara—much harder work than writing stories, but more rewarding, too.
What advice or words of wisdom would you give to our students who face socioeconomic challenges?
"All things are possible for those who are willing to put themselves on the line and match their dream with determination. It sounds corny, but I’ve seen it come true over and over and over again."
My family never had much money, and there were many other families with less than we had. Many families (including mine) went from two-parent homes to single-mother homes during the divorce wave of the 1970s, which set all of us back economically. By the time I reached high school, Aurora was very racially and economically diverse. So I think I know what I’m talking about when I say to Aurorans today that all things are possible. In 1968 I was a 2nd-grader at Lyn Knoll watching a new president take the oath of office on television—and 24 years later I was in Washington DC, sitting in the 3rd row at the U.S. Capitol, watching another new president take office. I’ve traveled the world, interviewed presidents and popes and movie stars. And that started while I was daydreaming on the Highline Canal and window shopping at Hoffman Heights Shopping Center. It doesn’t take money—it takes work, and joy, and a willingness to put yourself on the line. I mentioned Admiral Michelle Howard—her family wasn’t rich, but she is one of the most successful women in the U.S. military, advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President of the United States. Gov. Bill Ritter is an Aurora Public Schools graduate. Bob Pyle, one of the world’s greatest biologists—a leading authority on butterflies—is a Hinkley graduate. Nancy Carosso is one of the top engineers at NASA, responsible for much of the amazing work of the HubbIe telescope. I could go on and on, but my point is that the houses in Hoffman Heights and Aurora Hills where we all grew up were no bigger or fancier than they are today. All things are possible for those who are willing to put themselves on the line and match their dream with determination. It sounds corny, but I’ve seen it come true over and over and over again.
You said once that you like to switch gears every few years. Do you foresee another switch in the near future? As the editor of Time, where do you go from there?
I get to pretty much choose the stories that I do and write them the way I see fit, and lots of really great people arrange for those stories to be published with fantastic photos and graphics and headlines in the world’s largest newsmagazine. Which is a long way of saying that I have just about the best job in journalism, for me anyway, which makes it hard to imagine switching for anything better. Maybe someday.