All in the Family

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Tracy Samantha Schmidt is a social media trailblazer. Her dad, John Schmidt, is a historian specializing in Chicago history. TCW caught up with this father/daughter powerhouse to talk Twitter, bowling and where to find the best hotdogs in the city.

In school, kids often brought a favorite toy for Show and Tell. But Tracy Samantha Schmidt took her dad’s published dissertation, The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago, which has her name clearly printed under the acknowledgements.

“When she was five years old, she’d get the book from the shelf, open it and just look at her name in print,” recalls John Schmidt. “Is that a harbinger of the future or not?”

“It’s true!” says Tracy, who’s director of social media strategy and consulting at Crain Communications, Inc. “When my friends came over, I had to sit them down and show them my name in print.”

Interviewed for this article in the spacious Crain’s conference room on a sunny afternoon, conversation between Tracy and John is highly animated and interspersed with bursts of laughter. He’s self-deprecating, soft-spoken and admits to being shy, unlike his outgoing daughter and his wife Terri.

Photo courtesy of the Schmidts.

“Our family is just so talkative,” says Tracy. “We just constantly talk over each other.” And like most close-knit families, their conversations are peppered with decades old inside jokes – such as the fact that John calls Tracy his ‘noble daughter.’ “It’s from My Fair Lady when Alfred Doolittle is talking about his daughter who’s hanging around all the rich people,” he explains with amusement. “He’s a garbage man and thinks his daughter’s going to be his entrée into making so much money so he says, ‘Eliza, you are my noble daughter.’” Tracy laughs, adding, “He does actually call me his noble daughter.”

Past, Present and Future
A life-long historian, John has only recently become a bit of a local celebrity. In addition to being a published writer, he has a PhD in U.S. History and has worked at various schools for 38 years until retirement in 2007. His history blogs for the Chicago Tribune and WBEZ were instant hits, gaining him a following of history enthusiasts. He’s also in the midst of promoting his recently published book, On This Day in Chicago History, a calendar-like guide to significant events and fascinating tidbits on Chicago history.

Whereas John’s life-long passion has been about uncovering the past (he does a lot of his research at the Joseph Regenstein Library at University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD), his daughter is very much on the cutting edge of digital media. At Crains, Tracy helps train employees at the company’s 25 publications. She joined the company in 2012 after helping to co-create Chicago Now, the Chicago Tribune’s network of 350 local blogs, and spending time in Washington, D.C., as a reporter and web producer for Time magazine. She also taught online journalism at DePaul University and regularly appears on TV as a social media expert. She’s also writing a novel on life in social media – it’s hard to believe that she’s also only 30 years old.

“I’ve always been creating jobs for myself ever since I was in high school,” she explains. “I created a newspaper once – I stapled them together and sold them around the neighborhood.”

At 15, Tracy had the idea to write a ‘Teen Talk’ column for their town paper, the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate. Her column was syndicated to 18 other newspapers. “My photo was in it and my dad cut out every column to save it,” she recalls, her eyes welling with tears. “When it was finally done, I had 55 columns and he bound them all in a book.”

“We’re a very emotional family,” interjects John.

“We are,” Tracy says, nodding.

History In The Making
John had always envisioned a life in academia as a professor, spending most of his time writing. “But it didn’t work out,” he says, shrugging. “And it bothered me for a while but you have to adjust and live your life looking forward.”

There were offers but he and his wife, a psychotherapist, found themselves unable to uproot their young family from their beloved city. He taught classes and managed the library at various public schools until he retired. He also wrote for encyclopedias, scholarly journals and contributed pieces for the Bowlers Journal. He was a competitive bowler for several years and still proudly wears his gold 300 ring marked April 1, 1999, the day he bowled a perfect game.

In 2009, Tracy found herself at the cusp of one her biggest career moves – establishing Chicago Now with the Chicago Tribune’s then Digital Editor Bill Adee. “Our bloggers covered everything from politics to fashion to sports. And then one day, Bill said, ‘We really need a history blogger,’” explains Tracy. “I didn’t want to be like, ‘We’re hiring my dad!’ But he really is a great writer who knows Chicago history better than anybody I’ve ever met. So we asked him to blog for us.”

“I said, ‘Okay, I’d like to do it but I don’t want to embarrass you,’” remembers John.

“Yes, that was my big concern,” says Tracy, shaking her head.

“That was my big concern,” he explains. “She’s got this big job and I didn’t want to embarrass her by what I do. But I went out there, they gave me a try and I did pretty well eventually.”

“He turned out to be one of our best and most popular bloggers,” says Tracy. “My brother Nick and I grew up hearing these stories and, you know, your dad is your dad. But others who read his blog were like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool! Can your dad come to our party?’ I’m like, ‘What?! But he tells us these stories all the time!’ He’s become quite famous – it’s great.”

“Well everyone should have a retirement job,” says John. While he no longer blogs for the Tribune or WBEZ, he still occasionally blogs on his own and is working on his second book. When asked about how he feels about his daughter’s success, he says, “She’s a powerhouse – I’m still learning, I’m developing. I’m 66, but maybe by the time I’m 86 I’ll be a powerhouse, too.”

FACTOID: How do the Schmidt’s celebrate Father’s Day? “We usually go to Superdawg,” John says. “It’s actually in one of the 1,000 Places You Must Go To Before You Die.” And just like the daughter of a historian, Tracy quickly adds, “It’s one of the only remaining drive-in hotdog stands on the far northwest side.”

Natalie Probst Photographs

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About Irish Mae Silvestre

Irish Mae Silvestre earned her master’s degree in journalism at DePaul University and has worked in the magazine industry for over seven years. She grew up in Dubai, wrote for The Dubai Mall magazine and is a self-appointed KitKat connoisseur.