Zofia Smardz has always wondered how she stumbled into a career in journalism. She didn’t edit her high school newspaper or yearbook, and she never went near the offices of the Miscellany News, the student paper at Vassar College, where she majored in German after a freshman-year English teacher scared her out of a career in belles lettres or academia. Come to think of it, maybe it was all that English teacher’s doing.
After graduation, working as a translator in Washington, Smardz decided that this wasn’t the job for her. So, pondering her skills and looking to Woodward and Bernstein, she applied to journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a master’s degree. Returning to Washington for the usual reasons (a guy), she sent out hundreds of resumes to the Washington papers and all the bureaus in the city (in those golden days, there were lots and lots). The rejections came pouring in, saying things like, “You have impressive credentials, but Washington is no place for a rookie. Try Topeka.” But she persisted and finally landed a job as a dictationist at the late great Washington Star, taking down the dictated stories of reporters in the field (it was a loooong time ago). There, she worked her way up the ladder to reporter trainee, general assignment reporter for the weekly tab sections, Prince Georges County beat reporter and finally Virginia state correspondent, covering the Virginia legislature (she’d covered Annapolis, too), state elections and more.
Tragically, the Star went under in 1981, but Smardz found safe haven at Newsweek, where she was sent to the Bonn bureau, finally to use her German and cover martial law in Poland, the Bulgarian connection to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, the stationing of Pershing and cruise missiles in Germany and other highlights of the Cold War. Returning to Washington in 1984, she became State Department correspondent. In 1986, she won an Alicia Patterson Fellowship in Journalism and headed back to Eastern Europe to write a series of articles about the young generation’s discontent with communism. The Berlin Wall fell three years later.
Freelancing while raising a family in the ‘90s, Smardz co-authored “Special Trust,” Robert McFarlane’s memoir of the Reagan administration and the Iran-Contra scandal. She has ghostwritten and edited three other books and of course has an unfinished novel in a drawer. Smardz came to the Post in 2000 as a fill-in editor in Outlook, where she continued to work as an assignment editor until 2009, with one detour into Book World. She joined the Travel section as deputy editor in July 2009. Heaven.