published Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter returns to Baylor School, his alma mater

IF YOU GO

• Who: Bill Dedman, a Baylor School graduate, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "Empty Mansions"

• What: Public presentation and book signing at the Chattanooga Writers' Guild meeting (Barnes & Noble will have copies of the book available for purchase)

• When: Today from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

• Where: The Public Library

A Chattanooga native and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter returned to his alma mater Monday with a message for students.

Keep your eyes and ears open. Notice details. Tell stories.

"Tell big, important stories if you like, or tell small, meaningful ones. Tell them with care, with fairness. But tell them," Bill Dedman told about 700 high school students at Baylor School.

Dedman is in Chattanooga to talk about The New York Times bestseller he co-authored, "Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune."

The Baylor School alumnus shared how he stumbled onto Clark's story: While looking for a house to buy, he checked out the most expensive listings and found one priced at $25 million. The curiosity? The home had not been occupied for nearly 60 years. He learned Clark, born in 1906, was the daughter of a rich copper miner, a railroad builder and U.S. senator. She had a ticket for the return trip of the Titanic, but ended up on another liner. And at age 103, she was living in a hospital room while her luxurious mansions sat empty.

When the story initially broke, there were 110 million page views of it online, said Dedman, who went on to write the book with Clark's cousin.

He encouraged students to be aware of the stories around them in their own lives. He recalled stories at Baylor and questions he wished he had asked of his peers.

"We had classmates whose last names were on buildings here, and I should have been more curious about what sort of burden they carried," he said.

There was the student who had been mean in school. Dedman later met him again while working on a story about the Hamilton County workhouse.

"I never found out what he'd been thinking when he did the crime," Dedman said.

The first black student to attend the private school was one class behind Dedman.

"'What was that like?' I'm sure I was afraid to mention it," he said.

After graduating from Baylor, Dedman would go on to write at the Chattanooga News-Free Press, Chattanooga Times and would win a Pulitzer Prize while working at the Atlanta Constitution for a story on lenders avoiding black middle-class families.

He has reported at numerous newspapers and taught journalism at universities including Boston University, Northwestern University and the University of Maryland. He now works as an investigative reporter for NBC News.

Jim Kennedy, director of admissions at Baylor, said the visit will be one that potentially will inspire students at the school.

"He told his story and he connected it to their lives," Kennedy said.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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