by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — As crazy as 2020 was, it might seem that survival alone during a year disrupted by a worldwide pandemic was triumph enough.
But The Leaven did better than that. It won 12 national press awards at the second — and hopefully, final — virtual Catholic Media Conference, held June 8-10.
The awards broke down as follows: six first place, one second place, three third places and two honorable mentions.
Six of the awards were for writing and five were for visual elements: photos, photo-illustrations or graphics. One was for a headline.
And it was a free-for-all. While one staff member — Todd Habiger — won four awards, demonstrating excellence in both writing and design — Shelly Hoog set a record by becoming The Leaven’s first reader to win a photography award for the paper.
The judges rewarded Habiger for his versatility with a first place in Best Use of Graphics for “The Face of Controversy,” (see page 5) a first place Best Sports Journalism for “Silent Spring,” a third place in best feature writing for “Team Catholic,” and a third place in Best Headline, “Three Weddings and a Pandemic.” (See pages 8-9).
It’s no surprise that two of the awards involved sports, because Habiger’s known as The Leaven’s sports guy. “Silent Spring” was about youth athletes who were denied a never-to-be-repeated opportunity.
“I really wanted to do something about these kids and coaches who had their senior year, their last year of spring sports, taken away from them [by the pandemic],” said Habiger.
“They didn’t see it coming. Here they were preparing for their senior year . . . and all of a sudden it was gone,” he continued. “That high school experience was gone. So, I tried to capture some of the emotion.
“I was really impressed how well the kids handled it. A lot of the kids were heartbroken, but they took it in stride. They did it with class. They may have taken a few minutes to feel sad, but in the end, they adapted as well. There were hundreds of stories like that out there, but I could only choose a few from each sport. These kids spoke for all the kids who didn’t get to have a spring sport season.”
Longtime freelancer Jill Esfeld won a first-place award, Best Personality Profile — Diocesan Newspaper, for “Sewing a Path to the Future,” about a former refugee achieving the American Dream through making clothes.
“I approached the story with great respect for Liliane Lemani and her incredible journey from being attacked by militants in the Congo, to surviving a decade in a refugee camp, to fighting for her family’s eventual immigration to the United States and starting her own sewing business here,” said Esfeld. “I also tried to emphasize the important part the Catholic Church plays in helping refugees.”
Focus on photography
Veteran freelance photographer Jay Soldner won a first-pace award, Best Multiple Picture Package — Sports, for “Let the Madness Begin,” (see pages 8-9) March Madness basketball, CYO style.
“Most of the action shots are pretty standard for a basketball game,” said Soldner. “I think the shots that made the photo package a winner are the reaction shots: the pure elation on the girls’ faces running the floor after a successful play for two points, and the girls celebrating with the championship trophy after the game.”
Doug Hesse, another veteran freelance photographer, snagged a first-place award, Best Photograph — Photo-Illustration, for “Why Catholics Can’t Sing,” which graphically portrayed the very good reason why hymnals disappeared from pews during the COVID-19 times.
“I just didn’t think that I would see spit droplets coming from the mouth of a singer,” said Hesse. “I kind of felt like a scientist working on a theory I was certain wasn’t true. But once I set up and started taking photos, it was obvious that singing really did create those conditions.”
Backlighting did the trick.
“I knew I had something special after previewing the image on the back of my camera,” said Hesse. “I turned it in to Todd Habiger and waited for it to be published. I then asked Todd if he minded if I posted the photo to Facebook — I wanted my little slice of the world to know about this possible transmission point. Well, that photo ended up being shared tens of thousands of times.”
Then there was the first-place award, “Best Photography — Sacramental, “Ministry Gets Creative,” won by someone who wasn’t even a photographer. Hoog used her cellphone to snap a photo of her mother, Jean Humphrey, being anointed by Father John Riley from the outside and through her nursing home window screen.
A team effort
The only second-place award, “Best Analysis/Background/Round-Up News Writing — The Gerard E. Sherry Award — Diocesan Newspaper, was won by the husband-and-wife team of Marc and Julie Anderson for their story of suicide and farmers, “Farmers in Crisis.”
“While our byline might have appeared on the story, we feel as if the award truly belongs to all those we interviewed,” said Julie Anderson. “In particular, we will never be able to adequately express our appreciation for the entire Hasenkamp family, who shared its personal experience of heartbreak. . . . We hope their willingness to share openly and honestly will prevent at least one farming family from experiencing the same pain of losing a loved one.”
Habiger won two third-place awards. One was “Team Catholic,” Best Feature Writing — Diocesan Newspaper, which was a feature story about two Benedictine College football players who became Catholic. The second was “Three Weddings and a Pandemic,” which won in the category of Best Headline.
Moira Cullings won a third-place award for the story that accompanied “Ministry Gets Creative” in the category of Best Reporting on the Celebration of a Sacrament.
“I was grateful to win an award for the story about Jean Humphrey and her family’s struggle to maneuver through life with COVID restrictions,” said Cullings. “Her daughters, like so many Americans, were unable to be truly with their mom.”
“I wanted to open up Jean’s story in a way that shone a light on her life before Alzheimer’s and COVID,” added Cullings. “I also wanted to highlight her connection with our chancellor, Father John Riley.
“But my ultimate goal was to illustrate the unique struggles of suffering from Alzheimer’s during an already complex and confusing time in our country’s history.”
Rounding out the awards were two Honorable Mentions. Joe Bollig was awarded one for his story “Mass Alone,” in the category of Best Reporting on the Celebration of a Sacrament. Lori Wood Habiger, a former Leaven staffer who now freelances as a photographer for the paper, received one for “Into the Night,” Best Photograph — Vocations to the Priesthood, Religious Life or Diaconate.
“My photograph ‘Into the Night’ was taken during the very early days of the pandemic, when no one except essential workers were supposed to be leaving their homes,” she said. “I was photographing a story about how the Sisters, Servants of Mary continued to go out during the pandemic to fulfill their vocation of working with the sick, and we wanted to get something during the night.”
The awards for work done in the awful year of 2020 showed an underappreciated aspect of The Leaven, said Todd Habiger: its adaptability.
“I’m really proud of all the awards,” he said. “I think it just shows the versatility of myself and everyone on The Leaven staff. We have to be versatile. We have to adapt with the times. One thing about The Leaven — we have to work together to be successful.”
Leaven editor Father Mark Goldasich heartily concurred.
“Honestly, I was just thrilled that we were able to get the paper out last year without missing a single issue,” he said. “Considering that all our work since mid-March 2020 was done remotely, to have received this many awards this time around was remarkable.
“It simply proves to me the commitment to excellence that all associated with The Leaven have — staff and freelance contributors alike — no matter the circumstances we work under. Winning in so many different categories makes me so proud to be associated with such a diverse and talented group of people.”