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Column: Hard-driving news executive becomes children’s book author

When PSA flight 182 crashed in North Park on Sept. 25, 1978, Phyllis Schwartz was a tenderfoot newscast producer at KFMB-TV Channel 8 faced with gathering the heartbreaking facts and updates at breakneck speed for news reports.

Early one morning six months later, she was the only staffer in the newsroom during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania. Adrenalin pumping, she alerted her news director at home and contacted the network to gather information for delivery on Sun Up San Diego.

Schwartz went on to a long, successful career in TV news and management in Chicago and San Diego, including operating KNSD-TV Channel 7/39 as president and general manager from 2000 to 2007.

Skip forward to Sept. 25, 2022. Schwartz will be doing something far calmer on the 44th anniversary of the PSA collision and crash that claimed 144 lives.

She will be autographing her first children’s book at Warwick’s in La Jolla. And, while this seems far afield from the breaking news that was the lifeblood of her former career, it is impactful in a different way.

This book, “When Mom Feels Great, Then We Do Too?” also grew out of tragedy, but of a more personal nature.

Schwartz was diagnosed with cancer — not once, but three times over several years. She endured the triple-C onslaught beginning in her 20s when she learned she had Hodgkin’s disease, previously considered a death sentence.

Doctors warned her that the aggressive radiation treatment necessary to cure the Hodgkin’s lymphoma might make her susceptible to future health setbacks, including breast cancer. And it did.

Luckily, her breast cancer was discovered at stage 1 in 2013. “I couldn’t have any more radiation on my chest after my Hodgkin’s experience,” she says. “So, for me, the choice of a double mastectomy was not as hard as it might seem.”

If bad things seem to occur in threes, Schwartz’s cancer experience proved no exception. Six years ago, the Encinitas mom was diagnosed with an unrelated, rare pancreatic cancer. Hers was treatable but required a debilitating surgery called a Whipple. She was warned it was one of the toughest surgeries a person could endure, and it lived up to its reputation.

“Just bad luck,” she says, “but I’ve been fortunate to have good medical care in Chicago and San Diego. And a great group of family, friends and colleagues that loves me.”

From her childhood days, Schwartz loved reading nursery rhymes and books. She also loved writing, especially in her diary. After a hard day in the newsroom bombarded by sad and distressing events, she would return home and write poetry to relax and take her mind to a happy place.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, she wrote a short poem, “The Wait.” Her test results vigil ended with fighting words: “It wasn’t benign. But neither am I. Let the games begin.”

Poetry was the genesis of her children’s book, “When Mom Feels Good, Then We Do Too!” She uses cadence and rhyme almost like a Trojan horse to sneak helpful tips to cancer patients’ children and loved ones while they’re having a fun read.

The child narrator says: “We made her funny videos and colored a card. We even helped weed daisies in the yard.”

The book started its life as a poem. “I wanted to write about a mom coming home and not feeling well, and I wanted it to be optimistic and upbeat — and that’s when I wrote this poem.”

Then Schwartz realized that, with some adjustments and illustrations, it could be much more.

She found an illustrator, Siski Kalla, through a book editing site called Reedsy.com.

Schwartz has three more recently written poems that she plans to turn into children’s books.

Meanwhile, with publication set for Sept. 23, she is scheduling autographing events at local bookstores. A list is on her website: www.phyllisfeelsgreat.com.

In October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she’ll sign books at American Cancer Society Discovery Shops, with those proceeds going to the cancer society. On Oct. 16, she is attending its Making Strides walk here and giving away 100 books.

Susan Taylor, who anchored KNSD evening news when Schwartz was boss, is emceeing the event, as she has for the past 25 years.

“The reason I like the book is its appeal to younger children,” says Taylor, whose mother also suffered from breast cancer.

Parents may not want to tell their 3- and 4-year-old kids why mom is in bed, or why mom lost her hair or that she has cancer, Taylor adds.

She capsulizes the message of Schwartz’s book: “Mom’s not feeling well, but let’s makes her laugh and have some fun. Let’s give her a hug, and let’s all be together as a family.”

Book author Phyllis Schwartz owns Frida Kahlo socks like those pictured in her book, "When Mom Feels Great, Then We Do Too!"

Book author Phyllis Schwartz owns Frida Kahlo socks like those pictured in her book, “When Mom Feels Great, Then We Do Too!”

(Book illustraton by Siski Kalla)

“A lot of people who know me from the news side, don’t realize I’m such a gooey goo softie,” says Schwartz. When she was V.P. of news at ABC-owned WLS-TV in Chicago, the station general manager nicknamed her “Schwarzkoph,” referring to Gen. “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkoph, who led coalition forces during the Gulf War.

“That kind of defines me — hard core, fast talking, quick thinking, loud — that impatient news gal wanting to be in the newsroom fray,” she says. “None of them would have imagined I would be writing kids’ books.”

Actually, Taylor can make that leap. “The Phyllis I’m seeing today is more reflective, more vulnerable than the Phyllis I knew at the TV station. But cancer does that to you. It changes you and makes you re-evaluate what’s really important in your life,” says Taylor, now director of external affairs for Scripps Health.

Schwartz has plenty of material for a fascinating tell-all memoir. “I know so much about so many people,” she admits, but she doesn’t want the stress and possible hurt feelings that such revelations might entail.

She prefers what she is calling her passion project.

The children’s book is semi-autobiographical.

Like the sick mom in the book: “I love almond lattes and chocolate chip cookies, and I do get grumpy when I’m soaked in the rain.” She also wears red sunglasses, sometimes fastens her hair in a ponytail on one side and wears Frida Kahlo-print socks.

Cancer isn’t mentioned in the book — just the removal of mommy’s “bumps.” That is intentional because her message applies to a number of health issues.

Schwartz’s goal was to make a sad and challenging subject more fun and upbeat — “something a parent can use to have a good talk with their kids.” And that’s what she did.