It began with the Steak Tips Massacre. 1995, four men dead, one wounded, an argument that escalated into a gunfight at the 99 Restaurant in Charlestown landed Michele McPhee at New York Daily News.
“I worked at The Mass Media, when I first started,” McPhee said. “That was my very first job, in journalism, and loved it.”
As a student at UMass Boston McPhee got a six-month writing co-op at the Boston Globe, which she was able to extend by commandeering a disused desk in their newsroom, and writing incessantly.
“I urge everyone at UMass, especially people who are in journalism, to write. Write often. Write for free,” McPhee said.
With single-minded tenacity McPhee wrote a series of articles about the Steak Tips Massacre investigation for the Boston Globe, and finally an in depth article for Boston Magazine.
“That story that came out in Boston Magazine launched my career,” She said. “When it came out it caught the attention of an editor at the New York Daily News, so I went directly to New York.”
She became Police Bureau Chief, covering crime in New York City.
“I was there for 9/11,” she said. “Because I had covered police and fire, I knew a lot of the people personally who were affected. There were 343 fire fighters that were killed that day, another 23 New York City cops, and 32 Port Authority Police Officers, and among them were my friends, because I had been there for so long, and that was my beat, and my beat was my life essentially.”
McPhee immersed herself in crime reporting for about five years more after 9/11. She wrote for newspapers and magazines all over New York, but the work began to wear on her.
“Writing about the devastating losses people suffered made me realize that I was living in New York, and my nieces and nephews were growing up in Boston without me.”
After moving home to Boston in 2006, McPhee worked for the Boston Herald as a columnist and police reporter, and wrote five true crime novels. Now she works at ABC News as a producer for the Brian Ross Investigative Unit.
“His team is stellar,” she said. “I'm grateful to be working with such unbelievable journalists, and it's nice in this business to still be able to learn with your colleagues, and become better.”
Lately McPhee has been investigating the Boston Marathon Bombings. In October 2014, an article she wrote about the lives of the Tsarnaev woman—Tamerlan’s wife, mother and two sisters—appeared on the cover of Newsweek. That article is now evolving into a further investigation into Tamerlan’s relationship with the FBI. The terror that kept her writing in New York, and ultimately drove her home to Boston, is back on her mind.
“Once again, I find myself on a blood splattered street in a place that is sacred to me. It's important to me to figure out what went wrong this time.”
Q: Why did you decide to go to UMass Boston?
A: There was a class called “The City as a Hero,” and that class drew me to the school. I just loved it there. You are around every walk of life at UMass Boston. This is not just an extension of high school. This is really like being part of a city. When I hired reporters, working for the Police Bureau, the last thing I looked at was their college degree. What concerned me most was their life experience. What obstacles did they overcome? What experience did they have with adversity? Those were the questions that were really important to me. At UMass Boston, you’re surrounded by people who have made it on their own, who have overcome the odds. I think Malcolm Gladwell described a lot of our classmates at UMass Boston in his book, The Outliers. It's about people who stand out on their own. They don't have the trust funds or the help or the political connections, they just make it, and I think that's what UMass Boston is. It's the people who made it.
Q: Were you involved in any student clubs or activities?
A: I did pay my way through UMass, so I worked at the Comedy Connection [in Faneuil Hall] as a cocktail waitress, and I also worked at Destinations, which was a nightclub at Haymarket. We used to call it Lacerations because there were so many fights and stabbings in there, and Bobby Brown could be found smoking crack in the bathroom. It was one of those nightclubs. I worked a lot, and I also worked at the co-op [internship], at the State House for the Globe. I was on the city desk, and that was back when newspapers had money, so you could write. You could run around the city and just find little quirky stories, and make money. I was too busy to get involved with anything other than The Mass Media.
Q: You freelanced at the beginning there with the Boston Globe?
A: I did, because once I had the co-op, I was sort of tenacious. I wouldn't leave. There was an empty desk at the old city weekly section, and after class I would walk across the street. I'd sit down. I'd write a bunch of quirky stories, make a little bit of money. Then I'd go to the Comedy Connection, or Destinations nightclub. It was a great time in my life. I really loved going to UMass Boston.
Q: What was your experience like?
A: I spent a lot of time at Wits End [Café]. That's where I developed my addiction to espresso. I also met some of my closest friends there. One of my friends was Robert Vickerman. We both worked at the Globe, and we both went to UMass Boston. Unfortunately he died. We became roommates because of UMass, and his partner eventually moved to New York with us. Rob got a brain tumor when he was 38 years old, and passed away three years later, but that relationship was forged at UMass, and it's something I will always cherish. The people that I met there were among the most authentic that have ever come into my life.
Q: What was your favorite class, or activity here at UMass?
A: The City as a Hero—that was the class. I was an English Major, and there were so many great professors there. Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to really suck in all of campus life, other than classes and the Wits End cause I was working. I wish I had been more involved in campus life, but I just never got a chance to. Like, I never went to the JFK library, because I was just too busy. I would run over to class. Run to work. I lived in the North End at the time, in some condemned apartment that was 400 bucks a month. It was this gross apartment, but it was in the North End, so who cares. It was awesome.
Forget about frat parties when you're going to UMass, you're trying to pay your way. If you want to be a reporter, you have to work for free for five years, or for really cheap, and people aren't willing to work anymore, because they're coddled. I think that that's one of the problems that happens in some of the highbrow colleges. The whole idea of work becomes lost.
Q: Do you remember any professors or fellow students?
A: My best friend Rob Vickerman, the late Rob Vickerman, definitely, that was a relationship that came from UMass. Because of UMass I got to the Globe. Some of my core group of friends are connected to the Globe internship I got from UMass. In fact, I'm flying out to San Francisco this month to meet with two. We all worked together, and I met them because of UMass. 24 years ago I met those guys.
Q: What are the most important things you learned at UMass?
A: I learned the value of community. Being at UMass is like being part of a tight knit neighborhood. It's like living in an eclectic city. You're surrounded by people who have an appreciation for what they're doing there. I just loved looking around and seeing people that come from everywhere going to such completely different places. The people there were determined. That's the word I always thought about when I was at UMass. They've got people who are determined, just like me, to make their lives phenomenal.
Q: Have you been on campus since you were a student?
A: Yes. I cannot believe how beautiful it is now. I mean, back then I feel like you could still smell the dump that it was built on. Now it's super. Harbor Point, behind there, I lived there for like 6 months. That place was infested with cockroaches. It was horrible.
Q: Did you do anything at UMass Boston that you couldn’t have done somewhere else?
A: I think The Mass Media was one of the great college newspapers. It was exciting to be a part of it. I never was more excited than when I first saw my name in print. It was something I had always dreamed of. I took the long way around to get into college, because I was an incorrigible high school student. When I saw my byline in Mass Media, I actually saw I could acquire that dream I always had of being a reporter, and from there I wouldn't give up. That first byline in The Mass Media is what catapulted my determination to become a reporter.
Q: Where did you spend most of your time on campus?
A: The only place I knew how to get to was Wits End. I was there, like if I was in between classes that's where you could find me always. So that's where we would always meet up, me and Rob, and we would talk about boys, and work, and school.
Q: Do you have any birthday wishes for UMass Boston?
A: I wish for another 500 birthdays for that great campus. I hope that UMass Boston maintains its integrity along with its affordability for everyone in Massachusetts.