PBS Journalist to Call St. Thomas His New Home

Fred de Sam Lazaro

Fred de Sam Lazaro

The founder of an acclaimed public television enterprise that combines international journalism and teaching and focuses on issues related to social entrepreneurship is moving to St. Thomas.

Fred de Sam Lazaro, director of the Under-Told Stories Project and a correspondent for "PBS NewsHour" since 1985, will join the university on Jan. 1. He and his longtime PBS producer Nikki See will have offices in the Department of Communication and Journalism in O’Shaughnessy Educational Center.

De Sam Lazaro plans to collaborate across academic disciplines and work closely with COJO faculty and students who will assist him with the 18-24 stories that he produces every year for PBS as he travels around the globe to focus on issues under-reported by the mainstream American media.

“I am always looking for social entrepreneurs who have taken on human development problems and come up with solutions or at least promising ideas,” he said. “I am excited for the opportunity to collaborate with professors and students at St. Thomas.”

President Julie Sullivan, who met de Sam Lazaro several years ago at a conference in Mexico when she was executive vice president and provost at the University of San Diego, is thrilled to bring his brand of journalism to St. Thomas.

“Fred has an incredibly keen eye for identifying important stories throughout the world and then telling them in a way that inspires and empowers people to develop solutions that improve the human condition and create more sustainable and just communities,” she said. “Involving our students in these stories will allow them to both learn a great deal about the craft of good journalism and fulfill our mission of advancing the common good.”

Dr. Wendy Wyatt, chair of COJO, called the de Sam Lazaro affiliation with St. Thomas full of “terrific possibilities” for the department and the College of Arts and Sciences.

“I can imagine Fred and Nikki providing our students with experiential learning opportunities, giving workshops on telling under-told stories, partnering with faculty on projects and helping establish connections abroad,” she told COJO faculty in a memo last week. “Exciting stuff ahead!”

De Sam Lazaro founded the Under-Told Stories Project at Saint John’s University in Collegeville in 2006 and moved the program in 2011 to Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, where he has served as a senior distinguished fellow at the Hendrickson Institute for Ethical Leadership. PBS funds the project through grants from foundations and donors.

A native of India

De Sam Lazaro, 59, was born in Bangalore, India, and immigrated to the United States in 1975 with his mother to join an older sister who lived in San Francisco.

He met Kay Drechsler of Cloquet, Minnesota, who was spending a year in San Francisco working as an au pair for a family. She planned to begin studies at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, and he enrolled there with her. He graduated in 1981 with a media arts degree.

De Sam Lazaro became interested in journalism at St. Scholastica, and an internship at the campus-based Minnesota Public Radio station between his junior and senior year turned into a full-time job.

He moved to the Twin Cities in 1985 to work for “Almanac,” a new public affairs show on Twin Cities Public Television, and then the "MacNeil-Lehrer Report," which had expanded from 30 to 60 minutes and needed more regional correspondents. He recalled his first story for the program was on the Hormel meatpackers strike in Austin in 1985.

He won a yearlong journalism fellowship to the University of Michigan in 1988-89 and while there, he said, “I became enamored with Detroit and what was happening to its economy.”

He also developed an interest in global health issues, particularly the spread of the HIV virus and AIDS in Africa, and worked for two years as a medical correspondent for PBS. He began to travel around the world to pursue stories, breaking the first network story on the burgeoning AIDS epidemic in South Africa.

De Sam Lazaro developed a friendship with the late Brother Dietrich Reinhart, president of Saint John’s from 1991-2008, and founded his Under-Told Stories Project there nearly a decade ago. He has reported from more than 60 countries, focusing on issues such as AIDS, public health crises, challenges faced by developing nations and social entrepreneurship. This year, stories have taken him to China, Colombia, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

“The Under-Told Stories Project works to expand, sustain and improve coverage of the world outside America in broadcast, print and emerging new media outlets,” the project’s mission statement says. “Our challenge is to direct American eyes to the daily concerns of far away people who increasingly affect our lives. We hope to reawaken the generous curiosity of Americans – our students in particular – about a world we can no longer ignore.”

De Sam Lazaro is a regular contributor and substitute anchor for “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," a PBS program. He also directed films from India and the Democratic Republic of Congo for “Wide Angle,” a weekly PBS international issues documentary series broadcast from 2002-10.

He and Kay, his wife, a kindergarten teacher in St. Paul Public Schools, live in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul. They have three grown children and three grandchildren. She has a master’s degree in gifted education from St. Thomas.

De Sam Lazaro wrote about his 40-year odyssey in the United States for "PBS NewsHour" in August. Here is his story, as reprinted on MinnPost.com. You also can read some of his PBS stories here.