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I moved to San Diego and got involved in reporting on local public affairs right when Gail Stoorza-Gill dissolved what was left of Stoorza, Ziegaus and Metzger, the legendary public relations firm. When I met her as Voice of San Diego was being formed, I was skeptical.
She was a public relations professional, who was helping this supposedly gritty, investigative, irreverent nonprofit news organization get off the ground.
That felt off. And I was wrong to let it. She left an indelible mark on our organization and helped make it something that could last more than 16 years later. And that’s part of why I was so sad to learn Gail died May 16 after years of fighting fibromyalgia and complications from a surgery.
She became a board member for Voice of San Diego before it had published a story. As another founding board member, Bob Witty, reminded me last week, she used her decades of communications experience to craft Voice of San Diego’s mission. It was so well done, it has guided our strategy and the shape of our organization for many years. I still refer to it with staff or the public at least once a week, 16 years later.
Gail, though, had a long career before she helped us. Her clients came to include some of the biggest companies in San Diego, including the Padres, SDG&E and countless biotech and innovative companies that she saw before many would be a big part of our local economy. She had a big role in recasting downtown as a desirable destination after decades of squalor.
But even though she had one of the largest privately held public relations firms in the country, perhaps her greatest accomplishment was how many young people she mentored. If you drew a tree on a wall with all the branches of people she employed who went on to serve in marketing, advertising, public affairs and other ventures in San Diego and around the country, you would fill the whole wall. She had no college degree but she ended up crafting the messaging for the largest companies and nonprofits in San Diego.
“It was a joke for a long time that if you were involved in local public affairs, you probably had worked for her at some point,” said Craig Benedetto, a prominent San Diego lobbyist. “She would light up any meeting she entered – she was mesmerizing.”
Nadine Corrigan, one of Gail’s first employees, said she had a rare ability to project calm in all situations. “The decided are always calm,” she recalled Gail saying to everyone in a sticky situation.
“She could see where a company wanted to go and how her discipline in public relations or marketing could help them get there. She could tell them things they needed to hear in a way that instilled confidence,” Corrigan said.
And she passed that confidence on to other women. She was often the only woman in the board room. Gail was the first woman to chair the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. For that ol’ boys club, she was so intensely trusted it wasn’t even an issue.
“I had two kids during the time I was with her. She taught me you could be really successful and you could be a good mother and raise good kids at the same time,” Corrigan said.
She taught a lot of people they could create something where there was nothing. “She produced all around skilled and competent people who went out and created their own companies and initiatives,” said Sara Muller Fraunces, a longtime friend and colleague.
And that’s what I remember. For a while, with Voice of San Diego, it was pretty unclear what we were actually going to be able to do. But she believed in it. We had no business plan to speak of – no good answer to the question “How will you pay for this into perpetuity?” We had initial funding from Buzz Woolley, the longtime philanthropist and venture capitalist, but the future was not clear at all.
I met with her to outline what I thought we should do: We’d get money from the people who valued the reporting. We’d ask them, and they’d give. We’d build a whole program around it.
It was novel but it wasn’t. I was borrowing a concept public radio had evolved for decades but applying it to this new system. She listened to my presentation and gave priceless feedback on how to clarify it.
But as we left, I asked her if she really thought it would work.
“I know it will work. I believe in you,” I remember her saying. That was just what I needed to believe in myself too. Now, thousands of people donate to or sponsor parts of Voice of San Diego, an unimaginable diversity of revenue sources to us 16 years ago.
Unimaginable, that is, except to her.