Don't let the bad guys win

(CNN)A few months back, a CNN producer asked me to participate in a network series. It sounded easy enough. Come up with the person who most impacted your life, she said. We'll make a story out of it and then air it nationwide.

Sounds fab, right? Not to me. I'm not one to dwell on the past, at least not a painful part of my past that peripherally involved that special person.
That said, you might think the person who most impacted my life was a parent, or a friend, or a priest.
The person who most impacted my life was a tough, blunt, former news director named Ron Bilek.
    Ron and I never had a mushy personal conversation or even dinner as friends. Ron was my boss. But, more importantly, Ron was the person who gave me the gumption to never let the bastards win.
    And, trust me, I've run into more than a few.
    Before I met Ron, I ran into the biggest bastard early in my career. I was 21 or 22 and working as a TV reporter in a tiny market. I covered city council and anything to do with crime. I made $4.50 an hour, but I didn't care about the money -- I never have -- I loved being a journalist.
    I worked hard -- a split shift -- and it paid off. I won a United Press International award for spot news. And I broke stories that no one else did.
    One day I gathered my courage and decided to ask for a promotion to weekend anchor. It took me weeks to put together a tape of my best work, days to figure out how to approach the "big boss" to ask for a "spot on the desk."
    Here's the part I don't like to remember. So, I'll make it short.
    I went up to the Boss-Man's office. My hands were sweating. There was a single chair in front of the TV monitor in his office, and he was sitting in that chair. I popped my tape into the VCR and stood beside him.
    One minute through my tape, Boss-Man hit the stop button.
    "What's wrong?" I said, panicked.
    "Just wondered if you wanted to sit down," he said, looking up at me from his chair.
    "No, I'll just stand," I said, puzzled.
    Before I knew it, he had placed a hand on either side of my hips, and sat me on his lap.
    You would think I would have jumped up and dramatically slapped him. But, I didn't. I just sat there ... thinking. My first thought: Yuck! He's my father's age. My second thought: I'm going to throw up. My third thought: What would my mother say?
    That did it. I jumped up from his lap, popped out my tape and ran from the office wondering what I did to lead him on. Yes, I blamed myself. But then his boss offered to promote me, not to news anchor, but to full-time weather girl. When I refused, I was fired for "not being a team player."
    Perhaps my lack of courage is understandable. It was the '80s, pre-Anita Hill and I thought sexual harassment just came with the territory.
    I had just ditched an abusive college boyfriend. Still, for me, that incident at work, more than any other, nearly derailed my career. Not only did I think I inadvertently sent out sexual signals, but I began to doubt my abilities. Maybe I wasn't so smart after all. Maybe all I had to offer was my "perkiness." Maybe I was just a ... patsy.
    In the midst of all that confusion, I decided to throw caution to the wind, and cold-call Ron Bilek. What did I have to lose? At the time, Ron was a legendary news director in Cleveland. And wonder of wonders, for a young woman shaken to the core, Mr. Bilek accepted my call.
    I remember telling him my career was over -- that I was never going to make it in journalism. He told me to be patient. I wound up calling Ron every two weeks for the next three years for career advice. Eventually he left Cleveland for Columbus and WSYX-TV. I became one of his first new hires.
    He assigned me the police beat. That meant I covered crime in Columbus. Ron pushed me to establish sources and beat the competition through original reporting. He made sure I lived up to his expectations, too. I used to show him my scripts, and more than once, he told me they were "a piece of sh*t" and to try again.
    I thrived on Ron's blunt appraisal of my work. However harsh his criticism, he believed in my abilities. He believed in me. But, perhaps the greatest gift Ron gave me was the realization that I am resilient. I am tough as nails. I can survive anything.
    When CNN arranged for me to see him again -- after 20 years -- I asked him if he realized how much he meant to me. To my surprise, he didn't.
    "I thought you were one of my best reporters," he said. "What I got out of our conversations was that you got what the business was all about. There was meat on the bone."
    "I'm not politically correct," he went on. "But I cared. No matter how rough, or hard, or obnoxious I was, it wasn't mean-spirited. It was, dammit -- I want you to be good because you can be good."
    Trust me, if someone wants to diminish me today -- by virtue of my gender or any other reason -- I won't blame myself.
    And, oh yes, I have some choice words at the ready.
    Thank you Ron.