In her heart of hearts, Lorie Zapf was an A student. And no one knew it but her.
It was that inner fire, the drive to succeed, that propelled Zapf, 57, out of unimaginable circumstances — a San Fernando Valley family ripped apart by alcoholism and siblings dispersed into foster care — to junior college, then paying her own way through California State University, Northridge to a degree in broadcast journalism. This proud, astute Valley native is a chronic overachiever, so she wasn’t done with a bachelor’s degree. She worked in radio and TV news, earned a master’s degree at the University of Denver, started a family — and then followed her inner fire all the way to the upper echelons of Southern California government.
Residents of San Diego now call her Councilwoman.
“It’s something that’s just inherently inside of you,” said Zapf ’82 (Broadcast Journalism), who is serving her second term on the San Diego City Council, representing District 2 — encompassing Mission Bay, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and miles of other prime real estate.
“I knew from [childhood] that I liked learning. My parents never asked me if my homework was done or if I had a project. I don’t think they even cared what my grades were. I cared.
“The only reason I was trying to be an A student was because I wanted to be,” she continued. “When I was an undergrad, my GPA was maybe 3.4. In my heart of hearts, I was an A student. But because I had to do so many things, and work, I had to allow myself to get some Bs. I just couldn’t do it all. Of course, I had to pick and choose the classes that I was going to have to pull back on and just be okay with a B.”
Zapf and her siblings ended up in separate foster homes after their mother “drank away all our money,” she said. The councilwoman felt lucky, she said, with the foster mother she was assigned.
“She was involved and on the school board for the Las Virgenes Unified School District,” Zapf said. “And my grandfather, who immigrated here from Bulgaria — he was a farmer — was really big into education, and he wanted me in particular to someday go to college. He didn’t live long enough to see that, but one of the gifts he gave me was my first typewriter, and he started a little college fund for me.
“He passed away when I was in high school,” she noted. “He helped instill in me that education was important. I was surrounded by some key people in my life.”
Zapf was the first Latina elected to the San Diego City Council. After districts were redrawn in 2011, the Republican found herself shifted from more conservative neighborhoods to the left-leaning beach communities.
From her light-filled office in San Diego City Hall, just blocks from the waterfront and the convention center that hosts the world-famous Comic-Con, Zapf presides over a bustling, booming district — and a teeming mass of constituents in need.
Thankfully, she’s a natural multi-tasker.
“I was a commuter student at CSUN, and I had to pay my own way,” Zapf said. “So my typical day was, I’d get up so early in the morning — 4 or 4:30, get to the radio station on campus, produce the morning news, go to classes, go to an (unpaid) internship — and then go to work at night, [waitressing] at Charlie Brown’s. Somehow I found time to study between all that.”
Tough Love from CSUN Professors
She began her studies at Pierce College, then chose CSUN for its broadcast journalism department — over UCLA, which focused more on film.
“I was a news junkie,” she said. “At the time, I always carried a Newsweek or Time magazine, or both. I was totally into news, and I wanted to be a journalist. Northridge had a reputation for having a really good broadcast journalism department.
“I remember the instructors. There was one [at CSUN] who had worked for ‘NBC White Paper’ (a long-running, acclaimed news documentary series). He was a fantastic teacher, albeit really tough. I didn’t love him at the time! When I got my second job as news director at a radio station in Lake Tahoe, KTHO radio — my first was as a news reporter in Las Vegas — I remember writing him a letter and telling him: At the time, I thought he was really mean and a jerk and all that, but now that I am in the real world, I can see that it was really helpful. I was grateful he was so tough on us.
“It really made a difference for me being able to get a job and elevate to a better job,” she continued. “I heard at the time that he read the letter to his class. Like, ‘See! There’s a method to my madness.’ It’s good to let instructors know the impact they’ve had on you.”
Zapf also recalled CSUN’s incredible resources for programs including journalism, radio and the department that’s now called Cinema and Television Arts — thanks to its location adjacent to Hollywood.
“Because of the proximity to the Burbank studios and all of the news outlets, we had good real-life instructors, and we had a lot of amazing equipment,” she said. “A lot of it was donated. I remember the studio we had, oh my God, the lighting and the cameras and everything was just amazing.
“I remember another instructor I had for a class. He was a real producer for a TV show. He had produced a pilot for a TV series. He’d show it to our class and get feedback.”
In addition to learning TV production, Zapf got her start in radio at the campus public radio affiliate, now known as 88.5 KCSN.
“We did, at the time, the morning local news for ‘All Things Considered,’” she said. “I was a student producer for radio. I remember, I’d get there god-awful early in the morning. It was dark. I had like six different students that I was overseeing.
“That was my very first experience and opportunity to be on the air. I remember my very first time, I was so nervous — I had dry mouth. It felt like I had cotton balls in my mouth. My very first time on the air was at the campus.”
The councilwoman also credited CSUN with connecting her to high-quality internships in her field. One of the highlights of her days as a student journalist was an internship working at NBC Studios in Burbank, on the “Fight Back” program with David Horowitz. The consumer affairs reporter had his own half-hour show, as well as “Fight Back” consumer segments on NBC News’ LA broadcast. Zapf’s job as intern, she said, was to pitch ideas for segments to the show’s producer.
“If my ideas were given the green light, I would do the investigative work and then turn it all over to the scriptwriter,” she said.
“I did pretty substantive work. I remember doing one on chop shops, where two cars of the same model would get in separate collisions — one rear-end, one front-end. They would chop the cars in half and weld it together. But if you got in an accident, the car would fall apart like that,” she said, snapping her fingers. “People were getting killed. They turned that one into a three-part series.”
Zapf also worked for ABC’s “That’s Incredible,” as a CSUN intern. In the pre-Internet era, she pored through endless bags of viewer mail, digging for ideas for segments. She also investigated segment topics and worked on the set.
Her lighter CSUN memories include a favorite food hangout, the Falafel Palace on Reseda Boulevard — still there — and swimming laps in the campus pool.
“I took a swimming class. It set me off on a lifetime of swimming laps,” she said. “It’s really soothing and great, great exercise. I spent many, many hours at the pool at CSUN.
“I remember, I was at the pool doing laps when Reagan was shot. I heard (over the loudspeaker) that the president had been shot.”
Taking the Oath of Office
After graduation and launching straight into broadcast news (in radio), Zapf aimed for even higher education.
“If you come out of foster care and you’re going to make it in life, you just have to be really focused and determined — and have a goal, and work toward that goal,” she said. “I guess I always wanted to prove that I was smart enough to not just get an undergrad, but my goal was to get a graduate degree. I ended up getting that from the University of Denver (in marketing communications).”
Settling back in Southern California, getting married and raising two children, now ages 14 and 16, she dove into community involvement in the San Diego area. She focused on nonprofit organizations that assisted youth in foster care, as well as those that worked to help abused and neglected children.
“I was a founding member of my neighborhood watch group, and I was involved in soccer, Girl Scouts, teaching Sunday School,” she said. Friends and neighbors urged her to run for office, but she was reluctant. “Then, there was an empty seat (in 2010), and it seemed doable. I was a news junkie, so I knew all the issues that were going on at City Hall.
“Going back to my childhood, before I went into foster care, we were on social services — food stamps, welfare — because my mother drank away all our money. I got into [office], thinking about helping the community.”
“I try to be a voice for kids who are in foster care now, or in challenging home circumstances. I try to show them that there is a path from where they are now to somewhere they want to go. I did it. It was really hard, but you can do it if that’s your dream and your focus — and you stay on that path.”
Zapf recalled one of her speaking engagements for foster youth, at a program where a San Diego group took the children out surfing.
“I was out on the beach, and one 16-year-old girl pulled me aside. She said, ‘A lot of people come and talk to us. They’re always like, you can do it, you’re going to make it. But, you get it. You lived it. Hearing it from you is different. I really believe that I can, because you did.’”
To watch a KPBS feature on Zapf speaking to Reality Changers, a nonprofit, afterschool program for San Diego teens from tough neighborhoods, go to: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2015/apr/03/lorie-zapfs-path-foster-care-san-diego-city-counci/