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Dean Pagani

His next act

"I think I have plenty of photos to work with, so now it's about editing," Dean tells the class. Some of the rest of us are still trying to figure out exactly what our stories are about, more than a month before the due date. The week before, Dean gave us a taste of his project, behind-the-scenes and sometimes snarky shots revealing the mundane reality of the supposedly grand press area in the US Capitol. Staffers slouch with their smartphones just out of range of the video cameras as their representatives give strident interviews. Bored news people camp out, surrounded by gear, waiting for a story that is long in coming. A young congressman giving an interview looks buttoned-up for the camera, but is wearing gym shorts and sneakers below the frame.

At 52, Dean C. Pagani is the oldest member of the Corcoran College of Art and Design's master's program in Photojournalism and New Media. Outwardly reserved and understated, he rewards those who get to know him with wry humor and a mischievous smile. After a varied career in radio, public relations and state government, he is looking for a fresh start.


Dean was born in the working-class town of Manchester, Connecticut. His parents, having lived through the Depression, were grateful simply to have jobs, and didn't understand Dean's desire to go to college. When he graduated from Central Connecticut State University with a major in communications, his father was disappointed that he left the job he had held throughout school at Sears.


His father's qualms aside, Dean opted to go into radio broadcasting, delivering the news first at WICH Norwich, and then at WPOP Hartford. He speaks about the radio business with nostalgia: "It was just like in the old movies," he laughed. "We would scope out where the payphones were, and we all carried dimes and quarters so we could rush to file our stories." At every event there would be several reporters from smaller stations, a product of the FCC regulations requiring licensed stations to inform the public about controversial issues. In 1987, those regulations were eliminated, along with scores of radio news jobs. The availability of free content and the trend toward syndication didn't help the job market either.


Dean stayed in the radio business for more than ten years, and quit only out of exhaustion. Every time someone at WPOP left, he says, they weren't replaced, and he ended up doing their job as well. By the end he was the news director, reporter, and just about every other role required.


In early 1995, he took a job as a press aide in the Connecticut State Senate, eventually working for three Republican senators. They thought that a staffer with news experience would lend legitimacy to their offices, and didn't seem to notice or care that he was a registered Democrat. It wasn't until a couple years later, when Dean was working in Governor John Rowland's office, that he decided he was a Republican himself. He calls himself a "New England Republican," fiscally conservative but mostly indifferent about social issues. He is most concerned about government spending, noting that "everything costs more in government, because everyone thinks the government can pay for it." He and his fellow staffers in Connecticut used to joke, he adds, that "when we left government we would do studies-because each study cost a million dollars. What's more they had already done the studies, and just slapped new covers on them." 


Dean began working for Governor Rowland after spotting an opportunity: their media relations were a mess. When a job opened up for a press secretary, he applied. Although he didn't get the job, the man who did was fired after a drunken driving incident, giving him a second opportunity. By this time, popular opinion held that the governor was on his way out, and the job would be a short-time gig. Dean took a chance, and ended up working for Rowland for eight years, through two re-elections. He loved the job, situated as it was at the intersection of journalism and politics.


As happy as Dean was working for Rowland, and as much as he admired the governor, the job ended on a very sour note. In 2003 Rowland fell under a cloud of suspicion of corruption, rumors circulating that state contractors paid for and completed improvements to his weekend home, that he took bribes from subordinates, and that he bought interests in businesses shortly before they were awarded state contracts. By January 2004 an official investigation had begun, and in June Rowland resigned under threat of impeachment. He eventually served ten months in prison, along with house arrest and community service.


It wasn’t until the investigation began that Dean concluded his own career was at risk, and he told Rowland he was resigning. Out of loyalty, though, he stood by Rowland’s side publicly until April-long after he should have left, he admits. Dean reflects, "If at that point in Connecticut politics I had stood up and said, 'John Rowland is wrong,' I would have been exalted and gone on to make a lot of money." But those thoughts never occurred to Dean at the time. As loyal as he was, Rowland didn't see him that way, Dean said wryly—because he failed to stay "til the bitter end."


It is a testament to Dean's talent and resourcefulness that he landed on his feet, taking a job at a public relations firm near Hartford. Although the job paid the bills, he was frustrated by the work. For-profit clients, he said, failed to see the urgency of public relations, and couldn't make decisions fast enough.


By this time Dean's personal life had fundamentally changed. Toward the end of his time at the Governor's office, he had married his girlfriend of five years, Kate Kiernan. They had met as state senate staffers. She was ten years younger than Dean; vivacious as he was reserved, and lived as frenetically as he did deliberately. They shared many of the same interests, though; she began her career as Dean had in journalism, and their days were happily filled with hiking and dogs. As Dean was becoming increasingly frustrated with public relations, Kate lost her job, and found one in Washington, DC. Dean was happy for the change. 


Dean's experience in Connecticut did not translate easily to Washington, though. He lacked the connections so essential in public relations, and having worked for Governor Rowland during his downfall did not help. "I have the distinct impression that I do very well in interviews," Dean says, "but when potential employers look further into my background they see I worked for a man who is a convicted felon. They then have a choice: do we hire the guy who worked for a felon (even though there's no evidence he was involved) or do we hire the person who did not work for a convicted felon? In Connecticut the same problem exists, but the story is known better and people can get past it easier."


As Dean's career was foundering, so was his marriage with Kate. She loved her career in DC, and saw her life moving in a different direction, one that Dean didn't fit into-to the point, Dean says, "where she really didn't like me anymore." The relationship remained cordial although it had decayed. Dean spoke about the relationship much like he had about Governor Rowland, saying philosophically that he was "was willing to stick it out to the bitter end because I had signed up for it." He left the call up to Kate; the divorce is pending.


Out of creativity as well as necessity, Dean has taken his career on some interesting twists and turns since leaving Connecticut. He leveraged his experience in state government and journalism into a promising daily news website called Governor's Journal, covering governors from a national perspective and interviewing them whenever they came to Washington. Along with his own reporting, it also included a digest of news related to governors as well as submissions from other reporters. Although Dean says that toward the end the site was getting 30,000 hits a day (mostly due to his coverage of the Wisconsin recall election) and was beginning to make a profit, it wasn't enough to cover his living expenses as a soon-to-be-single man. He made the tough decision to shut down the blog, and took a short-term job working for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. 


In 2012 Dean made a bold move. He decided to do something that would allow him to continue to work in communications, but in an entirely new way, and enrolled in the Center for Digital Imaging Art's professional photography program. Photography had always been an interest of his, he says, but one that he hadn't had an opportunity to explore. CDIA's program paved the way for his ongoing master's work at the Corcoran, where Dean hopes to learn about telling effective stories online, and to gain valuable connections and credibility in the DC media world. "When I am done," Dean says, "I will no longer be the guy with a lot of experience in Connecticut, but I will have a degree in a field few in the industry really understand."


If Dean's work at the Corcoran is any indication, he is well on his way to a successful mid-life transformation-a new way of telling the stories that have fascinated him for decades.

Susannah Stevens, September 2013

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