June 30, 2009

Hiding a Stunning Secret

Ellen Fenlon Beal ’81 kept to shadows while working with apocryphal gospel

In the bowels of the nation’s capital, the precious cargo snug against her hip, she lost herself amid the rush-hour subway crowd. Japanese tourists fired off snapshots as they waited to board, so she kept her head down and walked in shadows. They couldn’t know; no one could. Not the sweet-faced congressional page. Not the soccer mom attempting to restrain her brood. And especially not the cop, his Sig Sauer loaded and itching to silence trouble.

Ellen Fenlon Beal ’81 was on a mission, and she was packing a bombshell.

No, she’s not an uber-secret black ops agent foiling international terrorists–she’s an editor.

Beal has worn the badge of writer/editor for companies and organizations such as Berlitz, the National Geographic Society, and Staywell Publishing. As editorial director of Staywell, she heads up product development and client publishing strategies while managing a portfolio of print and digital products. Her most notable client is the health and safety division of the American Red Cross, as Staywell publishes all of its materials, including the well-known CPR training manuals.

But on those covert nights in D.C. working for National Geographic, Beal carried with her little-known information about a document that might have stopped, rather than started, a few hearts, the Gospel of Judas. Working on the book that introduced the apocryphal gospel to the world carried all the intrigue of a John LeCarre spy novel.

“Few of us at the society knew about it, and everything was watermarked to make sure that if anything had gone missing, we’d know whose was the offending copy,” she says. While riding the Metro trains, she’d hide the galley copies beneath papers to keep others from peeking over her shoulder as she read. To stifle leaks, she notes, “We worked on a very short deadline to go from manuscript to finished book. I wrote the cover copy at 2 a.m. We worked hard to keep the book under the radar, and at the end we were able to say, ‘We did it!’” The reward came quickly: The Gospel of Judas shot up the New York Times Bestseller list.

Like many in publishing, the cool Beal doesn’t flinch in the face of the ominously named deadline. “It’s the adrenaline in the business,” she says. “I respond well to that feeling. It’s more intense now that I’m managing other people to make deadline.”

At Staywell, Beal’s squad includes graphic designers, photographers, and the hired guns of the group, freelance writers. Collaboration is key and all must hit their marks. “Publishing is still 14-hour days,” she notes. “Everyone has to be passionate about their particular area.”

The English and American civilization graduate nurtured that passion in Easton. “Lafayette provided me a solid liberal arts background that gave me the confidence to be someone who was engaged with words,” she says. Her other passion is her family, husband Brad Beal ’77 and children Shannon and Devon. Working from her home office affords her more time to devote to both loves.

Even after 25 years of project missions, Beal still finds the work thrilling. “I love being able to work with words and images,” she says. “It’s a very creative, satisfying way to spend your work life.”

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