Paula Woodley: “I’m sure wherever you are, you are still telling stories”

My memories of Sonny Fox are filled with gratitude, friendship and storytelling. I first met Sonny more than 20 years ago when he joined a non-profit board of directors that I sat on. We struck up a rather unlikely friendship (considering our age difference) and often had lunch while he regaled me with stories of his remarkable life. When I started graduate school at USC Annenberg, my first class was with entertainment-education (EE) and communication scholar, Dr. Mike Cody, where I became interested in the methodology. At the next board meeting it struck me that this sounded a lot like what Sonny was doing over at PCI Media (formerly Population Communications International). Of course, it was exactly what he was doing all across the globe. Sonny called it “Telling Stories, Saving Lives.”

This is photo is from our last birthday lunch in June 2019. Luckily, Dr. Devendra Sharma, an EE scholar and performer who guest lectured for Sonny at UCLA, was in town.

I badgered him into letting me intern at the LA office of PCI Media, even though he didn’t need an intern. I just wanted to absorb as much as I could. At that time, Sonny was working on his book But You Made the Front Page, so he had memorabilia of his life all over the office. He was in a reflective mood and shared stories of WWII, being in a prison camp, and how, as a Jew, he survived. He talked about his time at Voice of America and shared letters with famous people and politicians, including, with great pride, Bobby Kennedy. He delighted in the stacks of letters from men and women still in awe of him 50 years after his New York TV show, Wonderama, was off the air.

While I was his intern, Sonny taught an evening class on entertainment-education at UCLA. I talked my way into helping him there, too, and was privileged to attend every class and meet the extraordinary line-up of scholars and experts from the field. Nothing could compare to dinner with Dr. Albert Bandura (whom Sonny called “Uncle Al”) before class and being his wheels to the airport the next day.

In the summer after my internship, Sonny made arrangements with Geoff Cowan, then the Dean of the Annenberg School, to bring EE experts from around the world to Annenberg and enroll them in the Communication Management program for the summer. Sonny elected me as the liaison between these special guests, PCI Media and Annenberg. Again, he generously introduced me to the scholars in the field with lectures, dinners, deeply meaningful experiences and new lifelong friends. Once again, I shared a meal with Dr. Bandura and also an afternoon with EE scholar, Dr. Arvind Singhal, who has been my mentor and dear friend ever since.

When I started teaching the Social Marketing & Entertainment-Education course in the USC Annenberg Communication Management program, Sonny was often my first guest lecturer of the term. Beaming with pride, he would establish the true value of EE and delight my class with stories and videos of the work of PCI Media. Sonny also delighted in advising my graduate students, taking countless meetings over nearly a dozen years.

Sonny’s love for me was tough and fatherly. He would allow only seconds of tears and then remind me that the Paula he knew was strong and could handle it all. When Sonny was proud of me, he’d write a beautiful letter to recount the specifics of each accomplishment. Lunches and dinners with Cely and Sonny were always like coming home (but to a much nicer house!). Sonny and I had lunch every June to celebrate our birthdays for no less than 10 years in a row. He always had travel, reunions, keynote addresses, and projects in the works that he was excited to share. Sonny was strong and powerful, caring and creative, and always full of energy in his bigger than life persona I adored.

Coming full circle, I have had the privilege to serve on PCI Media’s board of directors for the past four years. In my academic career, I have been blessed by the guidance, wisdom and support of countless generous people – most of whom I would never have met without an introduction from Sonny Fox.

We were forced to cancel a lunch date when the COVID quarantine had just started. He was looking forward to getting out of his room and telling me all about the weekly programs he was leading for the other residents. I was looking forward to it, too. I’ll miss you, Sonny, and will never forget all you did for storytelling — and for me. I’m sure wherever you are, you are still telling stories.

May his memory be a blessing to all who knew him. זיכרונו לברכה‎

Love you always, my friend.

Paula Woodley
President, Woodley Communications
Adj. Lecturer, USC Annenberg & USC Keck