When former CNN news anchor Daryn Kagan came to Sun Valley this month, she hobnobbed on the ski slopes for six days with a group of special young men who're larger, grander, more heroic versions of her own new adventure in life.
The 10 were Iraqi war veterans, each suffering a physical or emotional disability. All are reinventing themselves for new lives with war-wound limitations, and well on their way with the help of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, which hosted them, all expenses paid, to learning skiing with handicaps.
As for Kagan, the willowy, 5-foot-9-inch, auburn-haired onetime news anchor and roving reporter for CNN, she, too, has been reinventing herself after what at first might've been considered a major setback in life.
After 12 years as a CNN news celebrity, she was stunned when CNN didn't renew her contract. Being just on the other side of 40, Kagan faced the improbable prospect of trying to re-enter television news, where youth in anchors is preferred, or finding a new career niche after her adult years in front of cameras.
As her considerable following of fans know, Kagan recast herself as an Internet celebrity with her own Web site--Darynkagan.com--that's a generous potpourri of good-news features and inspiring personal stories of achievement and promise, and where readers can sign up for a colorful, e-mailed daily newsletter.
"My big fancy plan," Daryn mused, "was like the movie 'Field of Dreams'--build it and they will come. That's exactly how it's worked out. Create a space for these inspiring stories and they pretty much come to you."
She said her career at CNN was an "amazing run," covering war and the Super Bowl, conducting Oscars red carpet interviews, traveling to Africa with Bono, providing breaking news to hundreds of thousands of CNN viewers as a morning anchor.
"But I figured what I didn't want to do--get another traditional news job. Talking doom and gloom all day no longer fit who I was as a person."
As The Washington Post commented breezily when Daryn went online, "After years spent presiding over the world's tragedies, Daryn Kagan brings news from over the rainbow."
The Web site is her main, but not only, enterprise. She has a book, "What's Possible! 50 True Stories of People Who Dared to Dream They Could Make a Difference" out in April; has broadcast her first PBS documentary, "Breaking the Curse," about an American woman's work among lepers in India that won the 2007 Gracie Award from American Women in Radio and TV, and has finished shooting another documentary, "Solartown USA," about America's first solar-power town that's scheduled for summer broadcast.
Twice a day, she estimates, callers offer new partnerships or ventures.
(Full disclosure: I've known Daryn since she reported for KTVK-TV Channel 3 in Phoenix, Ariz., and I was publisher of the daily newspapers there. We swap e-mails regularly as well as Christmas card photos of our pets. Her three-legged cat, Tripod, is a celebrity, as is Darla Louise, her dog.)
The Sun Valley Adaptive Sports feature will be the lead item this week on her Web site, designed with striking red, orange and yellow colors. She shot the video with a camera small enough to fit in her purse. Her laptop computer with custom software allows Daryn to produce and transmit a lot of her Web site content while she's on the road. The material is then assembled by a production assistant, an intern and a freelance shooter/video editor in Atlanta, where she lives. Personal stories offered by fans fill her backlog of features.
"What an incredible gift to have the time and their confidence to hear their stories about their service, their sacrifice and their courage," she said of the ex-GIs in the Adaptive Sports program. "They are heroes in how they confront their obstacles now. We can all learn from them."
Rather than bad-mouthing CNN for ending her TV career, Kagan is grateful for its "act of trust." After informing her a year in advance that she wouldn't be retained, CNN kept her on the air until September 2006, giving her time to shape and polish plans for her Web site, which went online two months later. Wisely, she had set aside 60 percent of her after-tax salary during her last three-year CNN contract, providing substantial resources for the Web site.
"This has been a huge learning experience," she told me over cranberry juice at the Sun Valley Resort. "I don't know what I was doing with all these brain cells. I've learned a lot of people are rooting for me. Yes, there is fulfilling life afterward."
Inspired to spend her working days telling inspiring stories is a gift.
Everyone who meets Daryn Kagan comes away realizing she's one of those celebrities who remains genuinely modest and connected with people of all walks. She remains friendly with CNN ex-bosses and ex-colleagues, especially her former co-anchors, Bill Hemmer, now with Fox News, and Leon Harris, who began a new career as a star anchor at WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.
As if to confirm there's more good in the world than bad, Kagan left Sun Valley with an experience in the area's friendliness as proof. After skiing Baldy and taking time for a snack, she discovered her rental skis and poles missing, apparently mistakenly picked up by another skier. When she returned to the ski shop and explained, the sales person smiled and cleared her account and commented not to worry, that her equipment "will turn up at the end of the day."