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updated 08/25/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT ALL BEGAN INNOCENTLY ENOUGH. "I was on my third column of the week and, as usual, I was desperate for an idea," recalls Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. On her three-mile walk to work along Lake Michigan, "I hit mile two and saw this young woman basking in the sun, and I thought, 'God, she should be wearing sunscreen!' "

Schmich's June 1 column, a mock commencement speech that begins "Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 1997: Wear sunscreen," soon blanketed the Internet—mislabeled by an unknown miscreant as an address given at MIT by novelist Kurt Vonnegut. It struck a chord in thousands of Netizens, who sent its pithy nuggets whipping around the world via e-mail.

Schmich, 43, first learned of her column's double life Aug. 1 when a reader alerted her. For the veteran journalist—who has also written the comic strip Brenda Starr for 12 years—the ensuing commotion was worthy of a Vonnegut satire. "I thought it was funny—at first," says Schmich, a petite yoga-and-piano devotee with hip-length brown hair. But as hundreds of calls and e-mails streamed in—some accusing her of plagiarizing Vonnegut (who never spoke at MIT) or vice versa—"I just panicked," she says. "I flashed on my life as a bad movie of the week, my whole career being destroyed, being completely trapped in this and not being able to prove that I didn't steal Kurt Vonnegut's speech."

She began tracking down the author of such '60s classics as Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night (the latter carried the moral: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be"). When she reached him at his summer home on Long Island, N.Y., "he promptly told me that he knew—his lawyer had called him, friends had called him, a major women's magazine wanted to reprint it," says Schmich, an admirer of Cat's Cradle, the only Vonnegut work she has read. "He said, 'I'm sorry if this has caused you any discomfort' " and later told The New York Times "what she wrote was funny and wise and charming, so I would have been proud had the words been mine."

Many of those close to Vonnegut, 74, thought the words were his—including even his wife, photographer Jill Krementz. "She sent it on to a whole lot of people, including my kids," said Vonnegut. But longtime friend Bob Weide, who coproduced the recent film version of Mother Night, was suspicious. "There are a couple of things, like 'Don't mess too much with your hair, or by the time you're 40 it will look 85,' " he says. "Vonnegut's got a hell of a good head of hair."

Schmich, a never-married former marathon runner who lives alone in a cozy, two-bedroom apartment in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, quickly addressed the mess. In her Aug. 3 column she wrote, with characteristic humility, that attributing her column to Vonnegut was "like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of Kmart jeans."

The eldest of eight children of a housepainter and a homemaker in Savannah, Ga., Schmich recalls wanting "to write or play the piano, and I knew I wasn't good enough to make it as a pianist, and I had no idea how you made a living from writing." After she graduated with a liberal arts degree from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., a friend persuaded her to apply to journalism school at Stanford, where she studied a year before leaving in 1980 to work, first at a Palo Alto newspaper and later at the Orlando Sentinel and the Tribune. In 1985 the Tribune syndication service, which owns Brenda Starr, hired Schmich as the newsgal's alter ego. "It indulges my opportunity for fiction," she says of the "ridiculous plots."

In 1992 she took on the column, which ranges from the political to the whimsical. Schmich is more plugged in, computer-wise, than Vonnegut, who stuck to a typewriter for his upcoming novel Timequake. Though she confesses that the Internet "makes my head hurt," she admits the cyber snafu wasn't all bad. After all, she joked to a reader, "There are worse things than being confused with Kurt Vonnegut."

BARBARA SANDLER in Chicago and RON ARIAS in New York City

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