Washington Press Club Foundation
Deborah Howell:
Interview #5 (pp. 54-62)
November 1, 1993 in Washington, D.C.
Donita Moorhus, Interviewer

Because this session was videotaped,
material from other sessions may be repeated here.

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[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Moorhus: Deborah, this is our fifth session together, and we want to start with a little bit of recap and then some summary kinds of questions. You were born in Texas, and your father was a journalist. Over the years, what influence did your father and his career have on your life and your career?

Howell: You grow up chasing fires and listening to the news and being aware of what news is, so from the time I was really a little girl, I was highly aware of stories, and that my father covered stories and that he did the news, whether or not he was working on a newspaper or in his radio and TV career, that deadlines were deadlines and that this was very important work. So I grew up in that milieu.

Then as I grew up in high school and worked on the school paper and the school annual and all that, and thought I might become a newspaper person, my father was not all that thrilled. He said, "I don't want you to become of those hard-talking news hens." Give me a break. He really thought it was too tough a life for a woman and too tough a life in general, and many times since then I've remembered my father told me not to do this. But by the time I had gone to college and worked at the University of Texas on the Daily Texan, I was totally hooked, and there was no turning back. He was quite supportive then, although I think he was a little jealous sometimes. He used to ask me how much I made, and I told him until I was nearing to what I knew was the last salary he made, and then I'd just say, "Well, not as much as you ever did, Daddy." [Laughter.] Saving his ego.

But I can remember tons of times when I was a little girl, my father having to rush into the office on a big story, or, you know, just switching on the radio and listening. I woke up every morning to his 7 a.m. newscast in San Antonio, and that has a big effect. And hearing public affairs talked about, hearing journalism talked about as something valuable to do, and hanging around his office, I mean, oh, it was fun to hang around his office with all these old-time news guys, you know. He'd send me out in the cruisers with his police reporter who was just a complete character, and I would be terrified I was going to get killed on the way to some fire or something, with this guy who drove like a bat out of hell. Or if there was a fire, if my father could see a fire, we would go to it. If he heard the trucks, he would get in the car and go wherever it was. He just couldn't stand not to know what was going on—a characteristic I inherited from him.

Moorhus: Other than your father, who was the most important mentor to you?

Howell: Oh, that's a tough question. In journalism, my high school journalism teacher. In college, I began to have a lot of mentors. Some were students who were just a little bit further along than I was, but I had a number of professors at the University of Texas who were very important mentors to me and taught me a lot.

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Personally, I would say probably my mother was a great mentor, because she taught me a lot about resilience in the face of adversity. I have an uncle who died not too long ago, my father's brother, who was a diplomat [James Howell]. We're still talking in rural Texas here, and he had gone all around the world, and he worked for the State Department and he spoke three languages, and he did all these exciting things. He was my window to a world outside South Texas. Though I didn't see him all that many times in my life, he told me there was something else out there that I could aim for, and he told me once, he said, "You know, if you really want to go someplace, kid, get out of Texas." [Laughter.] And I did.

Moorhus: What advice would you give a young woman today who said she wanted to be a journalist?

Howell: Well, it's a lot easier now because you can get a job doing normal news work, which was very difficult for me. I almost didn't get one. I guess I would say you have to have your head screwed on straight about what you want to do, that it's very difficult to balance a life, journalism, and a family life. A lot of women I know are doing it, but they pay a price sometimes in not being home when they might like to be with their children. I know a number of women who are facing this problem right now, and it's really desperately hard for them. You don't want to miss the story, you don't want to miss the work you have to do, yet you don't want to miss your kids. And I think it would be very difficult to be the perfect mom and try to do some of the big-time editing and reporting jobs when your children were small. So I think if you're going to have a family, you've got to balance those two things when you've got small children. As children grow up, I think it's different. But I know a number of women who have gone into the business early, had children, and managed it quite beautifully. I know a number of women who had problems. Of course, the women are the primary care-givers, and that's the reason.

You'd say, what would you tell a guy? I'd tell him the same thing, but, hey, let's be realistic. The primary care is still given by the mother.

Moorhus: How do you manage young women on your staff now?

Howell: I've got one who had a baby day before yesterday, and I'm really missing her already. She's going to be gone for six months on pregnancy leave, and, you know, the thought of being without her for six months is horrible. When I was editor in St. Paul [St. Paul Pioneer Press], I had six women out on maternity leaves at one time, and I just about went berserk, but it made me deal with the different kinds of—we have to be flexible and we have to allow women, if we're really committed to women in journalism, to have children, too. But it's difficult sometimes, because you have to make all sorts of special allowances—maternity leaves, sometimes part-time work, that kind of thing. I think you have to be flexible. It was hard for me at first.

Moorhus: As a manager.

Howell: Yes, to be as flexible with women as I should be, because I didn't have children. I have a passel of stepchildren, but I didn't have a baby and wasn't the primary care-giver. So I didn't know what that experience was, and I had to learn it from other women. I did, but it was hard, and still is.

Moorhus: Do you remember some of the women who taught you that?

Howell: My first one was when I was working at the Minneapolis Star and the editor tried to make a woman who was four months pregnant quit, because he didn't want to see her once she

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was showing, in the newsroom. Well, this was probably the late sixties. There was no such thing as the feminist movement to speak of, but the women in the newsroom were just ticked. It was not fair, so we lobbied him and we really fought hard for her to be able to stay there until she had her baby, and we won. That was one example.

Another example was this woman, this incredible woman I worked with on the copy desk at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. She worked a full shift, went home, had her baby on a Friday night, was back at work the next week. Incredible. She had three children that way. And she was a fantastic copy editor and a good mother. Incredible constitution.

Then just women I thought had really wonderful careers ahead of them in journalism. When they came in and said, "You know, I really want to bid back and do part-time work and let my husband really—let his career go forward and mine take a secondary position," sometimes I wanted to lean across the desk and shake them. "What do you mean, let your career take a secondary position?" I mean, this is their choice. I think some women decided their families were more important than their careers, and they could have had fantastic careers and may still be able to, but I know a number of women who bid back in this area, who were really, really good. But to be really, really good and to have a really high-profile career, the time you have to devote to it means you would not have time with your family. I think it's a very personal decision.

Moorhus: You gave a speech and wrote an article entitled "True Confessions: My Life As a White Male." In that you said that being termed "one of the boys" was a compliment. Do you still consider that a compliment?

Howell: No, but when I was a young pup, I did. I considered it that I was as good as they were. "One of the boys" isn't quite it; it was more that I could chase stories as hard, I could be as stubborn, I could be as aggressive as they were, and so, yes, that was a compliment. If they accepted you, if the guy reporters accepted you, you know, you went down to the bar with them and you drank and you became one of the boys, you know. I smoked three packs of cigarettes and drank bourbon in those days. I mean. [Laughter.] A far cry from where I am today. But there were just not that many women in the newsroom outside the women's pages.

Moorhus: Would you describe yourself today as a feminist?

Howell: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Moorhus: Do you remember the evolution of yourself into a feminist?

Howell: Oh, yes. My first job, I had been promised a job on the Associated Press, and a few weeks before I was to report to work, after I was graduating from college, the boss called and decided, "We're not going to hire any more women." I was out of a job before I ever got one. It took me six weeks to get a job, because I consistently refused to work on the women's pages, and that's the only place they wanted to put you.

Then when I came to Minneapolis, I couldn't get a job on the copy desk, where I'd been working in Corpus Christi, because I was a woman; they didn't hire women on the copy desk. I mean, it happened to me many times in my career, and I had it happen often enough that I became a feminist. Discrimination produces activism.

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Moorhus: Do you think you're increasingly a feminist these days?

Howell: I think the level's been pretty steady. I mean, I don't think it either decreases or increases. I feel as strongly about diversity and hiring minorities in journalism as I do about women. I'm very big on diversifying the newsroom, so I think it's all part of the same issue, that the news is reported and written and produced by people who are like readers and viewers, and not just a handful of white guys.

Moorhus: You have said that your management style was a mix of Dragon Lady and Mother Mary Deborah. Can you explain that?

Howell: Well, I had two nicknames when I was in the St. Paul newsroom [St. Paul Pioneer Press], and one was Mother Mary Deborah and the other one was Dragon Lady, which is where I came up with that. One is, I can be very tough. When I want something done, I want something done, and I don't take "no" for an answer very easily. So if I come out in the newsroom and want to know what's going on with something, I want to know, and I want to know right then. On the other hand, I feel very protective—almost motherly, if you will—about my staff and how they're doing and what's going on with them. So it's probably a combination of loving them, but the love can be pretty tough sometimes.

Moorhus: Has your style evolved over the last ten years?

Howell: Yes, I'm probably tougher now than I was to begin with. You know, as you rise through the ranks, you always don't want to tick off the people you were there with in the beginning, and I think I'm tougher now than I was then, although I've always been pretty decisive, I think.

Moorhus: Do you manage the Newhouse News Service here in Washington [D.C.] as bureau chief differently because you are a woman?

Howell: I've been asked that question when I was a newspaper editor, and I don't know, because I mean—I don't know. I would say the issues on the side of, yes, I do, I've decided to concentrate on some social issues that I think are of great interest to women—family and children's issues—and social issues—race, religion, ethics and morality, violence. But those issues are of importance to men, too. You'd have to ask somebody who works for me, probably. [Laughter.] That's hard for me to say.

Moorhus: What's the difference between good journalism and great journalism?

Howell: Good journalism is accurate and fair and it tells you the story and it gives you the context. Great journalism tells you why you want to know this and moves your spirit. I've always said that great journalism somehow affects the spirit of the person reading it. It's not just another good story; it's something that lifts you up or depresses you or somehow emotionally and spiritually connects with you.

Moorhus: I expect one example you would give of that is the series on "AIDS in the Heartland" that Jacqui Banaszyski did. Can you give me another example?

Howell: Yes. The first Pulitzer [Prize] we won, which was "Life on the Land," which is about a year in the life of an American farm family during the farm crisis, that had great spirit in it. We've done a number of pieces here that I think contain that kind of spirit.

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One was "What Works," which was we took seven important areas in American life—race, environment, health care—and we went around and we found out what is going on in this country where something works. They say that journalists are always tearing down things. Let's go out and find something positive. And we found lots of stuff that worked and why it worked, and so I was really pleased about that story.

I think our race coverage is extremely good. We delve into issues of emotion in race. I think that is what I would call—I think we've done some great journalism in reporting on race. But the spirit, to me, should pervade almost everything we do here. I don't want to do two-bit stories; I want to do big stories, stories that make you laugh, stories that make you cry, stories that, you know, move you.

Moorhus: Stories like the series on "What Works," are they run by all of your newspapers?

Howell: Most of them. I would say the vast majority of them. We just did something that ran in twenty papers, twenty of our twenty-five papers, which was showing what states immigration has affected most. When you look at those states, they're losing their white middle class. And people think that immigration is affecting the country as a whole in huge ways; it's really only affecting five states, but those five states it's affecting huge. This was a story that nobody really kind of pinned down to see. You could see the immigration patterns. We had a special run on a computer done by a demographic expert at the University of Michigan. It was a heck of a story.

Then we did another one about drug raids gone wrong. Police, in their zeal to catch drug pushers, very often bust the wrong house. My favorite story was the one in New Mexico about an assistant prosecutor, an assistant D.A. was busted by her own police department because a guy next to her had reported she was growing dope. When they busted in, she was drying basil. Isn't that a great story? I mean, stuff like that. That's a good story. I wanted to make you mad. Like, if we're fighting the war on drugs, people get killed that way. I mean, police break own doors, people get scared, they reach for their gun. One policeman got killed last year and two or three civilians, just in drug raids gone wrong.

I think violence is one of the biggest problems in this country today, and that's the reason I've got a beat that's just violence.

Moorhus: That's something that you created since you got here?

Howell: Uh-huh.

Moorhus: Do you work with the reporter on that? Who comes up with the story ideas?

Howell: We have story conferences. The national news editor, Robert Hodierne, and I and the reporters sit around the talk about what we want. They come in with story ideas and we come in with story ideas about what we want from a particular beat, and we operate really on those story conferences to give us the ideas.

Moorhus: Are there any changes in journalism over the last twenty years that concern you?

Howell: Yes. I really am for trying to serve readers' needs, which I think in this society, when people are so busy, means we can't go on at length about everything, but I think that investigative journalism is not what it used to be, and I'm very worried about "sound bite" newspapers. We already have "sound bite" TV and "sound bite" radio. Let's don't make newspapers into all short stories.

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I think that there are ways not to do that. I think you have to have a mix of short stories, medium stories, and important long stories. I don't think we ought to try to be too cute.

Moorhus: And you see that some newspapers and some news services are being very cute?

Howell: Here and there, yeah, I do, and I look at newspapers. I think newspapers ought to be—the old journalism school rule, I think, was informative and entertaining, and I believe in that, but I believe the information part of that is the most important part of it, and I believe that just because we don't have as much newsprint as we used to be and expenses are high and blah, blah, blah, that we shouldn't ought to seriously cover government and seriously do investigative journalism. Some people are bored by politics; they don't want to know that. Well, if we don't watch the government, who will? No one. I mean, I think that's our historic role as watchdog, and I think, to me, it's been eroded in the last few years as newspaper readership has gone down. People are scrambling to find what works. I think what works is a strong connection in your community and doing tough reporting. [Tape interruption.]

[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]

Howell: And I think people have grown too afraid to offend anybody usually in power, but I think that newspapers should give offense. What's the old line about "We should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." I believe in that.

Moorhus: You talk about that as an ethical issue in terms of what is the ethnics of good journalism.

Howell: Uh-huh. Well, I just think that we have a role to play in American society, and that we ought to damn well play it, and that we ought not to pussy-foot around and worry about—we should worry more about offending our readers than offending power structures. And I don't think that sometimes that happens, because we're too scared of losing advertising, too scared of getting the mayor or the city council down their throat, or too scared of offending the university, you know, whatever, the football, you know, all glory to the football team, to go in there and do tough reporting.

Moorhus: To me that sounds like the kind of issue that would play out on an individual newspaper. How does that work with what you're doing here now?

Howell: Well, when I came to town, I looked around and I said, "There are a lot of very good people covering politics and the White House and the State Department and Congress. What can I do that's different, that could add to the mix, that could really be good journalism, that's needed?" And so I decided to do these issues beats, and the issues beats are more important than one more reporter at the White House or somebody else covering congressional leadership. So I decided to cover by issue rather than by building. Even my White House reporters have special issues they cover, like economics and health care.

Moorhus: Did you get support from your staff for making those changes—or resistance?

Howell: Both. [Laughter.] You know, mixed. It still is to some extent. I mean, sure, they want to—I think there's some belief that you can—"Well, we could be as good as the New York Times." Well, you know, the New York Times is the New York Times, and the Washington Post is the Washington Post, and we're not going to be either. What can we be that's important, and what can

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we be that we can really do some good? I think covering these issues is very important and that we can do some very good stuff, and we are.

Moorhus: One of the things that's very striking about your office are the stacks of books. You obviously are a voracious reader.

Howell: Right.

Moorhus: Is that how you stay on top of current issues?

Howell: If I had more time, I would read more than I do. I try to read a lot of newspapers and books and magazines, and I never get everything read that I want to read; it's difficult. But, yeah, I do, I love the printed word. I started out in radio and TV because I couldn't get a job in real journalism—in newspapers. But the minute I could, I went back to newspaper because I love the printed word. It's very important to me. I love good writing.

Moorhus: What book have you read recently that's been particularly impressive to you?

Howell: I'm right at the end of one. I don't want to finish it, it's so good, called Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. It's a story about life on the reservation in North Dakota. It is wonderful. She is a terrific writer, and as soon as I finish her book, I'm going to go read something else by her. I just finished Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, which was a National Book Award winner, I think, last year. It's a terrific book about the part of Texas where my mother grew up—West Texas and Northern Mexico. Terrific book.

Moorhus: What kind of adjustments did you have to make, moving to Washington from Minnesota?

Howell: Well, St. Paul is such a precious place, I would never think of not being able to go out for a walk at night, and I had to learn the realities of a big city. St. Paul and Minneapolis are a big metropolitan area, but it's very—or at least when I was there—I understand it's a little bit different now—kind of a very safe, pleasant Midwestern city. Washington is much more "rock 'em, sock 'em," you know. You've got to look out for yourself. So that was a big change. The housing prices were just incredibly awful. But this is a beautiful city in many ways, and I love the excitement of being so near to everything that's happening. That's great. I love that. It's a great news town. Even if we don't cover breaking news like the other bureaus, it's great to be around it, because it gives off good story ideas, and we love to do stories right off the news.

I was used to being a big fish in a small pond, and this is being a small fish in a big pond. Actually the part of it I really like is I get to work with reporters more now, and I get to be involved in journalism. As the editor in St. Paul, I was involved in a lot of administration and a lot of non-journalistic work, and I love the journalism part of it. That's my favorite part.

Moorhus: And you have said earlier that you like the Newhouse newspapers.

Howell: Oh, yes, I very much enjoy working for the Newhouse family. They're great people, and they've given me great freedom and great support, taking what could have been a very controversial different kind of mission.

Moorhus: You're very busy, you travel a lot. What do you do for fun?

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Howell: [Laughter.] Not enough! My husband and I went to the first movie in two months Saturday night, and I wished—I'd like to read a book a week and go to a couple of movies every week, and that doesn't happen. We also love nature and love to go on long walks and love to go hiking, and I love to be outdoors. Those are my three favorite things to do—the outdoors and movies and books.

Moorhus: Do you miss the Minnesota winters?

Howell: No, not a bit. [Laughter.] I love Washington winters because there really isn't one, you know. People here just go dippy about a quarter of an inch of snow. Give me a break! The office manager that I brought with me from St. Paul, she and I laugh at what people call snow around here. We call snow when it's waist-deep. I've got a friend in St. Paul, we used to walk almost every night. We'd get out and do a quick forty-five-minute fast walk. We would do it, you know, when it was snowing, when it was sleeting, when it was raining. It didn't matter. Our cutoff point was if either the temperature was below zero or the wind chill was below twenty below. We'd get out and walk. People are wimps in Washington—just wimps. [Laughter.] They close down the federal government on the threat of snow; that's the one that really blew me away.

Moorhus: It is a different life.

Howell: It really is.

Moorhus: What professional goals do you have for the rest of your career?

Howell: Well, I would really like to improve reporting, in general, in a few of these issues areas we've chosen—religion, where I think most religious coverage in this country is not very good, violence, race, gender, family and children, aging. I'd really like to take those and lead the way in really tough and good reporting. That's one thing I'd like to do. I'd like to make Newhouse better known. I'd like to take this journalism and make it more nationally known, because I think it's important journalism. I'd like to edit a book or two some day.

Moorhus: About what?

Howell: Oh, anything. I just always wanted to edit a book from start to finish. And I've worked with a couple of people on books, but always as a sideline, never as somebody who was just really editing a book. So I'd like to do that. I'd like to win a couple more Pulitzer Prizes. That was fun; I liked that. I'd also like to spend more time outdoors. I'd love to spend more time hiking. Personally, I'd like to have a bit more time to spend with my husband and my children.

Moorhus: Have you thought at all over the years about going on and getting another degree or taking more advanced education?

Howell: I'd love to go back to school. Getting another degree, I could care less.

Moorhus: What would you go back to school for?

Howell: I'd go back in several areas. I'd go back in religion. I'd love to study comparative religion. I'd go back in literature. I'd love to take a course in the literature of the West. I mean, I'd love to take a bunch of history courses. I've become very interested in history. I could go to school full time, never earn another degree, and be happy as a clam just going to school. I think

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that would be great. I intend to do that when I retire. I do not want to retire near any place that doesn't have a pretty good college or university that I can get into.

Moorhus: The question that I usually like to ask at the end of any long interview is, is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have?

Howell: I haven't read the transcripts, so how should I know? [Laughter.] Oh, probably not. You've been a very good interviewer.

Journalism is a very tough way to make a living. There are lots of obstacles. People don't want you to find out what they're doing and put it in the newspaper. Publishers have profit goals they have to meet for their corporate bosses, and you need to, you know, cut expenses and not do things you think you need to do for the good of journalism. That's not true at Newhouse, but it's been true in other places where I've worked. And just beating your head against the brick wall of silence and hidden facts and trying to put two and two together. There's sexism, there's racism, and it's not something where people come say, "God, you know, I'm really glad you wrote that story about what a crook I am." That just does not happen. So you don't get a lot of applause. People expect you to do it. When you don't do it, you hear about it. When you do do it, you hear about it, but it's usually not people patting you on the back. So you've just got to keep slogging against adversity and against people you think a lot of the time, "Do they really care how hard we work?" And I guess that's just part of being a journalist, is a lot of people don't.

Then if you're a woman, it's not as tough for women now, it really isn't, but in 1962, when I couldn't get a job—I'm glad now that I wasn't sidetracked into something else, because I really have enjoyed my career and expect to be in it another ten years or so, but there's hardly been one day in my journalistic life that I could say, "Boy, that was an easy day." They're all hard, just some harder than others.

Moorhus: Thank you.

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The following is a description of the photos shown at the end of the videotaped interview session.

Howell: This is my mother. She was a rancher's daughter and was quite a horsewoman. It was from her that I learned a lot about resilience and a lot about being personally tough. She had a hard life, and I admire her.

This is a picture of me dancing at one of the parties we gave after we won a Pulitzer Prize, one of our two Pulitzer Prizes. I was just having a good time dancing.

This is my father doing his noon farm and markets report for which he was quite well known in his era in South Texas. Note that incredibly awful tie with the goat on it. [Laughter.]

This is David Hall and I. He was the managing editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press when he hired me as his assistant managing editor. Corporate Knight-Ridder asked us for a picture of me to use in a Knight-Ridder Women in Management Series for the Women in Management presentation.

This is a picture of David Hall and I. He was managing editor in St. Paul and hired me away from Minneapolis to be his assistant managing editor. Corporate Knight-Ridder called and asked for some pictures of me to use at a presentation to the Knight-Ridder board about women in management. So we sent them this as a gag, of me sitting in his lap. He's a great friend. He's now the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. When we left and he went away to become the editor of the Denver Post and I took his job and became editor in St. Paul, we didn't say anything, but we both took this picture and made it our going-away present to the other one. Our corporate boss got a big kick out of it. I can joke about being a feminist.

This was a great practical joke. These two women here were leaving, and they wanted their pictures taken with me and some other staff members as a going-away present. So what I didn't know was that on the copy desk on Saturday night, everybody had been doing Deborah Howell masks, and if you will notice, everybody in the background here has a Deborah Howell mask on. They had them behind their backs, and when I'm smiling, they're all putting on their Deborah Howell mask. I didn't have a clue that that was what they were doing, so this is just a great visual gag. When I turned around—well, I won't repeat what I said.

David Nemmer [phonetic] was the managing editor of the Minneapolis Star, and made me city editor. This is us at bass fishing opener, I think, in probably about somewhere in the 1980s, by which time I was in St. Paul and he was a TV star at WCCO-TV. He called me one night about 10:30, right after he'd been appointed managing editor. I was getting ready to go to bed with my first husband, and he said, "I've been thinking about it. I think you ought to be my city editor." I said, "Nemmer, it's late. Have you been drinking?" I hung up the phone and told Nick, "Gee, Nemmer thinks he wants to make me city editor. He wanted to come over, but I told him it was too late." Nick said, "Call him back and tell him to get over here." And that was my first really big job, was city editor. I didn't catch a fish this day, either. I always went fishing with the guys.

This is a picture of my husband and I right after we got married. We were married in 1988 in St. Paul, Minnesota. I had met him when he was the president of the University of Minnesota years before, and we had been friends forever, but we'd never even dated. Then after he got divorced and my first husband died, he called me up. He was in Columbia, Missouri, by then, being president of the University of Missouri, and he said, "I've been thinking about who I'd like to date, and the only person I'd like to date is you. You want to go out?" And I said, "Like where?" [Laughter.] So we met in Chicago on our first date, secretly, to see how we liked each other, and we liked each other a lot. So we called that Chicago 1. Then we met two weeks later for Chicago 2, and the rest was history. We were married eight months later. We had a commuter marriage for five years.

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