Washington Press Club Foundation
Mary Ellen Leary:
Interview #1 (pp. 1-17)
August 15, 1990, a.m., in Piedmont, California
Shirley Biagi, Interviewer

Go to Session Two | Session Three | Session Four
Index | Cover | Home
Page 1

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Biagi: Let's start then with your career, really, in journalism but you said that you wanted to talk to me about something first.

Leary: Well, it struck me in thinking back that one of the remarkable differences when I started on a paper was that it was just at the point when people were coming out of college and especially out of journalism schools onto newspapers and you sensed among real old-timers a little of the distaste or the sense that these new guys don't know anything of what it's all about, the reality of life. And while some had come from college but hadn't had journalism, the fellows from journalism felt they were very much superior. It was an interesting kind of time but it really did mark the beginning of college-level and especially journalism-school-level people into the newspaper business.

Biagi: To take that thought a little bit further, what did it do to the idea of professionalism, do you think, at that point?

Leary: I don't believe there was a lot of sense of professionalism because there was, at least in San Francisco in my period, a big push for union organization. And some of the more active people were on the San Francisco News. So that what they were trying to do was define a working man's rights against management, particularly, I think, against the relatively absentee management of a chain, which Scripps-Howard was but also Hearst. And the formation of the Guild in San Francisco had taken place just shortly before I came on the paper and it was a climate to which I was not adjusted and didn't know much about and felt myself awkward and an outsider for a long time. I finally did join the Guild when there was a question of a strike which fortunately didn't happen, got some settlement before. But there was so much active tension over unionization that I don't think anybody was thinking particularly about it being professional.

Biagi: Did it have any effect on salaries, in that sense? What was your salary when you started, do you remember?

Leary: You know, I heard Helen Thomas on an interview telling about her starting salary and it was the same as mine, $17.50 a week.

Biagi: This would have been what year now, roughly?

Leary: 1937. This was very much the era of the Depression. And one simply has a hard time today translating back into those conditions. I had come out of college in Omaha if you want me to rehearse a little of that origin and I had been in a Catholic school all through elementary and high school and was in a Catholic school, part of a Jesuit university in Omaha, part of Creighton University. And I had a scholarship to do some graduate work at Stanford from which I got my master's in the English department. I did not go to journalism, although at Creighton I was very active on all kinds of journalistic stuff.

But I had not it astonishes me today to think back, I had very little awareness of the world. And I think today how much better equipped just ordinary students in college are than my generation was. As women, we were expected to be growing up to get married and have children and run a household, and very few people expected us to be interested in talking about business or world affairs or things of that kind. Today almost every college student does feel involved, probably the wars have helped force that on them.

Page 1

Page 2

But the equipment, as far as information and awareness that you brought into life, was very poor then. On the other hand, the Depression gave you such a passion to work and hold a job, get a job and hold it.

Biagi: You wouldn't say that $17.50 was a particularly generous salary, would you?

Leary: Seventeen

Biagi: Seventeen-fifty.

Leary: Seventeen-fifty was a very poor salary, very poor salary. And I, for the first two months working, also was working at jobs that I had at Stanford. One was to take care of an elderly woman and stay there overnight she had a bad heart and get her breakfast so she could have breakfast before she got out of bed. And then I'd beat it to the train, go up from Palo Alto to San Francisco. Then at night I would beat it back down and work at another job that I'd gotten through the summer at Stanford as a maid in a household where they already had a cook and my only responsibility was to come in and serve dinner and wear a little uniform with a little frill on my head.

When I was doing that job and when I finally, in the middle of the summer, landed the job on the News and told them that I didn't think I'd be able to get in in time for their six o'clock dinner, the woman said they were renting the house, a fraternity house for the summer, and she had three kids and she said, "Well, you've been very satisfactory, Ellen. We will move our dinner an hour later so that you can work with us."

Biagi: So you had three jobs.

Leary: So I had three jobs. And that got me enough to be able to save and get an apartment where I could put together the rental amount I think I paid $35 for a month's rent out on the [San Francisco] marina.

Biagi: Well, if we could stop now talking about all these exciting things and just go back to the very beginning and see how you got to your $17.50 a week job.

Leary: How far

Biagi: Very beginning. Let's go to the very beginning. Let's get you born.

Leary: All right. I was born in Salt Lake City.

Biagi: The year and the date.

Leary: April 21, 1913. My father was a lawyer, practicing in Salt Lake, who had come out to Salt Lake, from Hatfield, Massachusetts where he was born, and from the University of Chicago where he had gotten his law degree. He'd come out there because he had an older brother who had left home when he was born because he didn't think there was enough financial capacity or room in the house for that new brother. This brother Jim went to New York and sold newspapers and at a time when some philanthropists picked up some of the newsboys in New York, he was picked up by a guy who lived in Denver or had a lot of cattle holdings out of Denver. He was brought out and taught a lot about the West, my Uncle Jim, and became a cowboy and great cattle runner and ultimately founded the first stockyards in Utah.

And here my father graduating from law school well, before he graduated, when he was in law school, decided one summer that he ought to come out and meet his brother that he didn't know at all, who'd left home when he was just born. He had sisters he kept in touch with, as did his brother Jim. He came out and worked, oddly enough, on a newspaper in Salt Lake for the summer.

Page 2

Page 3

Biagi: Do you have any idea how he got the job?

Leary: No. How he got it, I don't know. He used to tease me and say, "I had enough sense to get out of it after one summer."

He met his brother and then he also met the West and found that he really loved it. He liked the mountains and the spaciousness of it. So when he graduated, when he got his law degree, he decided that he would come West. He had a number of good friends and some offers of jobs in Chicago but he decided to come West. So he was practicing there.

My mother came from Sioux City, Iowa, where she was teaching in high school, she taught German and Latin.

Biagi: What was her education?

Leary: She went to the University of Iowa. Actually, I think it's kind of remarkable, my grandmother went to college. My grandmother went to a two-year college in Prairie du Chien, in Wisconsin. Sort of a ladies' academy type thing. But still, to have gone on that much. But my grandmother was from Lawler, Iowa, in the northeast section, and after marriage came to Sioux City, which is on the west side of Iowa. My grandfather, whom I just adored, was an insurance man in Sioux City.

My mother went to Europe in 1910 with some other teachers and had a wonderful time and took some very nice photographs, for that time some rather outstanding photographs. The next year on her summer vacation, she went to Colorado and then out to Salt Lake and was going up to visit Yellowstone. And when she came into the travel agency in Salt Lake and chatted with the man there whose name was Howard Hayes, he found out a good deal about her and found that she was having dinner that night with Dr. Leo Hummer's family. And he called my father the minute that she left and said, "I have met the girl that you've got to marry. She's having dinner tonight at the Hummers and you know them, they're friends of yours, go on out. Call them up and tell them you want to come to dinner." So after that, he then said, "It just happens I have a ticket for you on the same trip, you're going there, too. You just happen to have been planning a vacation."

So he gave Dad a free ticket to go on the same

Biagi: A real matchmaker.

Leary: Yeah, he was. And successful, you notice? So Mother and Dad were married the next spring.

Biagi: Was that the summer then?

Leary: Yes, that was summer.

Biagi: And they were married spring of 1912, was it?

Leary: Yes. I think early in the spring.

So they lived there. And in 1915, Dad was invited to head the school of law at the university. He was actually the second [head], there had been a dean a couple of years before. And a school of law at that time just consisted of somebody kind of being the dean and running it but mustering teachers from the present community of lawyers in Salt Lake. They really had no staff. And Dad's real accomplishment was building that up into a very outstanding law school, much respected across the country. The remarkable thing is that he was dean for thirty-two years which today makes people shudder. Of course, it was a day in which a dean could be very autocratic, he didn't have to pay as much attention to faculty input as you do today. I've heard it said that today nobody can last as dean longer than five years.

Page 3

Page 4

Biagi: Think of all the faculty meetings he escaped.

Leary: Yes, exactly. But the little strictures around what you can do and what you can't do didn't exist in those days.

Biagi: And your mother?

Leary: My mother bore five children. I was one of the twins. My brother, who was born first and always let me know that, and weighed much more I weighed four pounds, I'm told

Biagi: Exactly four pounds?

Leary: Yes.

Biagi: And he weighed how much?

Leary: Oh, I think around six. And somehow or other, I think I'm the survivor.

Biagi: So now, in the order of children, who came first and

Leary: Well, my brother and I. And then there were three more boys. The next brother was John Jack. And we were very close, actually, Jack and I. And then Jim and Danny. And Jimmy died and Danny died. My mother died in 1919, Bill and I were not yet six. And those were the days, of course, of large families and children coming rapidly and so forth. And Dad was left with five kids.

For a while, the youngest, Dan, maybe five months old, was in the nuns were taking care of him at the hospital, which was only about three blocks from the house. And it was a time of the flu epidemic still and so in the winter, after Mother had died, Jimmy came down with pneumonia and died. He was, oh, around three or something like that. And Dan my aunt, my mother's sister, Josephine Hötz, came out to that funeral and then volunteered to take Dan back with her. He was just about the same age as her boy.

Biagi: Back to where?

Leary: To Omaha. She, having been in Sioux City with my grand-parents, also went to the University of Iowa, and married a lawyer whose name was Will Hötz. And my Aunt Josephine, Aunt Jo

Biagi: This is your mother's sister?

Leary: My mother's sister, younger sister. And she took Dan back and Dan later died of meningitis. So poor Dad. But he married again, he married Catherine Flanagan who was very active in the Irish Free State movement, the effort to get funds in the United States from Irish ancestry people to support the fight for freedom.

Biagi: And that was in what year?

Leary: Let me see if I can remember or can reconstruct. It must have been around '23 or '24. And she had three children and also died, so that twice Dad was left with families of little children.

Biagi: She died when?

Leary: You know, I'll have to look it up.

Biagi: Do you remember how old you were?

Page 4

Page 5

Leary: I was about fifteen. And went back with my grandmother at that stage, my grandmother suggested that. Everybody was trying to figure out how to make things easier for Dad.

Biagi: Which grandmother?

Leary: My mother's mother in Sioux City. My grandparents on my father's side were both dead. And they had come directly from Ireland, the grandparents on my father's side. I'm not sure when the father died, the mother died when my father was only a youngster, about five or six. And one of his older sisters, Helen, called Nell, was a wonderful kind of mother to him and he just adored her.

So I went back to Omaha to live with my grandparents. They had had three children my mother, my Aunt Jo and a son John, a lawyer who was on his own, out, away from Sioux City. So my grandparents were living in an apartment and I went to high school there. And I remember I had an excellent teacher, just a very, very fine teacher, one of those teachers who would bring a book in a foreign language to class and discuss it right off, reading from the foreign language, discuss what it said in English to you. So that it was the first one who gave me a sense of sources in the academic world.

Biagi: Now, where is the rest of your family at this point, your brothers?

Leary: My twin brother Bill, like me relatives trying to relieve Dad took him off to a boys' school in Iowa in Dubuque where we had a cousin who was a priest who was the principal there, Fr. Will Russell was supposed to be keeping an eye on Bill. Bill was somebody nobody could keep an eye on. He was likely to get in trouble. However, he also became an absolutely wonderful tennis player. That helped keep him straight in the summertimes.

Bill and I were back and Jack insisted on staying with Dad and then the three little children were there. And the wonderful thing that my father did, even though we were scattered, was to keep us all close with a sense of family. He wrote letters every Sunday to the whole family, to all of us who were away, and I think probably sent copies to his sister and that sort of thing, catching up. He did that for really basically all of his life which was kind of marvelous that we all were in touch with each other through that device. And also the fact that it made us, it diminished any sense of two separate families with two separate mothers, we were one family, and I've always been grateful for that and thought it was excellent.

Biagi: Did you write back?

Leary: Yes. But not nearly as faithfully. Yes, but not as well or as faithfully. I try to follow his example since I have nieces and nephews today who say, "Please go back and do some more family letters."

One of the things in Sioux City which turned out to be kind of nice was that my grandfather, who was in the insurance business, had to go out to collect these poor little tiny pittance of payments for life insurance and fire insurance and everything else. Every night after dinner, he would go out on a circuit and call on about six different people. And I would ride with him for company. It was delightful. It was very good for me and good companionship, and I was much more interested in that than staying and helping with the dishes with my grandmother. It seemed much preferable. I think that was maybe my introduction into what was always then a man's world.

Later, also I was allowed to go downtown the school was only about eight blocks from downtown Sioux City. And I was allowed to walk downtown to his office and wait for him until he would go home and then drive back with him. Well, when I would be waiting I could use a typewriter in his office and I would sometimes write letters home and I would do some school work.

Biagi: Describe his typewriter.

Page 5

Page 6

Leary: Oh, it was one of those desks in which you pulled the lid up and the typewriter rose up out of the desk, a very old and very heavy kind. But I felt awfully self-important when I could sit in the office and there was a secretary and there were a couple of other insurance agents in their separate offices. But I just loved it that I could go down there.

Biagi: Were you a two-fingered typist at the time?

Leary: Oh, of course, and that's where I learned my typing. I never took a course in it. I just assumed I could type.

At that time I'm trying to think, actually I had an interval with my grandparents in seventh grade earlier, that's the fine teacher that I mentioned, and then it was later when I went back I was a senior in high school when I went back after Catherine's death.

Biagi: And the name of the high school?

Leary: It was the Cathedral School, Cathedral High School in Sioux City, Catholic school, nuns, of course.

But I went back earlier because Dad was a delegate to my goodness, it must have been the 1924, something like that, Democratic convention, which was in, I think, New Jersey, and ran all summer long. I had gone back as far as Sioux City. The idea was that I could visit my grandparents while he went to the convention and he would pick me up and take me back home. It turned out that the combination of his health and the heat and all, he kind of was overcome and became very ill and had to go home on the train with a nurse and I was left there. That was my seventh grade in elementary school. And later I went back home, after Dad was back in good health. But then later Catherine died. Ultimately my grandmother died and I moved down to Omaha with my aunt about '29 or '30.

Biagi: 1929?

Leary: Yes, it was the end of 1929, I guess. Actually, it was kind of a rush year because I had to make such a change, my grandmother died during my senior year. My grandmother's death and my transfer then to Omaha. And I went then to a kind of fancy girls' school, Catholic, run by the Sacred they were called then the Society of the Sacred Heart; they're now the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. They were a French order. They were remarkable in that they kept their own names so that they were known by Madame Sweeney or something like that. They were a French order founded specifically to educate the children of nobility and so forth.

Biagi: And this was where now, my geography

Leary: In Omaha.

Biagi: In Omaha.

Leary: Actually, they have many colleges and one of them was Lone Mountain here in San Francisco. They have moved a great deal out of college teaching now and are concentrating on teaching high school. They are an international order; they have a lot of schools in Japan and all over the continent of Europe and through England and so forth, and quite a few in this country.

Biagi: And the name of the college?

Leary: Was Duchesne, named for one of the early nuns who came over in that operation, that outfit.

Biagi: Mother Duchesne. College or university?

Page 6

Page 7

Leary: This was a college of Creighton University. Creighton was the Jesuit university and it still is, a big institution in Omaha, with a medical school and a legal school and all that kind of thing. And at that time, Duchesne was one of the colleges of it, so that I guess I got my B.A. degree from Creighton.

It was difficult to go into that school because at that time the same building, with a wing added to it, housed girls who had gone to school there from the first grade. And they had the elementary, high school and college all in one cluster. And I went into a senior high school class of twelve, about twelve, most of whom had known each other all their lives, and I found it extremely difficult.

Biagi: In what way?

Leary: They were not particularly hospitable to me and I didn't know quite what the school was like and what I was expected to do. Finally, one or two of them began being friendly whom I just bless they would at least speak to me and I began to feel a little more comfortable. And then, they were all daughters of fairly well-to-do families, which I never felt I had been part of, and I think my grandfather was probably paying the bill and my aunt was feeling that I should have the greatest opportunity possible, so that's why I was put in there, complete with uniform and this kind of stuff.

Biagi: What did your uniform look like?

Leary: Well, it was not too bad, it was a jumper, with a nice white shirt and kind of formal little pleatings around the edge of the collar.

Biagi: Did you have formal shoes, any shoes you had to wear?

Leary: Yes, we had to wear not exactly the same but we had to wear, as I remember, dark. And the nuns were constantly admonishing us when we sat in the classroom, this way, turning their forefinger round and round, meaning you can't sit with your knees crossed. And we were obviously being trained to be ladies.

Biagi: So it was a kind of a finishing school

Leary: It was a finishing school type of atmosphere. And when you passed Rev. Mother, the principal, the Superior, you curtsied in the hall. And you also curtsied on the stairs, if you passed her on the stairs.

Biagi: Can we go back one minute here to talk a little bit about the kind of academic training you received? I want to make clear now, my understanding is that you were in Catholic schools almost your whole school life, is that correct?

Leary: Yes, until Stanford.

Biagi: Until Stanford. So if you could kind of describe the course of study that you proceeded through until you'd gotten to college and then what happened when you got to college.

Leary: I had uneven teachers, very uneven teachers. Thinking of some nuns, I remember a fourth grade nun struggling to get math into my head. And in the elementary grades, actually the first three grades, we went to a school on the university campus very near the university. And I guess in those days it was almost all experimental but we went to kindergarten, first, second, and third grades in this Stewart School at the University of Utah. And then we went over to what was called Judge Memorial which was a Catholic school some blocks away that we had to walk to.

It was quite disciplined. I mean, you lined up in the morning in two rows walking down the corridor in silence, theoretically, until you got to the classroom. And there was a good deal of discipline, considering teaching today, much more regimentation, I would say, too.

Page 7

Page 8

As for the quality of teaching, of course we had, you know, American history and world history and English and a good deal of reading and homework. And what I remember about the homework was how much difficulty I had with math. My brother and I started out in the first grades together. And he was apt to get into scraps or trouble of one kind or another, I was always being embarrassed about him. But he had a much quicker mind than mine, actually. And Bill, I think punitively, was held back one year and finally I remember in maybe I guess it was fifth or sixth grade the excitement of the day when he was allowed to move back up and be in my class again.

We had a lot of homework. As to what we learned, that's a little hard.

Biagi: You did study Latin?

Leary: Yes, I studied two years of Latin in high school and four years of Latin in college. I'm afraid very little of it sticks with me. I had two years of French in college. And I also in college took education courses and did get a teacher's certificate because that was assumed to be the one thing a woman could do. By the time I was in college the high school teaching, since mine was quite broken, what stands out in my mind, when I went in Salt Lake before Catherine died I also was going to a private Catholic school, high school, built up in a beautiful area at the foot of the mountains and it doesn't exist any longer.

Biagi: And the name of it was?

Leary: It was St. Mary's of the Wasatch. The Wasatch are the mountains east of Salt Lake. There was a head of, principal, whatever she was called, of the high school, a nun called Sister Madeleva who was a writer, a poet, and her poetry was published, and someplace along the line, and I'm not sure that I was in a class of hers, but we did some "creative writing," unquote. And she came upon a piece of mine and she became interested in me and encouraged me and I found that extremely helpful. It was the first time anyone had ever really talked to me about writing, why don't you stay with it and do it and you can, and so forth.

Then it was kind of broken and when I got into my senior year at Duchesne, I'm not sure much about outstanding teachers, we had a French, laywoman who came in to teach French who was herself French and she had, I'm sure, an excellent accent and she had absolutely no idea about how to teach none! And she would come fluttering into the classroom and chatter away at us and it just was not a pedagogical experience. And we all did miserably. However, this order insisted on learning French from the first grade on, so that most of the other students had had a lot of French and I was lost.

And then my Latin teacher and also physics teacher was Mother Hanna who was the sister of Archbishop Hanna in San Francisco at that time. And Mother Hanna who carried a little alarm clock around in her pocket and every morning she would start out reaching deep into her pocket for this clock at the same time that we were saying prayers to start the class taught Latin and she was so blind about it. There were four girls, I discovered, to my astonishment I guess maybe this was in the physics class which she also taught who would sort of sit together and they had one of those miniature sets of cards and they would play bridge with each other and get away with it.

Biagi: All during the class time.

Leary: She couldn't see. And then when I came in, I hadn't had any physics before and they were in their senior year of studying physics. And so she would take me off to the blackboard and try to get me caught up on things. But the rest of the class was just kind of drifting along and doing whatever they wanted to. So maybe I got more physics than the rest of them did.

Biagi: Were there books that you read that were particularly important to you or that you remember discussing?

Page 8

Page 9

Leary: I was reading all the time but I don't, at this moment, remember any that come back to me particularly. I loved biographies and I can remember what's the one who was the empress or czarina of Russia? Catherine the Great. But I got interested in history a lot through reading biographies.

But anyway, at last I got to stay in the same domain, where I finished high school and then went on, starting college. And in my sophomore year was asked to become editor of the Duchesne monthly literary magazine. And I think it was rather unusual to get that as a sophomore.

Biagi: Who asked you to do that?

Leary: Oh, the nun who was in charge of running it, Mother MacAdam. She taught me lots of things about organized things about how you would approach a publication and the discipline of getting copy in on time and hounding your writers and planning ahead and that sort of thing. And I found that the magazine was in debt. We had a girl on the staff who would go out and try to get ads; we'd go to businesses and ask, "Will you pay $25 for an ad on the back pages?" and so forth. But we were not able to make up for this debt.

And so finally we asked permission of the principal of the whole college, Mother Deming, and asked her if we could put on a dance and charge for it so that we could have it complete with sponsors and we'd put it on at a downtown motel. And she said, "With men!?" Creighton was about oh, maybe ten or fifteen blocks away from Duchesne and a certain amount of acquaintance with the Creighton College was not unknown. Creighton had a number of dances and girls went to them, so we thought it was only fair. We did put on a dance

Biagi: With men!

Leary: With men. And it was a success and it became the first of a succession of annual Duchesne dances then. That was kind of nice to have done.

Biagi: Interesting funding procedure.

Leary: Sure. It got us over.

Anyway, I did then take some courses in journalism at Creighton, which had a journalism department. They had a couple of people who were quite good in it.

Biagi: So you would leave the

Leary: I would walk down, yes, and go to the other campus. And from that point also went into doing work on the yearbook, the Creighton yearbook, and also on a so-called literary publication quarterly that they put out. So that at one stage or another I was on about four different publications.

Biagi: What was the name of their magazine?

Leary: I think it was the Creightonian.

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

Leary: I did not feel on the outside. Men who were in those classes then went on and became reporters Keith Wilson became an editor, a writer in the Omaha World Herald. And another one two or three of them became rather notable journalists, not national names but good sturdy workers. And I shared their interest and they knew, it was fine.

Page 9

Page 10

Biagi: Do you remember particularly things that you talked about that made this a journalism class as opposed to an English class?

Leary: Oh, a teacher would give us hypothetical cases. I mean, describe a fire and somebody burned and give us a lot of stuff of this kind and then have us write leads on it and write the story.

Biagi: Did you have a textbook?

Leary: Oh, we had a textbook, yes, too. And then we would begin to do actual stories about things. And the fellows were inclined to be doing the stories about sports but I would do stories about cultural things that were coming to the school and stuff like that.

Biagi: But you did go out and do reporting?

Leary: Yes. Not a lot. Not a lot. Most of it was classroom. And much discussion about what made a story alive and why and when, that kind of thing. I was remembering when I was younger and lived with my grandparents, probably in that last year or two in high school before my grandmother became ill, my grandfather used to talk about a woman reporter in Sioux City and say, "She was as good as any man." I think she was covering the county courthouse and so forth. I regret that I can't remember her name.

But at any rate, he introduced me to her and she took me one Saturday with her, because I'd begun by that time talking about, I was kind of starry-eyed about being a reporter. She was covering a county fair and I guess I just got really hooked on that day because I can think today how dull it would be now the excitement of being with her and watching her work and how she could ask any questions she wanted to and go where she wanted to and follow what struck her fancy as interesting. And then I went back with her to the paper while she wrote. And I got a real taste of it, I just loved it.

So then, at any rate, I kept thinking that I was just trying to learn how to write, you know, that was my idea, to become a writer, if I could do some of this. And in my last year at Duchesne, it seems to me, I was constantly working late at night with the magazine or with one of the other publications, so I was always late for dinner at home. But I became I was not so much doing writing myself, I found that editing, I was working hard on getting copy in and tightening it, that kind of thing. But I did some writing and of course I had papers at school. And I seem to have been awfully busy having to go and do practice teaching. So I went into a classroom and was teaching journalism.

Biagi: Was this in the

Leary: In Omaha and in south Omaha, one of their poor districts. It was in a public school. The teacher, who was in the education department of Creighton had come up to Duchesne to teach a class there. A number of teachers did, our ethics teacher and so on and so forth, men who would come up from Creighton and teach. So there was a kind of mix of faculty. My education teacher went out to supervise practice teaching and would watch some of the students in the classrooms. So he got there just as I had finished assigning my high school students to different places. As he walked in the room, they were all getting up and getting their pencil and notebooks and going out, one to find out what was going on in the music department and one someplace else and he sat there with an empty classroom. And ultimately he just waited and ultimately they came back and began writing their stories and then one by one would bring them up to me. And he said it was the weirdest experience he didn't say anything to me at that time but the next day in class at Duchesne he said, "I have just had the most remarkable experience of practice teaching. Journalism: You just assign them and they go away. You're not teaching them."

At any rate, having finished all that, I did get a scholarship at Stanford.

Biagi: How did that come about?

Page 10

Page 11

Leary: I was very lucky. It was one my father knew about and wrote and urged me to apply. The Depression had come along and all the banks in Sioux City had closed except one that nobody in the family had any money in except one little cousin who was about twelve who had a newspaper route and he had in a sense of independence gone to a different bank that the family didn't use and it did not close, so he had a little money. But anyway, everybody was in the same boat across the country at that time. The idea of getting a job when you got out of college, that was nil, and so if you could possibly go on to school, at least you had something you could do. And partly out of that feeling, I think, my father began scrambling and saying, "What's she going to do now?" And I did apply and did receive this it was a scholarship left particularly for Utah residents, technically, whether I was or not, there I was.

Biagi: Was it a certain amount of money?

Leary: It paid full tuition, all tuition costs. And my grandfather then gave me money to live on. And I got a room my father wanted me to live with a professor, a German professor who he knew about, and I'm very glad I didn't because I would have been the only one in that house, the only student, and he was a kind of authoritarian bear. I wound up living in a room in the very large home of a chemistry teacher, Professor Swain, Robert Swain, and his wife four bedrooms upstairs and they were all rented to students. So we had an interesting collection and I made friends and it was very nice.

Biagi: And there were a lot of you living there.

Leary: Yes, I had a roommate. And then two sisters from Iowa whose names were the last name was Wood. And then there was a girl whose name I can't remember but who was German who had a huge picture of Hitler in her room. She was very much pro-Hitler. And she was somebody that we couldn't understand and didn't know much, didn't have much to do with. But the two Woods girls and I had a roommate, Connie Weyland, who was studying in the graduate school of business, and I think there was only one other woman in that school at Stanford at that time. We were in Stanford at the time that the first year that as many as five hundred women were admitted.

Biagi: Out of a student population of how many?

Leary: Oh, I don't know. That's something that one would have to find out. That would went in in the fall of '34 and found, to my consternation, that my emphasis on all of this writing and so forth left me very far behind on literary background so that I had to have an extra six months, actually, to get through and do an awful lot of reading to make up. But I was very excited at the quality of teaching. Just a whole world opened up to me because instead of it being a finishing school atmosphere where you had to get through in order to graduate because this is what was expected of you, all of sudden you were in a world in which the ideas were exciting and interesting. I never was really bored at the other school because I was involved in writing or in being part of journalism of one kind or another but I can see and did see rapidly at Stanford that I had a very poor education, actually.

Now, let's stop for a moment and let me get a soft drink or something. [Tape interruption.]

Biagi: We're in the fall of '34 and you're in Stanford and as many as, you said, five hundred women were admitted that year.

Leary: Yes. How many were in the graduate school, I don't remember that. But I did make some wonderful friends and have kept as one of my closest friends one of the two Woods girls who had come from Iowa. Their father had been an English teacher so they had a good edge on me on what they knew about literature.

Page 11

Page 12

And Mary ultimately married a fellow she met at Stanford who became the head of the philosophy department at Williams at one point and has since died. The two of us have continued to be close friends.

Biagi: So at Stanford, was your avowed purpose in going there to study journalism?

Leary: No, to study English literature because I was going to learn to write. But I did know that I had to do something about earning a living and I had an awfully vague concept of what writing would be all about. I just felt I needed to know more about the world, which is true; I did. And I can remember my first interview with Frank Clarvoe, the managing editor of the News, when I was applying and did get the job to be secretary to the city editor, which was my entry.

Biagi: This was in San Francisco?

Leary: Yes, the Scripps-Howard paper. And I can remember, I think he must have asked me something like why did I want to work there or something. And I got into this, that I wanted to write and I wanted to learn more about what was going on in the real world as a background. And I remember vividly his saying to me, "And meanwhile what would you be doing for us?" I backed away from my own personal approach.

Biagi: Was that your first job interview?

Leary: Oh, I'd applied for there were a number of magazines and so forth that had offices up and down Mission Street in San Francisco and I would go in and ask for you know, be interviewed for a job. But there were no jobs and it was a dismal thing and you'd usually go in and find two or three other people sitting there. I got a job with some magazine, and I can't remember what it was, doing telephone solicitation for subscriptions, which is really quite funny because I was still living at Stanford and doing these two jobs had my room because I was with this woman with a bad heart and I had my dinners because I was waiting on table my dinners and $5 a week, which was a big help. And the cook was wonderful and the food was great and she was very kind to me.

But I had no telephone, no access to a telephone, but I said yes, I would do this job. And they were going to pay me so much and I would have to put my own nickels into the phone. And I can remember standing at this public phone in the Stanford campus doing this "Wouldn't you like to see our magazine?" and I feel so ashamed whenever I cut off some of today's solicitors. And they never paid me for it. I mean, I got away with my working for about six weeks on that stuff, and I never got a penny. And my own nickels went into the phone. That taught me, I guess, to be a little more careful about the terms of my contract.

Biagi: What led you to the San Francisco News as a place to

Leary: I applied well, a lot of contacts relate to what your family knew and so forth. And my Aunt Jo had been on the national board of the National Council of Catholic Women and knew a family, a Mrs. Musante, who was on the board from San Francisco, who was an absolutely wonderful young lively person. And she had a daughter, Catherine, who was about my age and her husband, Dr. Musante, part of the Italian community in San Francisco at that time. Through them I met the editor of the Catholic paper, whose name was Gordon O'Neil.

And Gordon was very helpful to me in lots of ways. First he introduced me to a woman who was woman's editor of the Examiner, Kathleen Doyle, who to this day is one of my closest friends. And she sort of talked to me about, well, there wasn't any opening on the Examiner, she knew that because she knew an awful lot of people who were trying to get on. But I at least found out what the papers were through Gordon and he said, "Go and try, it won't hurt, just go and try."

But by chance I guess my aunt told me that a fellow who'd been in school with my mother and had been a good friend of hers his name was George West. He was editorial writer on the San Francisco News and he was a very, very bright guy.

Page 12

Page 13

And I went to see him on the basis of having a connection, I was my mother's daughter. And he knew that they were looking for a secretary for the city editor. So he took me over and introduced me. And he advised me, said this could be a good starting point for you and you'll learn about the paper from it.

So at that point, I think Dick Chase had just become city editor, that was in the process of changing around, and I got the job. I couldn't believe it, I was so excited. It was a very good training point because the city editors' desks formed a unit, going head to head. The city desk and the assistant city editor and then the suburban editor and my desk. So that not only did I do my own job but I could hear most of their conversations and most of what they were telephoning about and so forth.

And the city editor had although there was a general switchboard, he had another switchboard by which he could put calls which would come to him, to any of the reporters or to me. And I began taking stories that would be dictated to me by some of the reporters out on the scene and also learned to keep the schedules up so that I had files by the month and files by the day for each week through a month, and learned how much of the news is sort of programmed stuff that comes in to the desk and they may decide to cover or not to cover.

And I was not I learned very slowly, to tell you the truth. I remember I got an assignment of doing typing up a column that ran, "What's Doing Around Town." And they had a sort of ritual of certain churches that they ran and the recreation department and opera and so forth. But it was very inadequate. And I kept thinking, there must be other things going on. But I never had the gumption to call up and say, let's broaden this. I just followed what I was told to do.

Biagi: Were you the only woman in the vicinity in that newsroom?

Leary: No. In that era there was usually a woman on the city side who would be the sob sister. One never admitted that or never called yourself that. And they did a range of things. I learned later that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wouldn't let a woman come into the city room at that time. And the New York Times fellows were very wary about whether a woman would be allowed to come into the city room, if she were just visiting. The papers in San Francisco, the Chronicle had Carolyn Anspacher. Carolyn was a very, very competent reporter who could do and did do anything, basically. She also did a lot of stuff like covering the opera, but not so much covering it musically as the social side, augmenting what the society editors were doing.

But you had the whole woman's department at that time and a woman's department would have, maybe, three or four women who were writing society and writing features well, and then there was a cooking department so that you had recipes, not so much nutritional advice and not so much stuff about how chic it was to have this or that for dinner but basic kind of recipes. Often I found [they were] kind of in conjunction with some of the produce companies who were advertising and keeping this going.

You had women in the city room and one of the things that I have thought about and wanted to comment on was how different the city room at that time seems now as I look back compared to the city room today where you have sort of dark and everybody is watching his own computer screen and typing away and a sense of individual isolation. It's very quiet today, a sort of closed, little compartmentalized world. I don't know whether you agree with that sort of feeling but when I was introduced into the city room, it was one huge room with the sports department in one place and the business and finance department and then this great horseshoe of the copy editors who were doing headlines and things like that and trying to fit it all together. And then you had the cluster of the city desk and about three rows of reporters. And lots of noise, the noise from the typewriters and the noise from pneumatic tubes the copy would be sent from the copy desk to the upstairs printing department where they had, of course, the machines, typesetting with hot lead and they had great big tanks of this hot lead up there which they were keeping molten, to keep the machines going.

Page 13

Page 14

In addition to the scene being so different and of course you don't need the hot lead today there was an atmosphere of general camaraderie and fun about it and I have no idea how it affects the viewpoint on news or on the selection of stories but there was a lot more sense that just: we're having fun, we're doing something we like, and kind of loud, verbal exchange about stories. And of course you had copy boys and when you were right on deadline, with a great big clock up there that you were watching, we wrote on this is after I got to be a reporter but I'll just go on with this phase wrote on short takes, short paper, about half of a regular typing size, and we made triplicate copies. And we all had a spike on our desk where we would spike the extra copies because if it got lost somewhere you could come back and retrieve what you had written. When you were close on deadline, you would yell "Copy!" and a boy would come, would put two carbons between three sheets to make a book and hand you the book, and you'd rip out your typed copy from the typewriter and hand it to him, and he could separate the things and spike them for you and take it to the city desk. And you'd write another paragraph and hand it on that way. So that it moved fast.

Now, today, of course, it's all done faster, by machine. But the body action and the sense of everybody working together is quite different. What the effect on journalism is I don't know. But I remember one time I suppose there had been some drinking, but also just horsing around, and when the war was started and the fellows used to have mock air wars and they would make airplanes with paper clips and you could see sometimes twenty or thirty of these darn things flying around the room. That would be after a deadline had passed. Up until the deadline you're working, okay. But the minute the deadline is over, somebody would start some kind of foolery.

I remember one thing done was to put paste into the earphone. You know, we had the telephones where the ear part hung up on the clip on the side of the stand-up phone and a guy would grab his phone to listen and he got an earful of paste, because we all had paste pots.

Biagi: And the paste pots were used for

Leary: If you have your first edition and you need to make a mark-up to put an insert in or something like that, you'd paste up your first-edition story cut it out and paste it up, we all had scissors, too then make your insert, X goes here, and then you'd write "Insert X." So you needed paste pots. And then sometimes they would also ink the mouthpiece, as a high-school-level trickery, so you'd be talking sometimes a long time and you'd always be talking into the darn phone and then you'd get a big black ink mark around your mouth which gave everybody something to really laugh about.

I remember one time a friend of my aunt's from Omaha came to visit in San Francisco and came to the front desk to say hello to me. And I went out to see her and she said, "I would really like to see what a newspaper room looks like," and I wouldn't take her in because we'd passed deadline and they were all acting silly and there were paper airplanes flying around. So I said, "Well, I'm awfully sorry, I couldn't possibly, they're right on deadline."

And I do remember when the national party conventions were on, the art department, part of them photographers and part of them the cartoonists, would stage a mock convention after several drinks. Anyway, they would have big parades all around the city room and everybody would join in, you know, and somebody would be saying, "Alabama casts so-many votes for"

Now, there was a congeniality and a kind of sense of fun. We may have overdone it a little bit on that paper. It may have been a little bit looser. But in general it was you mentioned a sense of professionalism. Nobody was feeling stuffy about being professional. They were at a craft which they liked very much and enjoyed doing and had a very, very strong sense of pride in. But they weren't being academic, thinking of themselves as up there with lawyers and teachers and things like that.

I think there's a new atmosphere today and there is a new sense today of professionalism which I came to feel strongly, earlier, even at that time. And I can remember on a vacation being home and saying to my Aunt Jo,

Page 14

Page 15

when I was getting the usual family "When are you going to get out of that and find yourself a nice, young man and settle down?" And I said, "Look, I'm doing something that I think is as valuable for society and worthwhile as Uncle Will being a lawyer and my dad being a law professor." And my aunt being outraged, saying, "You're just a newspaper reporter, that isn't in that class at all."

Biagi: So your family didn't view your job the same way you did at that point.

Leary: No, my aunt, who had the role of mother, really, and was a wonderful woman, and was very active in a lot of social and civic affairs in Omaha, and very concerned about charities and children and PTA, et cetera, felt strongly that a woman's role was to marry and have a home. And she was constantly after me for an NCYM, a nice Catholic young man. And I find I'm grateful for the things that she did teach me I'm not the best of housekeepers but at least I relish a sense of having a home and what to do to make it a home.

My father felt, as I guess a professional would feel, that being a reporter was fairly low down on the field and he always said, "Oh, you're going to be mixing with such a crummy bunch of people and seeing the inside of life. Why don't you teach? It's more elevated, you can do more thinking." He might have been right about the thinking.

Well, I was so eager to do reporting that even while I was secretary I'll go back to the other women on the paper in a minute. But I never had a sense of being held back by any of them, they all were encouraging me and fostering my enthusiasms and trying to teach me. Now, the News was remarkable in having two women on the city side and that one of them, Betty Ballantine, was an ace reporter, just fine. And interestingly enough, her father was a law professor, quite an illustrious one, at Boalt, at Cal.

And the other woman, whose name I'll tell you in a bit, was I'm not sure how she got onto the paper but she was an eager, little, feisty, wonderful reporter Anna Sommers, Anna Sommers. Anna was game for anything and would be sent out on all kinds of strange assignments and was still very much an innocent she was living at home with her mother. I remember there were some polar flights from Moscow coming into, I think some Northern California airport, I'm not quite sure where, and Anna and a cameraman were assigned to go there and just wait all night until they got in, to report about the arrival, this remarkable thing of flying over the Pole from Russia. And I can remember her saying, "You have got to call my mother and explain what I'm doing all night. This is terrible behavior to be away all night I can tell her but she won't believe it, you tell her." So the city editor had to phone her mother.

Anna also was so intrepid that one time when a very hot divorce case or some kind of lawsuit was on and the judge had cleared the press out and closed the door and wanted to keep this for whatever reason, I can't remember closed, Anna discovered that she could get out of an adjacent room and sneak along a balcony and lie on her stomach and listen. And so we had stories about what was going on in the courtroom until finally about two days later the judge got the bailiffs out and dragged her in. She showed me what a reporter should be able to do.

Biagi: And you did have a sob sister, or not?

Leary: Well, Anna could write straight sob stories. Betty Ballantine was more inclined to be writing labor stories and so forth. And she was ultimately engaged to and I think married to George Wilson, who was the labor writer on the paper. And George Wilson later left the paper and went to work, I think for Harry Bridges' union, but anyway, was very active in the labor movement. It was a very volatile time in San Francisco. The longshoremen's strike had been I guess '34 or '35, right in there, and Harry Bridges' organizing of them had just taken place and it was such a dramatic kind of thing, I guess an awful lot of other unions had supported them but

There were many unions being organized, the department store workers were being organized. And the News, which had started initially in Cleveland I mean Scripps-Howard as a working-man's paper, tended to take the labor side.

Page 15

Page 16

It meant that it had quite a different tone from the two Hearst papers well, I must mention it was such a lively time because there were four papers, two morning and two afternoon. The two mornings were the Examiner and the Chronicle. The Examiner was Hearst. The Chronicle, locally owned by

Biagi: Crocker, deYoung?

Leary: DeYoung family, yes. And then Hearst had an afternoon paper, the Call, and joined ultimately or bought out the Bulletin, an earlier paper. So the Call-Bulletin was one afternoon paper and then Scripps-Howard with the News was the other. The News was founded I think in 1904, had been there for a long time, and had been primarily a working-man's paper. When the department stores I remember well in the union effort to get a contract with the stores, the employees did go out on strike and picket, and the News editorially supported them. They got quite a blow on advertising as a result of that, I remember the White House and City of Paris and the Emporium. There was a good deal of rebuke administered through the titans of advertising and later the department stores fostered a Shopping News which was hard on papers and I guess hardest on the News in many ways because they did their own advertising in a throw-away and were able to curtail advertising in the papers.

Biagi: It was greedy, wasn't it, the Shopping News?

Leary: No, not necessarily. There may have been

Biagi: From the Bay area, they tossed it on the doorstep.

Leary: It was very hurtful ultimately. But the two women on the News staff were actually, they were not assigned separate kinds of stories, they were multi-functional. Betty was an extremely fast and good writer and tended to be used on rewrite for that reason, so she wasn't out as much. And Anna was out anywhere. And she'd come in

Biagi: Climbing on the balcony?

Leary: Yes, and she'd come in just all excited about the news story she was covering.

Biagi: So how did you get your break? Who called?

Leary: Well, I think Betty left and so I'm not sure whether that was after she had married George or what but she did leave. And I remember her saying something like, "I'm not going to stick around here doing the same thing for year after year." She went East into some kind of quite different job. And I guess because they were down to Anna, they felt they could accept two again. That is why I finally got a chance. And it was so obvious to everybody that I wanted to. I even had covered my first murder while I was still secretary.

Biagi: Is that right?

Leary: On Sixth Street, just a block up from well, two blocks up from the News, right off Mission there was a Hotel Henry. And about noon one time, a call came into the city desk and I can remember the city editor standing up looking desperately around and all the reporters' desks were empty, everybody either was out on a story or out to lunch. And here he has a call from the police beat, a murder, a shooting at this hotel. And he said, "I haven't got anybody to send." And I'm standing up saying, "Send me, send me." So he said, "All right, go ahead. See what you can do."

So I think a cameraman went with me and we walked up. And when I went in there was one policeman standing there. And I was very lucky because he was the policeman who rode his horse on the beat in front of the office all the time and I would occasionally have a sugar cube in my hand and feed the horse

Page 16

Page 17

and so I'd gotten a little bit acquainted with him. And he called me over and just dictated everything I needed. The victim was lying on the floor and he gave me his name, he was the hotel clerk. Handcuffed and held over there, I guess there was another policeman holding him in charge, was the guy who had shot him who was a guy who'd been fired as a clerk there. And the telephone was across the hall and he showed me where the phone was, he gave me the names of everybody and said that probably this fellow was mad because he'd been fired. And in nothing flat I was phoning it into the office, almost having to step over the victim.

So when I got back, gee, that was fine, I'd done very well. One thing that happened along about that time was the passage of the first public housing legislation. FDR was president. And coming out of the Depression, a lot of things were going on that affected the economy, and this idea of putting public money into building low-cost housing was a brand-new idea. There was a lot of talk about it and a lot of talk about where would the housing go. And I took my Sundays and weekends, not having much to do and not having a wide range of friends at that time, still new in the city, would go out into different specific neighborhoods and interview residents up and down, the local little grocery store and so forth and say, "How would you feel about having public housing come in?" And I did a series of articles.

Page 17

Go to Session Two | Session Three | Session Four
Index | Cover | Home

© 1991, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.