April 29, 2003
Q: This is Karen Frenkel, and this is the first interview of three audio sessions with Geneva Overholser for the National Press Foundation Oral History Series on Women In Journalism. I’m Karen Frenkel, and this interview is taking place on April 29, 2003.
We have decided that we’ll go back to the early influences in Ms. Overholser’s life that have affected the evolution of her thinking about journalism, so I’m handing over the mike to her now.
Overholser: Thank you, Karen. This is kind of fun for me, you know. I’m glad you’re asking about the early influences, because I think that’s always underestimated in interviews assessing someone’s current situation.
I’d say my upbringing, which certainly shaped me powerfully in a whole lot of ways, but I think particularly I need to focus on the journalism. My father was a minister. He was always unhappy. We moved every four or five years. I’ve often thought that the fact that I had to kind of reestablish myself all the time, and also the fact that my life seemed to be made up of viewing change as a positive and welcoming new experiences, has been a great boon for my journalistic career, because, you know, you have to sort of be willing to go up to people and say, “Hi, I’m Geneva Overholser,” you know; instead of what has often struck me as an idyllic childhood, where you would really be spending most of your time in one community. But my childhood wasn’t like that. So I think the moving around was important.
My mother, who was a minister’s wife, which is, you know, in many ways a full-time job, but I think had really dreamed of being a journalist. She went to the University of Texas [U.T.] and worked on the -- I think it’s called the Daily Texan, the paper at U.T., and I remember, as a child, hearing her talk about having interviewed Carl Sandburg and what an extraordinary experience that was, and some other interviews like that. So I think she clearly planted a seed in me about journalism being an interesting thing to do. She was a double major in English and journalism. Then she ended up going to work on a church publication and met my father when he was getting his master’s in theology, and from then on, really her life was much more determined by his work, that being the era when that was commonly true.
She did, however, end up being a writer. She wrote Sunday school literature, and she taught Sunday school teachers how to teach, and then later became an English teacher, and after that went back to school and got a master’s degree and was writing about African American literature, when she got breast cancer and died at fifty-eight. So her life was sadly cut short just when she was kind of being able to come into her own, I think, partly as a writer. But those early experiences of hers no doubt affected me.
I would say, also, that because of the moving, by the time I was in junior high school -- I mean, I ended up going to three different high schools, ninth grade in one place, tenth grade in another place, and eleventh and twelfth grade in another place -- and the first thing I would do at the new school was to go into the newspaper office. It was kind of my niche, you know, because it was somewhere I knew I’d feel comfortable in what is inevitably not a very comfortable thing, being a new kid.
So when we moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jamestown, North Dakota, I walked right into the newspaper office and, you know, worked on the paper there. I had been editor of my junior high school newspaper in Richland Junior High School. And then when we moved, finally, to Laurinburg, North Carolina, where my father was teaching -- he left the ministry and went into teaching philosophy -- and went there to the Scotsman, the paper in Laurinburg, at Laurinburg High School, and became editor there, actually. So those early experiences of success, but also a lot of satisfaction and scholastic journalism, were important to me.
Between my junior and senior years in high school, I went to something at the University of North Carolina J [Journalism] School called the High School Newspaper Clinic, I think. It was just a great experience, because we were there with the journalism professors and learned an awful lot, did some, you know, informal reporting, got to know other kids who were really interested in journalism, and thought then what I have felt all my life, which is, journalists are interesting people, and I’ve always liked working within the journalism community. So I would say those are all fairly powerful early influences.
Q: If I could just backtrack for a moment. I’m just curious about the kinds of things that you feel made your father unhappy as a minister and how much he expressed them to you and your siblings, if you had them.
Overholser: You know, I think he really wasn’t suited for the ministry in many ways. But he came from a very poor family in middle Tennessee. There are three Tennessees, in case you don’t know. People talk about them this way, too. There is the Delta, where Memphis is; and then there’s East Tennessee, which is mountain country; and then there’s middle Tennessee, whose capital is Nashville. Of course, it’s the capital of the state.
But he grew up in a little tiny town, and his father was a grocer and they just had no money at all. There was an opportunity presented by the church to go to college on a ministerial scholarship, and I really think it was kind of -- this is a funny phrase to use for a ministerial scholarship, but it has always struck me as kind of Faustian bargain, because it was the way he could go to school. He was a wonderfully bright young man and hungry, you know, both for knowledge and to escape Cornersville, Tennessee, I think, but that was the way he could go to school. And so he did. He went to this little Presbyterian college, quite a fine little school, Rhodes College now in Memphis, Tennessee. But, I mean, it really was what he agreed to do, you know, to enter the ministry, so he sort of dutifully did that.
But he had a very questioning mind, and a southern Presbyterian church was not a very questioning institution, and so he ended up going on and on, sort of, educationally. He went on then and got his master’s in theology, and then later, after I was born -- I was the youngest. I’m the youngest of three children. Our parents are both dead. But after I was born, he went over to Switzerland and spent a year doing a postdoc [post-doctorate] in Basel and really just was so much more interested in theology as a subject, and then eventually in philosophy, than he was in the ministry, per se. I mean, I think he loved the ministry insofar as it was an instrument of teaching, but an awful lot of people, you know, in church or in synagogue don’t really want to be taught; they want to be comforted. They wanted to be assured that they’re upstanding people, you know.
Then particularly in the southern Presbyterian church at that time, there were all kinds of conflicts, and although I didn’t think of my father as a great liberal at all -- I must say, later on as a child of the sixties, when I was in college in Boston, I thought he was hopeless. But the fact is, he was courageous in his setting and was always in arguments with the synod, I mean the elders and the deacons of the church, the lay leaders of the church, about the question of whether black worshipers ought to be welcome. It was a very tumultuous thing for him. Of course, he never had any money. I mean, it was really, you were sort of genteelly poor because you were the preacher’s family, but, I mean, you were poor. I remember, as a child, having my father kind of agonize about whether he could afford to have -- when he had a flat, getting a new tire was a big deal.
But, yes, there are three of us. My sister is the president of Duke [University], quite a remarkable and interesting woman, obviously. Our brother, who’s in the middle, is associate dean of engineering at Vanderbilt [University]. He’s a biomedical engineer. So the family very much valued education. And in some ways, I was the black sheep, because everybody else went on and got a doctorate, you know, and went into sort of -- I mean, I think in a funny way journalism was almost socially unacceptable in the family. It wasn’t the academy; it wasn’t the ministry. It was not even really a proper profession. So I always rather enjoyed that, to tell you the truth. [Laughs] Well, that may be a later subject, but when I did decide really to choose it as a career, I think that kind of figured in. The truth is, I sort of enjoyed saying, “Well, you guys are all the academics, but not me.” [Laughs]
Q: That’s so interesting, considering the work of your mother. And I’m just wondering, was she college-educated?
Overholser: Yes. She had gotten her degree at the University of Texas, which is where she did this journalism with the University of Texas Daily. And her mother had been college-educated. She grew up in a little town in Texas, and my grandfather, her father, was a local judge, a county judge. But at the time, a county judge was not actually a judicial position. He wasn’t a lawyer. It was an elected position. He was an insurance salesman, and he lost his money. I don’t think they were ever wealthy, but they were comfortable, and he lost his money in the Depression when she was in high school. So they moved to Austin, which is where the University of Texas is, so that all of their four children could go to the University of Texas and live at home.
And her mother, as I said, Susan Eleanor Porter, had grown up on a ranch called Porter’s Prairie, and her father had been determined to send his children, even his daughters, which, as you can imagine, was an extraordinary thing. I mean, my grandmother would have been going to college before the turn of the century, in the late 1890s, which was extraordinary. She went to Teachers College. She was really the strong woman in the family, Susan Eleanor Porter. I’ve named my youngest daughter after her, younger daughter after her, Eleanor. We call her Nell. But she was an extraordinary woman and lived -- she survived my mother -- lived to be ninety-nine. Isn’t that something?
I do want to tell you one story, just out of enjoyment. When my older daughter, Laura, was born, I named her Laura Grace. Grace was my mother’s name. She was born in Paris. So when I wrote my grandmother, who still lived in -- she lived in Dallas then. She still lived in Texas. I wrote her that Laura Grace had been born, and we were so glad we could name her after Mother. This was after Mother was long gone. So my grandmother wrote back and said, “That’s so wonderful. Now you have a Little Gracie,” because she called my mother Gracie, “and next you’ll have Eleanor.” That’s what she said, her own name. [Laughs] And it was so unlike her. I mean, she was a very strong woman, but she wasn’t a sentimental woman. And so she said, “Next you’ll have Little Eleanor.” So, of course, when next we had a little girl, we named her Eleanor. Isn’t that wonderful?
Q: It’s a wonderful story, and it demonstrates that you come from a long line of outspoken women.
Overholser: Interesting women.
Q: Yes, a long line of outspoken and highly educated women for their times, certainly. One other question, then, going back to your youth a little bit. So I’m just curious to know about your first name and how you were named Geneva and whether people comment about that.
Overholser: Oh, yes. It’s sort of something I drag around, but also take some pride in, especially because it’s a memorable byline.
My parents gave us all odd names. My sister’s name is Nannerl, which is Mozart’s little sister’s name. It’s a German diminutive of Anna, N-A-N-N-E-R-L. Of course, growing up in the South, people thought her name was Nan Earl, Nan Earl, E-A-R-L, you know. So hers has been even more of a bane, although she goes by Nan, so people don’t really know it. My brother’s name is Knowles Arthur, Knowles, K-N-O-W-L-E-S, but at least both of those were family names.
My parents always just said they picked names they just liked the sound of, and so they never said this, but I’m sure that one reason they really thought of the name Geneva was that Geneva is where Calvin, who was the founder of Presbyterianism, was born and held court, this really dour unappealing figure to me. But Geneva is sort of the mother. But they had never been there when I was born. They’d never been to Europe. But I just think it must have been planted in his brain more because of that, but, you know, they just liked the sound of it. I mean, they certainly didn’t know anyone named Geneva. And when I was young, I hated it, of course, and in high school I went by Genny, because, of course, Genny would fit in more. You don’t want to be fifteen and drag a name like Geneva Overholser around. So I went by Genny in high school and a little bit in college, although in college people called me Gen more.
But by the time I became a newspaper reporter right out of graduate school, I really liked the byline, so I used Geneva Overholser as my byline. And then when I married three years later, I decided I was a journalist and I had established a byline and I needed to keep my name. So even though I’ve had two perfectly good opportunities to take simpler last names, at least, Schaffer and then Westphal, I’ve just stuck with it all along, despite my complaints. And I don’t use Genny anymore.
Q: Do you have any favorite stories that you wrote when you were working for high school newspapers that you’d like to relate to us, any that you’re particularly proud of?
Overholser: Well, that’s a good question. Boy. I can certainly think of favorite ones at Colorado Springs. I don’t really remember favorites in high school. What I remember -- actually, this is interesting, because I wouldn’t have thought this. I never intended to be an editor later. I always thought I really wanted to be a writer. What I remember most about high school journalism is putting the paper together and the satisfaction of directing the staff. So maybe that was the real predicting thing that eventually I would become an editor, although I still think of myself more as a reporter and writer. But, yes, that’s what I remember, is how much I liked kind of thinking about the paper, the paper as a whole, what this issue would look like and what ought to go into it and what were the current issues at the school, then dispatching the staff, and then the remarkable satisfaction of assembling the final product.
Q: Okay. Are we ready, then, to go on to your days at Wellesley [College]?
Overholser: I think so.
Overholser: Yes. Well, when I went to Wellesley, somebody, whom I’ve never forgiven, but I can’t remember who it is, so I can’t really hold a grudge very effectively, told me, “Don’t do what you’ve always done in school,” you know, meaning, in my case, journalism. “Do different things. College is an opportunity to expand yourself,” which is great advice, except I could have done some journalism and also expanded myself.
Wellesley doesn’t have any journalism courses, but I didn’t even work for the Wellesley News, which is just crazy. It’s exactly what I should have done, I think. But anyway, so instead I did some theater, which was a lot of fun, and I did a little -- well, I had a very interesting experience at Wellesley. This was the late sixties, and many women’s colleges were going coed. Vassar [College] had gone coed. So Wellesley set up something called the Commission on the Future of the College, to determine this important question, and there were three trustees and three faculty members and three alums, and then there were going to be three students. And so in each of three upper classes, the students wrote essays, and they were published in the Wellesley News, and then their class elected a person to be on the commission. I think there weren’t many people who were interested in being on the commission, but I thought it was interesting so I wrote an essay, and I was elected.
So I was on this Commission on the Future of the College, which was an absolutely fantastic experience, because, you know, partly because you were actually every day with the president and the faculty members and the alums and trustees who were on this commission, so it was just fascinating. We’d get on these little planes and fly to Poughkeepsie, you know, and interview the presidents of these other colleges. So that was fascinating, and, I think, kind of empowering for me.
But otherwise, I sang in the college choir and I did theater, as I said. I really think I was captivated by the family tradition. I figured, okay, I’m supposed to do what everybody else in the family did. I’m supposed to go to graduate school and get my doctorate. That’s what I had observed my siblings doing. It was clearly approved of by my parents. I was majoring in history, and so I thought, okay, I’ll go get my doctorate in history.
As I recall, I got into Wisconsin and Michigan, and I was trying to figure out what to do. A guy I was dating -- thank god. Ken Johnson was his name. He was at the business school at Harvard [University]. I was bellyaching, “I’m not a scholar. I don’t really want to get my doctorate, and who gives a damn about it, you know.”
He said, “Well, what would you really like to do?”
I’ve told young women this, and it’s so instructive, because that felt like a remarkable question to me. I mean, that sounds so stupid to say. I’m twenty years old, twenty-one, whatever, and my boyfriend says, “What would you really like to do?” and it’s as if the sun has dawned. But it was as if the sun had dawned, because I was, up until then, on a kind of an unthinking, dutiful-daughter course. Now, I admit that the dutiful-daughter course I was on was not the way some would have been, life of denial of my mind or anything. On the contrary. It certainly was a course that would have taken me seriously. I was blessed to be in a family where the women were not only expected to do well, but, you know, you were expected to go out and make a living. But it wasn’t a living I wanted to make, and so I was on that sort of dutiful-daughter course, and I wasn’t thinking. It was really an unthinking thing, until he said, “What would you really like to do?”
I remember very clearly I knew what I wanted to do. Either I wanted to be an actress or I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. He knew a lot about my family, and he said, “I don’t think an actress is going to play.” [Laughs]
And I said, “I don’t either. I can’t really imagine being an actress.” I had a concept of an actress. Not only would I probably not make it, but also, I mean, not many people who do it really earn a living, and blah, blah, blah. So newspaper reporting seemed to be the sort of practicable good alternative.
So he said, “Well, why the hell don’t you do that?”
So I thought, “Why the hell don’t I do that?”
So then -- I mean, you probably, in doing some research about me, have heard this story, but this is the truth. I thought, “Okay, that’s really what I want to do.” But this is like April of my senior year.
Q: What year?
Overholser: 1970. I’ve left out all the antiwar movements and all these things which I think are part of what drove me back toward journalism, because I was so much engaged in the issues of the time. So I’d like, actually, to go back and talk about that some. So I didn’t know what to do, because I thought, “This is what I want to do.” So I thought, so naively again. Remember, no clips from the Wellesley News, nothing dating anymore recently than my high school newspaper, the Laurinburg Scotsman, from this dinky little -- modest little North Carolina town high school. So I took that to an AME, some assistant managing editor at the Boston Globe. I’ve talked to friends since then, you know, various editors at the Globe, to try to figure out who it was. And, of course, this guy -- I mean, it’s a miracle he even interviewed me. He literally, when I showed him these clips, he slapped his thigh and guffawed, and he said, “Listen here, girlie. You’d better either carry coffee to the editor of a New England weekly for a couple of years or go to a damn fine journalism school.”
So I said, “What are the damn fine journalism schools?” Although I was quite discouraged at the time, because I didn’t have any money. I mean, I had earned a wonderful, generous scholarship to Wellesley and had a work-study fellowship, as well, but I also had a loan, and my father had said that he could either repay the loan at that time or he could help me a little bit with graduate school. He was expecting me to go on and get my doctorate. So I knew if I went to graduate school, I was going to face some kind of, you know, challenge, and I really wanted to just go to work for a newspaper. But this guy led me to believe -- and I think correctly -- that I could never have done that unless I really went to a very modest situation.
So he said, “The damn fine journalism schools are [University of] Missouri, Columbia [University], and Northwestern [University].”
So I applied to all of them, and Northwestern gave me money. I mean, I did all this real quickly, of course. The applications had probably already been due. And because I didn’t have any journalism undergraduate education, I had to go to Northwestern for the summer session before the actual master’s program began. So I did all this in a space of some weeks, essentially six weeks or something, and turned it around. It was too late to get a resident assistantship, which is really what I wanted to do, because that paid for the living. So I want to move on to that.
But I do want to talk, if that’s all right, about the antiwar, because that was very powerful, I think, for almost any sentient human being at the time, obviously, but certainly for those of us in college in Boston it was. I think that is part of what lured me back to journalism, because I realized that public affairs were very much a primary interest of mine. I didn’t want to be separated from the kind of rush of events, and I was very much aware that the civil rights movement had been -- actually, the civil rights movement had been rather significant in my childhood because I had watched my father’s struggles, and also because I lived part of the time in Hot Springs, Arkansas. And when I was a child in Hot Springs, Orval Faubus was taking his shameful stand at Central High School in Little Rock to keep students out of the high school, and so my parents talked about that at the dinner table. And then later my sister, when she was in college, had wanted to go -- my sister is eight years older than I am, and she had wanted to go down and do some of the Freedom bus rides in the South when she was in college. She hadn’t ended up doing that, but I was aware of that.
So I certainly was aware of the power of the civil rights movement. You couldn’t be, as a child of the South, unaware of it, and then especially going from the South to the North to school. I mean, I felt like I was such a southerner coming to the North, with my funny accent, and I was aware of differences in the way blacks were treated and behaved in the South and the North, and I remember kind of agonizing about what were the strengths and the weaknesses of each situation.
I remember going with a group of friends from Boston to North Carolina, to the beach, and we were going to visit my home in North Carolina. This one girl had never been out of Boston. She’d grown up very wealthy and privileged in Boston, to tell you the truth, and I think that both I and the other southerner in our crowd or group of six girls who were all driving south -- the other southern girl was from Richmond -- had seen a lot more of the reality of the world and, indeed, of the difficulties faced by African Americans than this girl.
But this girl, who considered herself, you know, kind of liberal, as soon as we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, I swear she started thinking, “Can I drink the milk?” and all these odd things. And she started talking about the shanties, which were a shameful sight, these shacks which blacks, poor blacks lived in at the time. But I remember both Mary and I were so pissed at her because she was being so self-righteous about it, and we finally said to her -- actually, we’d done a little bit of volunteer work in Roxbury, and she’d never done anything of the sort, Roxbury, which was a terrible slum at the time in Boston. We turned to her and said, “Have you ever been to Roxbury?” because her concept seemed to be that there was nothing like this where she lived. So anyway, I was very much aware of the civil rights movement.
Then, of course, I was aware of the feminist -- really, the new feminist movement was born at this time, and it was just women, especially at Wellesley, going to a women’s college, I felt a powerful sense of women being -- you know, it was very powerful for me to go to a women’s college, because at a women’s college, everybody, the smartest folks and the dumbest folks, the jocks, everybody is a woman. You go to the library, and all the photos of the éminences grises around the room, where usually are all these old white guys, all of them are women. So it’s very inspiriting and empowering. You really do feel very clearly that women can do anything, because at the school where you go, they are doing everything, and the faculty was more than 50 percent women. So it was a terrifically strengthening experience for me to go to Wellesley.
Q: Did you have a professor there, or two, who you thought was your mentor?
Overholser: Not as much as you might hope. I mean, it was a small college. I should have been more engaged with -- I didn’t take myself seriously as a scholar, you know. I had this image of myself. I think my youth was very much shaped by my not being the smart one. My sister was brilliant, two 800s on her college boards. By the time I was at Wellesley, she was at Oxford [University] on a Marshall scholarship. My brother was brilliant, and he was getting his doctorate at Wisconsin.
I, frankly, was the socially successful one. It was funny. It’s the image you get into as a kid, and I think my parents rather delighted in having a -- quote -- “well-rounded child.” I really do. Unfortunately, the way this stacked up for me was that I didn’t take myself very seriously. I mean, I always did fine -- I did better than fine -- in high school and stuff. I was always one of the brainy kids. But that was not my image, and I didn’t want it to be my image. I think I didn’t take myself seriously, and I didn’t do as well academically. I mean, I did fine at Wellesley, but I didn’t really take myself very seriously.
Q: How did you come to apply to such a school, then?
Overholser: Oh, because, you know, the expectation in our family was you were going to excel academically, so even being the one in the family who didn’t take herself seriously, you had to take yourself seriously. I mean, my parents both expected us all to make straight As, and if you brought home a report card with a B on it, they grilled you. So I knew I was smart. It’s just that I didn’t really -- and I knew I was supposed to go to a good school, and I wanted to do that. It wasn’t that I sold myself short, exactly. It’s just that once I got there, I just sort of rode along and did a lot of other things.
There were professors who meant a lot to me, though. There was a woman who taught intellectual history who was very interesting. Her name was Maud Chaplin, I think. But, I mean, I didn’t develop a really powerful relationship with her. I would say that my fellow students were more powerful for me. They were very interesting, and to this day are my closest -- I’m going to be seeing one of them this weekend. I’m going to Boston for a panel, and one of them who’s an architect there -- the young women in my life were just so -- these were women who took themselves seriously, and it was an environment that expected you to.
But I just didn’t take myself seriously very much as a scholar. I think I took myself seriously as an activist, for example. I mean, I got on the bus and went -- oh, I’ve got to tell you one story. This one is definitely formative. This was 1968, and, as you know, that was an incredibly tumultuous time in the nation’s history. Actually, at this moment Hillary then-Rodham was president of college government at Wellesley. She was one year ahead of me. People say, “Well, did you know her?” I knew her, of course. Everybody at Wellesley knew her. We later came to know each other well, but at the time she would not have honestly been able to say she knew me.
But anyway, so it was an activist campus. People were talking a lot. At one point there was a -- I forget what it was called in Washington [D.C.], but anyway, people from all over the East Coast came to Washington, and all the representatives and senators had their offices open and young people were coming in and talking to them. So we took these busloads down from Boston. Harvard and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Wellesley and Radcliffe [College] all got on these buses, and then when we got to Washington, we were supposed to split up and go to all of our different -- you know. All the Massachusetts kids went to see their senator, and all the New Jersey kids went to see their senator, and all the Connecticut kids went to see their senator, and all the New York kids went to see.
It was time for me to go see my senator, and I realized belatedly, and with a strong sense of panic, that I was the only North Carolina kid, and my senator was Sam [J.] Ervin. Now, I don’t know if you remember about this, but Sam Ervin was this really imposing judicial scholar, who, of course, became known in the Watergate era. But, I mean, he was a hell of an imposing man, and I didn’t agree with him politically at all, and I knew that. I also didn’t have anywhere near enough to say to him, and I knew that.
So I’ll never forget, I have this image of standing in Senator Ervin’s office, and I swear to God, in my memory it looks like the corridor between me and his desk is thirty feet long, and he’s at the end of it, a sort of dark, burnished wood. He’s looking at me, and he goes [imitates Ervin], “So, young lady, you don’t like the war?”
I thought, “That’s about it. That about sums it up.” Oh, god, I’ve never been so scared. I really don’t think I’ve often been so scared in my life. I said, “Yes, Senator, that’s true, I don’t.”
I mostly listened to him after that. I don’t mean I was a total twerp, but I sure as hell didn’t -- you know, I didn’t have enough to say. And it made me realize, if I had these strong views, I needed to know what the hell I was talking about. I needed to engage myself. So that kind of learning I did want to do. But I tended to be more active about doing, you know, teach-ins on the campus. I mean, I did fine academically, but it wasn’t the engrossing part of college for me.
Q: But also, Boston and Cambridge must have been a fascinating place to be, because you had people coming to speak. Did you hear influential feminists speak at that time or other people at other events?
Overholser: I heard more, you know, antiwar people. Unfortunately, that was the -- I mean, I say unfortunately because I think it would have been good for me to hear Betty Friedan. But it was really -- you’d go hear the local SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, people, or you’d go protest and be tear-gassed.
But, yes, I was in Cambridge a lot. Wellesley sort of did the more genteel version of -- there were lots of discussions. There were teach-ins. But I would go into Cambridge occasionally, become involved in a more sort of activist -- more violent, actually, more protest-driven.
You know, one reason I was aware of the rising feminist movement is that my mother was. This was only three years before she died, as it turned out. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. But she was reading The Feminine Mystique, and she, when I would talk to her, was actually very much aware of this budding rebirth of feminism.
I think at first I felt like I couldn’t be bothered with that because I was living it. I just expected -- but then gradually I became aware of things, like some of the statements about, in an antiwar movement, who was it who said, “Yes, we want women in the movement, but their correct posture is prone,” or something. I became aware that the driving movement I was most involved in, the antiwar movement, was not, in fact, very respectful of women and that I needed to be a lot more respectful of this movement of women, on behalf of me, really, you know, and other young women.
But that didn’t come alive for me until later. I didn’t really become as involved -- it’s ironic, because here I was at a women’s college, and I would certainly say I was becoming aware of the strength of women, but I didn’t become aware of the women’s movement, per se, in any more direct -- I didn’t become engaged in the women’s movement. Even in graduate school I didn’t as much. It was more when I became a young reporter and I was talking to other women about it, and then later in my life when I became part of consciousness-raising groups. It was quite a time. Boy. It was quite a time.
I should ask about you. How old are you?
Q: I’m forty-seven.
Overholser: Forty-seven. Okay. So I’m eight years older than you are. So there are points of reference about all this that are meaningful to you, but a lot of them you know from reading about it, not from living it.
Q: Well, you’re the age of my older sister, and so because I had a sibling your age, I think I remember a little bit better than a lot of people. I do remember, you know, Bobby [Robert F.] Kennedy being shot, but, you know, I was still really a kid. And I remember my sister and some of her involvement in the moratorium, the Vietnam War moratorium. What went on in Boston with the moratorium? There was a march in Washington, but was there a counter one in Boston?
Overholser: That’s when I went to Washington.
Q: That was the moratorium? Oh, okay.
Overholser: That’s what I meant, ’68.
Q: Right. See, I guess that’s why I didn’t immediately connect that the moratorium was in ’68.
Overholser: But I forgot what it was called. I’m glad you remembered.
Q: Do you want to talk some more about that era, about the political upheaval, or do you want to move on to graduate school? It’s up to you how much more --
Overholser: I think that’s the gist of it, unless you think there’s something unspoken there. No, that seems right.
Overholser: Actually, I was going to say something about the graduate school thing. That summer was miserable.
Q: That’s where we left off, and then you went back.
Overholser: Right. When I did finally -- when I decided, not finally, but, I mean -- well, yes, when I finally decided what I wanted to do and then very hastily found that I was going to be at Northwestern and couldn’t be an R.A., a resident advisor, and so I had to scramble around and find out where I could live.
So there was a Wellesley alum who lived way north of -- you know, Northwestern is in Evanston, which is a suburb of Chicago on the north shore, but she lived way north of that, and I was going to take care of her kids on the weekends and live in her home and take the train to Northwestern. Well, I got there and realized the train connections were terrible and I would have to get up at five o’clock in the morning to get to classes, and it just didn’t work.
So I had to look around for something else to do, and I found a home very close to campus where the woman wanted someone who would essentially clean and sort of help take care of her kids. It was a very wealthy family. So I thought, that’s great, because I’ll be right by the campus. And it was just awful. God. I mean, the parents were very unhappy with each other, and the kids were kind of troubled, and the woman was just a slave-driver. I would wipe the kitchen counters, and she would say, “Well, why haven’t you dried them off?” And I was thinking, “You know, the water will evaporate. Have you ever tried that?” And she wanted me to iron the sheets, and all these things that just seemed to me to be over the top. I mean, maybe this is what people did, but it’s not what I expected.
It was really an awful situation. She thought her husband was hitting on me, which wasn’t true at all, and I hadn’t the slightest interest in him, that’s for sure. And her kid, her fourteen-year-old son, had a bunch of Playboys hidden in his closet, which I didn’t even know. I didn’t clean his closet. And she blamed me for bringing them in the house, like I’m going to bring Playboys in the house to her fourteen-year-old, and as if having a fourteen-year-old having Playboy is the end of the world anyway. It was just an over-the-top situation. It was awful. She suspected me of everything that went wrong in the house.
I really was trapped. I felt trapped. I’d already left one situation, and the summer program was only three months. But, I mean, I thought I was going to have to continue living in this place, and I remember going down to the rocks. There were these rocks on the shore of Lake Michigan, and it was hot as hell. I remember sitting on the rocks and just crying, just weeping, although I loved the school. I knew that I had chosen the right thing, but my living situation stank.
I remember calling my mother and saying, “I can’t stand this,” and I never did that. I think of that now when my children call me and say, “Oh, I’m so miserable,” and I think I never would have called my mother and done this. It was just a different era.
But then I did do it. I did call her and say I was so miserable. And she said, “Maybe we can scrape together some money, and you can just find some other living -- ” and I knew I didn’t want to do that to them. They didn’t have any money. But, man, that was just miserable.
So, happily enough, somebody left the resident advisor program before September when it began, and I got to move in, and I had a great situation then. I had a little suite in a dorm, and I was the R.A. in an undergraduate dorm, so thank God. It’s funny to retell this, but I think that summer was one of the most miserable in my life. Oh, with this really dysfunctional family who found me -- the woman, at least, was able to find me as the reason for all of it.
Anyway, so I did like graduate school. I felt that, frankly, when people talk about journalism school, there are great debates about whether it amounts to a hill of beans. People ask me should they go to journalism school. My great favorite has always been for people to get a good liberal arts education, and then if they can, work on the paper and learn journalism that way and go to internships in summers between their junior and senior year, and optimally between their sophomore and junior year, because that’ll be a much better way to learn journalism. But if you can’t find a job, then go to journalism school, but, frankly, that’s why I did. I went to journalism school because I needed to prove to a hiring editor that I understood libel and knew how to interview and understood the responsibilities of journalism in a democratic society. I did learn those things at Medill. Medill is the name of the journalism school at Northwestern.
But I must say, I think it was going to Northwestern and going to J School that made me understand what a good college I’d gone to, but it was a little bit belated, because I realized that the quality of the teaching I had had at Wellesley and just the respect for the life of the mind at Wellesley was extraordinary and very rich. I’ve always been glad I had it, but I didn’t know that I had it until I went to journalism school. It really is a trade school. I mean, that’s what it is. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it felt very different from being at a fine undergraduate college. But it was fine. It worked fine. I got to know some fascinating people, and I got a job, which is why I wanted to go.
And I fell in love with Chicago. Medill, at the time -- and I suppose the big new theme there for me was I got very interested in urban affairs. The Life and Death of American Cities, is that what it was called? Wonderful book. Death and Life of American Cities, I guess. Anyway, there was just coming into society’s understanding of cities the notion that we really want -- you know, urban renewal had been -- it was all over the place, and it was the era when wonderful old neighborhoods were just being leveled. There’s a whole part of Washington, D.C., that used to be really interesting. Of course, it was poor, yes, but it was really interesting and the houses were interesting, and right at that time it was being leveled. The Death and Life of [Great] American Cities.
And so people were understanding that, in fact, you needed some grit -- I mean grit and life and, you know, teaming cities, that was part of the charm. Having grown up mostly in smaller towns -- although Memphis was a sizable town, but I lived in sort of a new part of it -- I hadn’t really gotten to know cities until I went to Boston and traveled in Europe with friends while I was in college.
Chicago, though, I was reporting on urban affairs. You had to pick a discipline. You could do environmental reporting or you could do whatever, and I was doing urban affairs reporting. And so I’d go on the L [train] down to city hall, and this was when Mayor [Richard] Daley, the real Mayor Daley, was in charge, and he was just fascinating. He was really one of the fascinating figures of my time. And so I’d just watch him hold sway in city hall, and I became very much engrossed in urban affairs. And so that was kind of the new issue for me, and I decided I wanted to be a city hall reporter.
But then -- do you want to stop me or do you want me to just go on and on and on?
Q: No, this is fine.
Overholser: This is fine. But then I had a very hard time getting a job. We were talking about the economy earlier. 1971 by now, and the newspapers were laying off. I remember at Medill all these papers would come and say, “We’re still interviewing, but this year we’re not hiring.”
And our professors would say, “Oh, that’s too bad. Last year they hired twelve people.”
And we’d think, “Great.”
Nobody was hiring. I sent letters to fifty newspapers, and most of them didn’t even write back. You know, I mean I sent them to dinky little newspapers. I wasn’t trying to get onto The New York Times. So I finally landed a job in, gosh, some tiny little town in New Mexico, and it was as -- I sort of felt like I wanted to go west. One summer in college, I had gone and been a salad girl and Glacier National Park in Montana.
Q: What’s a sally girl?
Overholser: A salad girl. It’s, you know, working in the --
[END TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE; BEGIN TAPE ONE, SIDE TWO]
Q: -- middle of the explanation of a salad girl.
Overholser: Right. I was talking about making bleu cheese dressing. Anyway, more to the point, I fell in love with the Rockies, and I had decided I wanted to go live in the West.
The guy I was kind of involved in at that point, who later became my first husband, Mike Schaffer, and I drove a drive-away car. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this, but some old person, say, who wanted her car, in this case, driven from Chicago to Phoenix, and so we were the people driving the car. It was our free -- we didn’t have any dough, you know. We wanted to go out to the Rockies on spring vacation, and this was our free route.
So we were driving this big old Lincoln or something, and we stopped in Colorado Springs, which I just absolutely fell in love with, and I went there to interview. The guy said, “Well, we don’t really have anything, but you look interesting.” This really interesting guy named Bill Woestendiek. I’m previewing here. That was my first job later, it turned out. So I just fell in love with that paper and that city and Pikes Peak, but he said he didn’t really have anything.
So we went on, and I interviewed in these other places. And finally, I’m back at Medill, and the only job offer I’ve got is from this little tiny town. I’m forgetting its name. So I accepted. But what they wanted me to do was go run the women’s pages in this little tiny town. It was the only job I could find, and I didn’t have any interest in running the women’s pages, which, by the way, at the time were called society pages. But of course I accepted, because what was I going to do?
And then on the eve of my departure from Medill, the editor of the Colorado Springs Sun called and said, “I want you to come out here and be a police reporter,” which, you know, was a real reporting job. So I was thrilled. So I called and finked-out on this paper in New Mexico.
Anyway, so I went to Colorado Springs, and Mike came, as well, because he had wanted to go teach overseas, but the job didn’t pan out. So I had a job, he didn’t have a job; he decided to come to Colorado Springs.
So I started working for the Colorado Springs Sun on the police beat, and I loved it right away. I just loved -- I have to say that I have never doubted for a moment that I was blessed at having picked the right work for me. I just have always loved it. And it’s felt like about fifteen different jobs, so it’s been unchangingly new, I mean always new, undyingly changing. But I just fell in love with it right away. I absolutely adored it.
It was hard at first. People have asked me was it hard being a woman reporter. It was hard at first, because there hadn’t been any women on the cop beat in Colorado Springs; and when I first went over to the “cop shop,” there was a sergeant there who looked at me and said, “You can’t look at these pink slips.” The pink slips, you know, were the crime records.
I said, “Well, I have to. I’m reporting. I’m covering the police now.”
He said, “Well, there’s rapes in there.”
And I said, “Well, there’s women in those rapes.”
But at first he just wouldn’t let me do it. I think, as I recall, I went back and talked to my city editor, who called me -- what did he call me? “Honey bunch.” Was it honey bunch? West McLean, W. West McLean was his name, my first city editor. Every reporter has some story about his or her first city editor. Well, West McLean had these thick glasses, and he’d look at you like this [demonstrates], you know. So I came back and said, “They won’t let me look at the crime reports.”
He said, “Honey bunch, you go tell them they will let you look at them.”
I thought, “Oh, shit, what do I do now?”
So I went back and said, “I’m going to look at them,” and, sure enough, it worked. I mean, legally they had to let me look at them. They’re open records. They’re public records. But it was intimidating as hell to me to go back and tell this sergeant, “You’ve got to let me look at these. My city editor says you’ve got to let me look at these,” or whatever I did.
Anyway, soon got through that and reported on the cops for a while, and then did a little GA, general assignment, reporting, got to know the city, and then I became city hall reporter within the first, probably, six months.
Q: If I could just go back to the police beat for a second. So there were rapes then. Did you cover and follow them around while they were investigating a rape at that time?
Overholser: That’s an interesting question. That would have been a foreshadowing of my later -- I didn’t. I didn’t. In fact, I think, for some reason, there weren’t many rapes that I became aware of. But for whatever reasons, no, I didn’t. And I covered the cops only very briefly, in fact, for a few weeks, and then became a general assignment reporter and moved around, and then became city hall reporter within six months. That should have been a good foreshadowing of the role that the crime of rape was later to play in my journalistic life.
So I got the much-coveted city hall beat, and this was an amazing time in the life of Colorado Springs. It was the fastest-growing standard metropolitan statistical area in the country. That was the census unit, you know. It was just phenomenal, because they were bringing all this water across the front range from the rivers on the west side of the Rockies, and the ranchers were fighting with all the developers in Colorado Springs. The developers were developing these huge tracts of land, and the city wasn’t requiring much of the developers in terms of public works. They were getting by on the cheap in terms of all the highways and utilities. And so the city was growing by leaps and bounds, and it wasn’t attractive development at all.
So there arose a citizen’s movement called the Citizen’s Lobby for Sensible Growth, which was headed by a bunch of professors at the Colorado College. So there was this wonderful tension going on between these slow-growth proponents and these fast-growth proponents, and it just made for a heck of an interesting time.
Then is really when I first did my first reporting stories I remember well. This was also when the energy crisis -- this was the early seventies, ’71, ’72. The energy crisis was reaching very kind of severe proportions, and I think about this so much now, because at the time, as I recall, we were reliant on foreign oil for 30 percent of our needs, and everyone was very worried about that because everyone felt that that was a security issue for us. So we were all buying energy-efficient appliances. This was when those labels about energy efficiency were first put on appliances. And people were lining up all over for gas. There were long gas lines. And energy-efficient automobiles. There were all sorts of federal requirements, finally, for greater energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, for automobiles. So I was writing stories about, you know, the energy crisis, because, of course, Colorado was very much an energy state.
Colorado was a really interesting place to be at that point, because it was very environmentally conscious, but it was also an energy producer, so there were all these kinds of tensions going on. And it was politically very interesting. Governor [Richard D.] Lamm, who was a very liberal Democrat, but the state was very conservative and predominantly Republican, and there were all these tensions between the urban front range and the rest of the state, which was either ranching out in the east or all these mountain communities, most of which were fairly conservative, except for Boulder, which was “pinko” compared to most of the state.
Part of why that became so interesting to me is that after covering city hall, I went and became the legislative bureau for the Sun, and that meant that I had to drive up to Denver on Monday mornings and stay at the Denver Hilton. We had a tradeoff. They got free advertising in the Colorado Springs Sun, and I got this free room in the Hilton. And so I lived in the Hilton from Monday through Friday, and then I’d drive back.
Actually, Mike and I would go skiing almost every weekend all winter. This was when the journalism ethics are not what they are now, and I had this thing called the Colorado Ski Country USA. It was a ski pass, and you could do anything, you know, ski anywhere for free, and I was writing reviews of the ski areas. And then every spring and summer and fall weekend we’d go hiking. So we had just absolutely fallen in love with the Rockies, and it was a great era. It was a lot of fun.
Then Mike decided he wanted to go overseas, and he and I -- I mean, this is not a personal interview, but I had fallen in love with a photographer at the Sun and, you know, all this tumultuous time, and he said, “Well, I’m coming, and so if you want to come, come.” So we ended up getting married before he went to Zaire, and I went with him to Zaire.
But those three years, it was only three years where I was kind of establishing myself as a journalist. They were exceedingly engaging and fruitful and successful, and I really knew what I wanted to do for life, and had also fallen in love with a number of additional -- I mean, any of the environmental issues and political reporting and the Rockies were my new loves.
Q: Just for the record, what is the full name of the newspaper in Colorado Springs?
Overholser: The Colorado Springs Sun, S-U-N. But it died later, during my Nieman [Fellowship] year, as a matter of fact. I went out during my Nieman year for a wake at the Denver Press Club with all of these people who had been part of the Sun. It was just a great little paper. I mean, almost everybody thinks that about his or her first reporting position, but, god, it was so great, and the people there -- he paid us, I got $110 a week. We used to get together and bitch and say, “What does he think, we can eat Pikes Peak?” But one of my fellow reporters later became vice president for news of National Public Radio. Another one won a Pulitzer [Prize] in photography for a Detroit newspaper. I mean, it was just a great, great group of people. He hired very bright young people who had a lot of getup and go, and he just let us loose.
There was one point when I was covering city hall, when there was a mayoral election, and the Sun sponsored a write-in candidate for mayor, and she almost won. I mean, that’s how the paper had a lot of -- there was a lot of civic engagement in Colorado Springs at the time because the issues were so lively and so much was at stake. The future of the city, in fact, was at stake. And I’ve got to say, I try to be an objective reporter, but I knew who I hoped would win, and, boy, did they lose. Colorado Springs now is so different. When I go back, I just can’t believe it. The developers won, and it’s also now very conservative. All the people who were kind of forming the backbone of that slow growth and environmentally conscious movement were overpowered by a lot of military retirees. It’s a big military -- it was even then, of course. The Air Force Academy is based there, and there was an army base, Fort Carson. But there are even more military people there now, and a whole lot of retired military.
Q: I think I remember around that time, there were a lot of protests about nuclear power. Did you cover anything about the energy crisis and nuclear plants nearby the city?
Overholser: Not about nuclear plants, but that was happening, you’re right. But what I covered there, there’s a huge installation inside a mountain there. It’s a big defense installation, security, and there were protests about that because of environmental degradation and stuff associated with that.
But, no, more of the protests there were about water, which is really interesting, because many people think water is now the big environmental issue that is underattended. We all take water so much for granted, but it’s threatened in supply in many parts of the globe. Water was what was the big issue there, because they were having to bring all this water from the western slope of the Rockies over to the front range to support all this development, and that meant the ranchers weren’t getting the water they needed for their ranches. But it also meant that down river, in the Colorado River, where so many people were counting on it for irrigation for their crops or for water supply for their cities, it was being depleted because all this water was being diverted over to the front range. So water was really the biggest issue, and just energy use, how much use. But there weren’t any nearby nuclear plants, so I didn’t actually report on that.
Q: So then you went overseas with Mike. You got married in what year?
Overholser: We got married in 1974, June.
Q: Right before you left?
Overholser: Right before we left, literally. I think we left two days later and went hiking in Norway and traveled in Europe for about six weeks with our backpacks. And then got on a plane in, I guess, Amsterdam, and I remember thinking that we were sort of insulting the globe by taking such a quick -- you know, we were sort of over the Alps for lunch and over the Sahara for tea, and then we were landing in Lagos by nightfall, and I thought, “I want to do all this on the surface of the globe someday,” and so we later did.
But, yes, we spent two years in Kinshasa. Mike was a teacher at the American School of Kinshasa. His friend Chip had really enabled him to come over, and it was a very tough time for me in some ways. It was the most derivative time in my life. I was literally known as “Chip’s friend’s wife.” I had been under the illusion -- I had been under several illusions. One was that I’d be able to do reporting from there, and that was impossible. It was like throwing your copy into the Atlantic Ocean. The communications systems didn’t work. You couldn’t phone. There obviously was no -- this is long before the Internet. And the mail didn’t work.
So when I first got over there, I wrote all these proposals to people, even for travel. I mean, I didn’t want to be a travel writer, but I figured at least I could do -- we were traveling, wonderful interesting trips to the volcanoes where the highland gorillas roamed, to climbing Nyiragongo, which is the volcano that just recently erupted in Zaire last year. In Congo. It was called Zaire when we lived there. It’s Congo again. Just amazing trips that we took. You know, then we went to East Africa and later to South Africa. We’d use all our vacations to take these marvelous trips.
I would make travel proposals, but, you know, the letters wouldn’t even reach the papers until months after I’d sent them, and then I often wouldn’t get the replies; and if I did get a reply, I’d write back and send a really hard-thought piece, you know, spill my guts on this piece, and it would never make it to them. It was so frustrating. So that illusion died. I wasn’t able to do any real reporting.
But I got a job. I ran the library at the school, which was kind of frustrating, to tell you the truth, because it was the only air-conditioned building on campus, and mostly the students, the high school students, would come in there to make out. I felt like I was turning into an old bitch. I was sitting there going [imitates shrewish voice], “This library is not a place for making out.” God.
And then another illusion. I thought we’d be living among the people of Africa, and it would be really enlightening. But the fact is, we lived on this gated compound. So it actually was a very difficult time. I almost came home. But gradually we grew -- and the social life on the compound was people playing bridge and stuff. I mean, I didn’t even play bridge. But gradually, we made friends on the campus, and we got to know people in Kinshasa. Indeed, we got to know a couple who was there with the State Department, whom David and I just visited in Cairo.
So anyway, and gradually we began to be able to take trips. I mean, Kinshasa is so isolated. You couldn’t go very much of anywhere unless you had a long time, and then you could take an amazing riverboat trip. It was really [Joseph] Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I mean, this is the true Africa as we sort of grow up hearing about it, but you can’t get anywhere unless you have tons of time. And we were working. We didn’t have tons of time.
But the first time we got to go anywhere on a riverboat trip, I thought, “Oh, this is going to be one of the most extraordinary times of my life,” and it really did end up being. We traveled all over the continent, east and south, did a dugout trip in the Okavango Swamp, and saw where the grasses had been trampled by elephants, and heard the hyenas and the lions. I mean, just phenomenal travels. And climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and -- just phenomenal. That made it worth it, but it was very tough.
You know, children were dying of measles, and just our day-to-day life. It’s not even fair to put these two things in the same paragraph. Their children were dying of measles. Our complaints were more about, you know, you’d get the flour and it was full of weevils, and so you’d have to put some ghastly chemical in it and close it in a barrel and then sift out all the weevils, and, you know, there was no milk. I mean, it was really kind of remarkable, but it was an astonishing time.
We, then, after our two years working there, had been able to save quite a bit of money, because your living expenses were essentially paid for, and we were both on the faculty, since I ran the high school library. And so we outfitted a Volkswagen bus. It was the most beautiful home I’ve ever lived in, in some ways, certainly the most efficient. There was a local carpenter. He’s really a craftsman, really an artist, and the local wood was mahogany. So this Volkswagen bus had this -- and we designed it all, with this fold-out. The bed would fold up to be a couch, and it had little bookshelves. We had all these jerry cans full of water and of gasoline, because it was our hope to drive across the Sahara. We had sand ladders, and it was just an astonishing thing to prepare for. We’d fly to Johannesburg to get spare parts, every part of the car we’d need spare parts for.
We put our Volkswagen bus on a riverboat and just -- I can’t even tell you. I mean, just amazing adventures. You know, drove out through West Africa and up through Mali. But we had terrible car troubles in Mali, and we realized we probably weren’t going to be able to make it across the desert. So we ended up putting it on a train to Dakar. I’m cutting all this very short. This was six months of travel, and it was fantastic. But put it on a train to Dakar, and then we took a boat from Dakar to Casablanca and then drove across North Africa, and at one point flew back down into the Sahara so that we could have the experience of it, and took an amazing hike with donkeys to see some cave paintings.
During that time, I remember we had a radio with us, and we were always listening to BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation], because the presidential election -- was this [James E.] Carter / [Gerald R.] Ford? Was it Carter/Ford?
Q: ’76, yes.
Overholser: No. Well, this wouldn’t have been that, then, because -- yes, ’76. Yes, exactly, ’76, Carter/Ford. We got up in the middle of the night to hear one of the debates, because, you know, the time difference was such that we had to listen at three o’clock or something. This guy who was our guide, this Arab guy who was our guide, just looked at us with astonishment. You know, we got up from the campfire and turned on the BBC so we could listen to this debate.
Q: You mean, he was astonished that you were interested?
Overholser: Yes. Well, that we were getting up in the middle of the night to turn on a radio, yes. I mean, he didn’t even know what we were doing. He didn’t speak English. But anyway, so that was amazing.
And then we ended up, you know, we traveled another six months through Europe. When we were in Paris, Mike visited the American School of Paris. Now, we already had our boat tickets home. This is what we were doing, to do the surface all the way back, right. We had been on the surface of the globe all the way back, and we were going to go all the way back to New York on the Polish ocean liner. We had these really cheap tickets. And Mike landed a job at the American School of Paris.
He came back. I’ll never forget it. I was sitting in our little bus at the Bois de Boulogne campground and writing in my journal. I wrote these amazing long journals. Someday I would like to do something with them. So I was writing in my journal, and he came back and plunked down on the desk, in this perfectly equipped little house, a contract for the American School of Paris. I mean, I really wanted to go home, because I really wanted to get back into journalism.
But then I thought, well, we also had decided -- I had had a little bit of a health scare, a Pap 3 precancerous condition. My mother had died of cancer, and I was just scared to death of it. This Swiss doctor said [imitates accent], “You want to do your family planning.” That’s a funny way to put it, but what he really meant was, “If you want to have children, you need to have them, because I’m not sure that you won’t have to have a cone biopsy and have your cervix weakened.” So he had already told us, if we wanted to have children, we needed to go ahead and have them.
So I thought, oh, well, if we need to have children now -- it was earlier than I had expected to have them, because I wanted to get back into journalism. But then I thought, okay, so that might combine well. Plus, I was fluent in French, and I thought maybe I could do freelancing here in Paris. And so we decided that what I would do, before he accepted the job -- he did understand that I really, really needed to get back into journalism. But, of course, we also thought the idea of living in Paris -- I mean, what’s not to like about it? If I could work.
I went to a couple of places, and I got an assignment for an article with something called the Paris Metro, which was an English-language alternative weekly, to write about African workers in Paris. And I reported that while we were still in Paris, before we were due to go home, and I loved it. I loved doing the reporting and it was a great success, and they said, “We’d love to have you do more work.”
And so Mike took the job, and we couldn’t go back on the Polish ocean liner because the tax laws are set up such that if you spend the time on the boat, it counts as U.S. time, and we had only a certain amount of U.S. time while the taxes could still be favorable for us if we were going to continue living overseas for another couple of years. So we ended up flying home, and everywhere we went -- we went to see our family, who were everywhere from San Francisco to Boston, and everywhere we stopped, I’d go in to the local paper and say, “I’m going to be in Paris.”
It was a good time. The [Boston] Globe had just closed its bureau, and they had reckoned that it cost them $250,000 a year to have a correspondent in Paris, and, you know, I was able to show them a clip from Paris, and, I mean, I told them I spoke French. So I got a lot of good, “Yes, we’d really like you to string for us.” So by the time we got back to Paris, A, I was three months’ pregnant, and, B, I knew I could really work. So that was -- I mean, man, ah, what a great time Paris was, because I really was getting back into journalism, more even than I had thought. I did this freelancing, which didn’t pay, but Mike was -- I mean, it doesn’t pay. Fifty bucks for an op-ed piece in the Globe or something. But it was great clips, because I was in all these papers.
And it was real interesting. I tended to write about -- I knew I couldn’t do what the wires were doing, because they had more resources than I was, so I wasn’t doing spot news or anything. So I decided that the niche I would carve out was to cover issues that were of mutual interest to France and America. So, for example, when Sun Day was coming up in the U.S., I went and wrote about a solar-powered village in the Alps, entirely solar-powered, because really they were ahead of us, in a way, on solar power. Or when then Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joe [Joseph A.] Califano [Jr.] wanted to have a Stop Smoking Campaign, I wrote about, believe it or not, France had an anti-tabac campaign, which obviously didn’t work, if you’ve been to France lately. So I wrote about that. So that was fun, you know. I did a lot of kind of off-the-news, but very much current affairs.
Q: Kind of parallel to what was happening.
Overholser: Yes, exactly. Yes, sort of what’s the French version of something that’s really going on in America, which I think is actually, to this day, I’ve thought we need more of that. We need to see how other people in the world are handling the same issues we’re handling.
So I wrote about urban affairs. I wrote about the metro, which, of course, is a wonderful subway system, and how it works and what the urban planners were doing with various things in Paris. So anyway, that was a great period. Plus, my wonderful little Laura Grace was born. She was born in a French hospital. We had friends, French friends, who had a son who was twenty-one. He was an engineering student, and he had just graduated. The economy was kind of down. He couldn’t find a job. And so he decided that he wanted to do a number of different things, and one of them was that he took care of Laura three mornings a week. He would come get her and put her in this little front pack. I would watch them. They’d go to the café across the street, and he’d get a café crème or something as he stood at the counter, and there’s Laura, and all the people were going, “La petite! Voilà!” It was so cool. And then he would just walk around Paris with her. She adored it, of course, and I could work. It was great. Man, that was a great time. I loved it.
Q: Do you want to take a break?
Overholser: Would you like to?
Q: I think for a moment, yes.
Overholser: Yes, absolutely. I should warn you, being a preacher’s kid, I --