Washington Press Club Foundation
Marjorie Paxson:
Interview #6 (pp. 142-169)
April 6, 1991, in Muskogee, Oklahoma
Diane K. Gentry, Interviewer

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

Go to Session One | Session Two | Session Three | Session Four | Session Five
Index | Cover | Home
Page 142

[Begin Tape 1, Side A]

Gentry: Marj Paxson has had an impressive career in journalism since her graduation from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1944. In the 1940s, she wrote for United Press in Nebraska, then edited radio copy for the Associated Press. She played a leadership role in women's sections of the Houston Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Miami Herald, the St. Petersburg Times, and the Philadelphia Bulletin. From 1963 through 1967, she led Theta Sigma Phi, now Women in Communications, from a journalism sorority to a professional organization. In 1975, she was the editor of the daily newspaper for the UN Women's Year Conference in Mexico City. In 1976, she joined Gannett and soon became their fourth woman publisher. She retired as publisher of the Muskogee (Oklahoma) Phoenix in 1986 but remains a weekly columnist.

Marj, before I get into your varied forty-two year career in journalism, I'd like to take just a few minutes to trace your roots. Where did you grow up?

Paxson: I was born in Houston, Texas, on August 13, 1923. I lived there all my life, went through public school there, attended Rice University for two years and then went off to the University of Missouri. My father was a petroleum geologist. My parents had been in Beaumont and moved to Houston ten days before I was born. I'm a rare bird; I'm a native Houstonian. The population of Houston at that time was about 140,000 and you know how big it is today.

Gentry: Were your parents native Texans?

Paxson: No. They were Pennsylvanians. Both of them were born and grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Daddy went to Penn State and his college years were interrupted by World War I. He came back and finished college and eventually got a job with some small oil company and I don't remember what it was right outside of Beaumont at Spindletop, the big boom oil field there. He and my mother were married at ten o'clock in the morning in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and eleven o'clock they were on the train to Texas and spent the rest of their lives in Texas. My father and mother both became converted Texans and there's nothing worse than a converted Texan, you know. Daddy wore the cowboy boots and the Stetson hats and lived the role to the fullest. They loved it.

Gentry: Is that what you call a "genuwine" Texan?

Paxson: That's what you call a "genuwine" Texan, yes.

Gentry: Did you ever get to go out in the oil field and watch your father work?

Paxson: Yes, if the well was close to us close to Houston, that is. He would sometimes take my brother and me out on weekends. Back in those days, we were in the upper grades of elementary school and the beginning grades of junior high you know, fourth, fifth, sixth grade. There was no problem with us going out to the well, going up to the derrick floor, getting splattered with mud, watching the rough-necks change pipe. They didn't wear hard hats in those days. Nobody had ever heard of OSHA; there were no safety regulations whatsoever.

Page 142

Page 143

Then as I got a little older and got into high school, all of a sudden I couldn't go on the derrick floor any more because I was now growing up to be a young lady and women were not allowed on the derrick floors. It was like the old ship legend that you didn't want a woman on shipboard because she would be bad luck. So my career on the derrick floors came to a screeching halt.

Gentry: That's sad.

Paxson: Yes.

Gentry: As you were growing up, did your parents have any special aspirations for you?

Paxson: Not in the way of a career except that my mother was determined that my brother and I go to college. She was a very smart person, had graduated at almost the head of her class from high school, but back when she was that age, women didn't go to college. In fact, most people didn't go to college unless their families were very wealthy. And so she didn't get to go. That was a great lack, as far as she was concerned. And from the time we were able to understand the words, she was insistent that both my brother and I go to college and get that education. As far as marriage or a career, it was up to us what we wanted to do.

Gentry: So she had never had a career of her own.

Paxson: No. She worked as a secretary until she got married and never worked after that.

Gentry: When did you decide that you wanted to be a journalist?

Paxson: That was one of those very quick things. I made the decision when I was a junior in high school. I took a one-semester class in journalism. We put out the high school newspaper. We would put out one about every six weeks. And I just fell in love with it. That was going to be it. From that course on, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And furthermore, I knew what school I wanted to go to because I was very impressed with the journalism teacher, a Mr. Whitaker, and he had gone to the University of Missouri. And so that's where I was going to go. It was just that simple.

Gentry: He must have been a dynamic teacher to make up your mind in a week or two.

Paxson: Well, he did. Well, you know, it was half a semester. He did and he kind of kept tabs on me. He knew that I was going to the University of Missouri and many, many years later he had left the public schools and was teaching at one of the journalism schools here in Oklahoma. I don't know whether it was OU or OSU. At any rate, he was taking a group of students on a trip down through the Caribbean and they came through Miami. I was working at the Miami Herald at the time. And I picked up the phone one day and there was Mr. Whitaker telling me that he was in town and would like to bring his journalism students to the Miami Herald. So he brought them down and we gave them the royal tour.

Gentry: He must have followed your career all those years.

Paxson: I guess he did.

Gentry: So did you head off right after high school graduation to Missouri?

Paxson: No, I went to Rice it was Rice Institute then, now it's Rice University for the first two years. And then transferred to the University of Missouri. And of course, Rice is a very strong engineering and science school. It also has very good liberal arts courses. So for the first two years, I concentrated on liberal arts. You did have to take some courses, required courses, in biology and chemistry. Everybody who graduated from Rice at that point had to pass Math 101 which was integral and differential calculus.

Page 143

Page 144

And I managed to pass it. But that's all! And when I transferred to Missouri, every single course that I took at Rice was accepted at Missouri.

Gentry: I suspect it was your parents' idea that you should stay in Houston those two years and go to Rice?

Paxson: Well, it was financial as much as anything. My brother is only twenty-two months younger than I and he was going to go off to college, too. And so it saved a lot of money by my going to Rice for those first two years. At that time, the Rice endowment was so good that we paid no tuition.

Gentry: That's wonderful.

Paxson: It was tantamount to a scholarship for the entire year for tuition for each student. The only thing that I had to pay for was blanket fees, lab fees, buy my books. And by living at home and we lived a mile from the Rice campus so it was easy to get to it maybe cost about $200 for the entire year to go to Rice.

Gentry: So when you arrived at the University of Missouri in the fall of 1942, did you find World War II affected the classes there?

Paxson: Of course, World War II at that point had been underway for about six months no, no, eight, I guess. Our involvement started in December. The classes at Missouri were still full of men. And within six weeks, suddenly all the guys were gone. I think the enrollment at J School was cut about in half. We did have the special training programs, ASTP and naval reserve units on campus so there were plenty of boys around, they were just all in uniform. And a few of them, but only a few, were in J School.

Gentry: I know you've told me before how the University of Missouri Journalism School exceeded all your expectations. Can you tell me about some of the great professors you had there?

Paxson: Well, of course, I'm so prejudiced in favor of the University of Missouri. I thought the teachers there were marvelous. One of my favorites was the copy reading professor, Robert Neal. He was the kind who liked to invite the students over to his house and his wife would cook food for us. And there might be eight or ten of us just sitting around talking, having a good time.

And then, of course, the dean while I was there was the very famous journalism educator, Dr. Frank Luther Mott. He was particularly a journalism historian. And we spent the first year there taking his course in the history and principles of journalism. And Dr. Mott, of course being the dean well, he was sort of up above everybody else and we all kind of thought he was sort of a stuffy character.

That year, my junior year it was blamed on the war, I will never understand why but our Christmas vacation started two weeks before Christmas and we had to be back on campus a day or two after Christmas. And we were required to be in class on New Year's Day. The first class that day, the eight o'clock class, was Dr. Mott's History and Principles of Journalism. And of course, everybody had been celebrating the new year the night before and some people hadn't even been to bed but we didn't dare cut that class that day.

So the whole class was there in the big lecture hall in J School and Dr. Mott stood up and proceeded to start his lecture as he always did with something about history. And all of a sudden, a student from the back of the room jumped up, ran down the aisle, fired a couple of shots at Dr. Mott and ran out the door. And another student jumped up and chased the first one. And then a couple of others and there was a great hullabaloo. Then it all died down and Dr. Mott said, "All right. You're all going to be journalists. You now have the rest of the class period to write a description of what happened in this classroom this morning." That was the way we celebrated New Year's Day 1943.

Page 144

Page 145

Gentry: Now, if he'd been really clever, he would have fallen down dead and scared everybody, gone through his whole act.

Paxson: We found out later that he was well-known for this and that he pulled it every year at some point in this course of his. And he had done it at the school he'd been before he came to Missouri.

Gentry: Did Missouri give you any hands-on newspaper experience while you were a student?

Paxson: That's one of the unique things about the university. The newspaper that is put out at the journalism school is a town paper. The students in the news side cover the city council, they cover the courts, they cover sports, the schools, everything that's going on in the town. The advertising majors sell advertising for the the name of the paper is the Columbia Missourian they sell the advertising for it. Then of course, people in copy reading learn to edit the copy and write the headlines. And then there is the little press room down in the basement where the newspaper is put together and printed. So we got very good hands-on experience. It's not just a paper for the university. It's for the entire town.

Gentry: It was all run by students.

Paxson: Yes.

Gentry: Did you do any war stories? Were you doing anything that heavy?

Paxson: No, not really, except that we did get involved, like the time that I had to take a deep breath and call the parents of a serviceman who had been killed and go out to their house and pick up the picture of the young man to bring back so the paper could run the picture.

Gentry: That's an amazing experience for a young student.

Paxson: I didn't like it but it had to be done. All I could think of when I went up to the door was to tell them that I was sorry.

Gentry: That's all that an adult can do, too.

Paxson: I guess so. Yes.

Gentry: By the time you graduated from Missouri in 1944, had you decided exactly what you wanted to do as a journalist?

Paxson: Well, I was full of all sorts of fire and zeal and I was going to be a foreign correspondent. I think everybody was going to be a foreign correspondent. Things didn't quite work out that way. I did manage through my professor, Mr. Neal, to get a job with the United Press in Nebraska. He was a great help in my landing that job. So I was graduated in June, the day after D-Day, and in August I went to work for the United Press in Omaha. That's the way it all began.

Gentry: What was your salary?

Paxson: Oh, my salary was a fabulous $25 a week. And that was equal pay. We were under [American Newspaper] Guild contract, although out in the boonies like in Nebraska, we were not members of the Guild but we were covered by the contract.

Page 145

Page 146

Gentry: As a woman, were you able to break into the wire services right after college because most of the men were at war or do you think as a woman you could have done that in peacetime?

Paxson: I never could have done it in peacetime, a beginner right out of college I couldn't have done it. Up to World War II, all three wire services and there were three at that point, the Associated Press, the United Press and International News Service. They required five years' experience on a metropolitan daily before they would hire anybody. Then the war came along World War II and so many men were drafted that they lowered the standards and they also hired women. They had a few women before the war but not that many. So I never would have had the chance if the war had not come along.

Gentry: What kind of stories did you cover for United Press in Lincoln? Or is there anything you couldn't cover, they wouldn't let you cover because you were a woman?

Paxson: Lincoln, of course, is the state capital. And so the two of us in the bureau there would cover the governor's press conferences, the state legislature, the state supreme court, whatever decisions they handed down. We covered a lot of sports. Nebraska is just about as crazy about basketball as Iowa and the state basketball tournaments were terrific. I covered the state basketball tournaments, learned how to keep the box score and all of that.

There were two things that we could not cover. The first was the University of Nebraska football games and that's because women were not allowed in the press box at the stadium. And the second thing that we didn't cover was executions at the state penitentiary. Now, whether there was a regulation that women couldn't cover them or not, I don't know. But the state bureau chief, who was named Gaylord Godwin, just didn't think that a woman should cover an execution and so he would come down to Lincoln for executions. They were the electric chair and while I was there I think there were two or three.

Gentry: You were probably grateful that he felt that way.

Paxson: I didn't mind it a minute about the executions.

Gentry: Now, your boss was a woman.

Paxson: Yes.

Gentry: And how did you feel about that?

Paxson: Well, that took quite an adjustment because I really didn't think a woman should be a boss, you know. This is way back when. And I just wasn't real sure how we would get along at all. Then I discovered that she was really very good. She taught me a great many things. She got it through my head that just because I had been graduated from the great school of journalism at the University of Missouri I didn't know everything there was to know about the business. And we became very good friends and got along just fine.

Gentry: Great! And it was just the two of you?

Paxson: Yes.

Gentry: For the sake of history, set the scene for me of working and living as a journalist on that meager salary during World War II. How did you get by and do stories with gas rationing and just how did you live?

Paxson: I thought I was doing just fine. My salary was $25. By the time taxes were withheld and I was buying war bonds at $2 a week, I had take-home pay of $19.65. I had a room in an apartment about five or six blocks from the paper.

Page 146

Page 147

The woman that I rented the room from was the librarian at the Nebraska State Journal, which is where our office was. And she had this spare bedroom and so I rented it. I ate with her. I don't remember what I paid but it probably was a couple of dollars a week, something like that. She got my rationing stamps for sugar and coffee and whatever else was rationed.

Nobody had cars so I didn't worry about having a car. I couldn't have afforded it, of course. I did an awful lot of walking. The state capitol was ten or twelve blocks from the paper so I would walk there and back. If I wanted to go to Omaha to visit some friends up there, another gal who got a job with the UP was a classmate of mine we rode the train sixty-five miles.

Our office in the Journal was a room that was maybe eight by ten, something like that. Right next to the library at the paper it was separated from the hallway to the newsroom and from the library by chicken wire so we could sort of hang over the chicken wire, you know. We sometimes referred to it as our little cage. There were two desks, two typewriters and two teletype machines in there. I learned how to use the teletype machine and how to punch the narrow tape that did the steady transmission with three holes on one side, two on the other, and learn how to read that. And that was the way it was.

Gentry: And you virtually covered your stories on foot?

Paxson: Yes.

Gentry: That's fascinating.

Paxson: That we did. You know, there were a few taxis, maybe, if something was way out of town. I was pretty thin in those days.

Gentry: Did you have to sign a waiver to give up your job when the men came home? Was the job considered only a war job, only temporary?

Paxson: Yes, it was considered a temporary job. You've got to remember that back then nobody gave it a second thought and that every woman who went to work, not only for United Press but for a lot of businesses, signed this waiver that she understood she was taking the job of a serviceman and that when he returned from the war, he would get his job back and she would relinquish hers. And that was the deal.

I went to work in '44 and the war was over two years later in '46. And so I knew that sooner or later the UP would probably be letting me go. The bureau manager in Omaha and my local bureau manager, Marguerite Davis, kept telling me that we don't want them to lose you, we want you to stay, and we're doing our very best to see that you are kept on. But at the end of September of '46, I was terminated by the UP. Part of it probably was the waiver, part of it also I think was an attempt to cut expenses, because a very strange thing happened.

I was terminated. By this time I was at the second year grade with the Guild and I was making all of $45 a week. I got a couple of weeks severance pay. The man who replaced me was not the man whose job I took. And this man was a beginner and so he went to work at $25 a week. So this is one of the few occasions, I think, when a woman was replaced by a man at a lower salary.

Gentry: Which made you feel great!

Paxson: Which made me feel great. That's right.

Page 147

Page 148

Gentry: But now, at a time when so many people were losing their journalism jobs, so many women, you landed on your feet immediately. What happened?

Paxson: Luck. Pure well, not pure luck. But I was lucky and I was in the right place at the right time. There was an opening at the bureau of the Associated Press in Omaha for a radio writer. The bureau manager there, of course, had been to Lincoln and I had met him. And he knew that I had learned the state of Nebraska pretty well and thought I had done a fairly decent job with the UP. And when he found out that I was being terminated and they had the opening, he called me and offered me the job.

So I left United Press, had three weeks off which I just considered vacation, and then moved to Omaha and went to work for the AP. And in those three weeks, the AP had signed a new contract with the Guild and I went to work at $55 a week. So in two years time, I had a little bit more than doubled my salary which also made me feel pretty good.

Gentry: Writing for radio is a great deal different than what you were doing before on the wire services. Did you learn some skills on that job that helped you later in the newspaper business?

Paxson: Yes because radio writing had to be rather different. It had to be very simple, very direct. The first thing that the bureau manager told me when I got there was that I should rewrite the news stories and then sit there in the office and read them aloud. And if I couldn't read it easily, I'd better work on it because of course the radio stations just ripped the copy off of the wire machine and proceeded to read it over the air. And it had to be easy to read. And by learning to do that kind of writing, although I didn't know it at the time, it would come in very handy later on when I had to do so many speeches.

Gentry: During the war when you were on the wire services, did you ever get to do any war stories?

Paxson: Well, no, not in the usual sense. In Lincoln I did, for instance, interview a woman who had been in Alaska and had gone on an Alaskan radio station as the answer to Tokyo Rose. But I think the most interesting was when the war ended and the U.S. prisoners of war, the ones who had been held by the Japanese were freed in the Philippines and on other islands. And the military decided that the fastest way to let the families of these men know that they were all right and that they had been freed was to release their names to the wire services which then transmitted these names all over the country and then the newspapers and the wire services called the families with the good news that their sons were safe and alive sometimes not always in good health but at any rate, that was an interesting exercise for whenever they were freed and we could get into that.

Gentry: You could notify them faster than anyone else could.

Paxson: Yes. And there was great competition between the three wire services to get the first call in to the family and to interview them.

Gentry: I'll bet that was exciting, to tell the families their sons were all right.

Paxson: Yes. It really was.

Gentry: You stayed on the AP job from 1946 to 1948. What made you search for a newspaper job in Texas? And at that point, what kind of newspaper jobs were open to women?

Paxson: The AP job was filing the radio wire and the hours my hours ran from 4:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., or from 1:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Some weeks I would work for three days from 4:30 to 1:00 and then have a day or two off, and then work from one to ten and then a short night and come back in at 4:30 in the morning. And after two years, that got to be pretty old, even though I think I adjusted to it pretty well.

Page 148

Page 149

I just couldn't quite see at that point that there was a great deal of future with the AP and I felt like I wanted to go back home to Texas so I wrote to newspapers all over the state and ended up with the offer to be society editor on the Houston Post in my old home town. At that point, opportunities for women on newspapers were pretty much limited to the society section. And that society section included food and fashions, a little bit of home furnishings, not a whole lot, club news and lots of weddings and engagements.

Gentry: Becoming society editor on a big metropolitan daily like the Houston Post was an extraordinary job for what a twenty-five-year-old, I believe you were at the time to land, wasn't it?

Paxson: Yes, I felt pretty good about it.

Gentry: What were your responsibilities there, as society editor?

Paxson: It was the typical society editor job of covering parties, covering the social events that were going on, not only the dances and the cocktail parties but parties for engaged couples and anything special, special visitors came to town, something like that. It was your old-fashioned typical society coverage.

Gentry: I remember you told me that at one time during this coverage you had fourteen evening gowns in your closet. Did the Houston Post cover expenses like that?

Paxson: No, they did not. And I did have fourteen evening gowns because at that point in Houston in the late forties and early fifties, the town was booming, recovering from the war. There was an oil boom on and there were some very colorful characters in the oil business who loved to entertain, loved to have their names in the papers, and were doing very imaginative things in the way of parties and entertainments.

Probably one of the most flamboyant of the people in Houston at the time was an oil man named Glenn McCarthy who struck oil, then went out to Hollywood, made a picture, made a big splash there, and decided that he wanted to build a new hotel in Houston, the first big hotel that had been built since long before World War II. He planned a very elegant opening which was to be dinner, dancing, entertainment all over the hotel lobby, in the private club that he had all throughout the first floor. And he brought in a number of Hollywood celebrities for the event Dorothy Lamour, Sonja Henie, seems to me Bob Hope was even there. Plus of course, there were politicians the governor, senators, just all sorts of leading people from all over the country.

The paper organized that coverage exactly as it would organize any major event that it knew was going to take place in advance. City-side reporters, all the reporters in the society section were involved, all four photographers had to be there that night, and it was a formal occasion. The paper rented tuxes for the photographers and for the men who were out there covering. One would be covering the politicians, one would be covering the movie celebrities. As society editor, I had to write about the prominent Houstonians who were there. It was this kind of very carefully coordinated coverage.

They didn't pay for my clothes and that's where living at home came in handy because my mother was an excellent seamstress and she made a number of the evening dresses that I had to wear to all these parties. She made me a brand-new dress for the opening of the Shamrock Hotel. That's helped with the expenses, believe me, because she made most of them.

Gentry: Did it ever cramp your style as a single, young woman living at home?

Paxson: No, because my parents didn't check up on me that much. I could come and go as I wished. And of course, having the kind of job that I had required being out a lot at night and having my own car now and coming and going as I chose. That was not a problem.

Page 149

Page 150

I suppose the thing you could say that did cramp my style was the fact that my mother was of the old school and she had a schedule for doing housework and on Monday you washed and Tuesday you ironed and so on through the week, and on Friday you changed the beds, you changed the sheets. The trouble was that on Friday at the paper we were putting out the big Sunday section. And you'd go to work about eight o'clock in the morning and maybe if, you were lucky, finish up about ten o'clock that night. If it happened to be a Friday night where there was a big social event, you probably came home quickly, changed clothes, went to the social event, went straight to the office, wrote it up, got it set in type and got it into the Sunday paper. And sometimes I didn't get home until two or three in the morning.

And changing the sheets on Friday morning was just a bit much because I was in a hurry to get to the office. A couple of times I skipped doing it and I heard about it the next day on Saturday. And finally I got it through my mother's head that it really didn't make any difference as far as I could see whether the sheets were changed on Friday or Saturday. Friday was the day I was busy, and I promised her I would change them on Saturday. And so we reached a peaceful settlement, shall we say.

Gentry: They would have been aghast if you had gotten your own apartment when you lived in Houston, wouldn't they?

Paxson: Oh, totally unheard of. Absolutely. My parents were firm believers in unmarried daughters living at home, even though I came and went pretty much as I chose. As a matter of fact, I had two very close friends. We were in the same class in high school and then went to different colleges and came back home. One of them had started her own travel agency and was beginning to build a very successful business. The other was the special events director for one of the big department stores in town. Both of them moved out of their families' homes and got their own apartments. And we saw each other frequently. And I never mentioned their names to my mother, ever, that she didn't say to me, "I wonder what the trouble was, why they don't still live at home." So it was just something I could not do.

Gentry: What kind of salary did you make on the Houston Post, can you remember? It went up a little bit from the AP.

Paxson: It went up from the AP. I think I started there at $75 a week and then it probably was up to $80 or $85 when I left.

Gentry: Did the Houston Post give you editorial freedom? Were you ever allowed to break out of that mold of straight society writing and into features of concern to women? You know, something with a little meat in it?

Paxson: A little meat, very little, yes, yes. Back then, it was the society section. And there were fashion features and clubs and things like that. A few stories of interest to women, maybe a feature on a woman cook or if some local woman became national president of a club group, you'd do that that kind of thing. And most of us on the staff wanted to do more than that. We really felt like there were other things going on. Now, this is before the women's movement and before any of this, the tremendous changes that came about in the sixties and seventies. But we still felt like women were interested in other things besides what the section carried and we tried to get them in. We worked to get something that was sort of of interest to women is what we were driving at.

Back in those days, the Sunday section fronts were devoted to pictures of brides. And you would have three or four brides on there very large pictures. Then the wedding story would be inside. And all the other wedding pictures and stories were inside. We kept trying to get the brides inside and get some features on the outside. And we got it to the point that if we would have one feature a month, a Sunday cover with a feature on it rather than brides. But we always held our breath because if some prominent engagement or wedding

Page 150

Page 151

came along that we didn't know about, that feature got scrapped and we put the engagement picture or the wedding picture on page one. Finally we talked and talked and talked. And the managing editor and I'm sure with the knowledge of the publishers of the Houston Post and that would have been former Texas governor William P. Hobby and his wife, Oveta Culp Hobby. She, of course, was head of the WACs during World War II and then served in President Eisenhower's cabinet. They had the final say on this, I'm sure. But the word came down that hallelujah, we could get the brides off of the Sunday front page.

Having the brides off the front page lasted maybe two weeks when a proud father walked in with his daughter's picture announcing her engagement and he wanted it on page one of the Sunday section. And I told him that we weren't running such pictures on the Sunday section front any more, that we were doing features there. And he went away a little bit unhappy and the next thing I knew, I got a call from Governor Hobby. That didn't happen very often, when the executive suite called me, the lowly society editor. And the governor said that this was a good friend of his and couldn't I please make an exception and run this girl's picture on page one. I don't know where I got the courage to argue with the governor but I did. And I said that we had made this change, that we thought the features were of much more general interest to the readers of the Post and that I just did not want to put that girl's picture on the front of the Sunday section. "Well," he said, "I'll talk to Oveta about it." So I held my breath. And later on that day, Mrs. Hobby called back and she asked me what this was about and I told her. And she said all right. And she backed me up and brides stayed off the front page from then on.

Gentry: That's wonderful.

Paxson: That, I guess, was my first lesson in management, too: That when you delegate authority, you better back your people up.

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

Gentry: Tell me a little bit about newspaper technology of the time. I know you had to go down into the composing room and retype upside-down and backwards, you once told me that. But didn't it make for a lot of problems and mistakes?

Paxson: Yes. In a word. The technology then on newspapers was the same that it had been since before the turn of the century. Newspapers went for about a hundred years without changing their technology. Before the linotype machine, you had to set type by hand. And you had a little type box, each letter in a different little space, and you set it on what they call a stick and you set it by hand, put every little piece of type in, every letter.

Then sometime in, I think it was the 1800s, the linotype machine was invented. This was a very cumbersome machine using melted lead but it would cast type one line at a time. And the line was the width of a newspaper column which could be two inches wide or two and a half inches, whatever the paper was using, and there were a variety of column widths. This type that was then set was taken over to a big, tall table, heavy metal table called a turtle, and there was a metal page form on top of the turtle. And the type would be set into this page form and you would put the headlines in all of this done by hand. And because it was going to be printed, it was upside-down and backwards. And you learned to read it upside-down and backwards.

The next step was to roll a papier-mache impression of this page once it was completed, that you could read. Then that papier-mache page was curved and was put in the stereotyping machine, again with more hot metal,

Page 151

Page 152

and the plate for the press was cast. And that again was upside-down and backwards. Then it went on the press and the press printed the paper and you could read it.

But reading upside-down and backwards could sometimes make for problems, particularly if you were in a hurry. I recall one time I was reading corrections on a cocktail party. And this was a major cocktail party in town and lots of prominent people there and lots of names in it. And the word cocktail got separated and cock, hyphen and the last four letters got dropped off of the next line and I didn't catch it when I was reading upside-down and backwards. So that we had the story about this big cock party in town. I heard about that and got a little lecture about how I had to read more carefully, even if it was upside-down and backwards.

Gentry: That's a great story.

You were on the Houston Post from 1948 to 1952. In those years, did you ever print anything about male-female relationships, marital problems, or sex in the women's section?

Paxson: Not per se and certainly not very explicitly not explicitly at all. The subjects were skirted. However, we did have a column that dealt with it. It was a very popular column. It was written by a man called Dr. Crane Dr. G. W. Crane. He was a psychologist, I guess. And he was convinced that every problem in a marriage began in the bedroom and he wrote about this frequently, in general terms and always skirting the explicits but anyway, he did. It was a very popular column. The managing editor told me one time that he was glad that we had the society section by that time it might have been called the women's section because they could not get away with running that column in any other section of the paper but they could get it into our pages and didn't get any complaints about it. So that's the way we wrote about it back in those days.

Gentry: That's funny. Now, in 1952, you left the Houston Post and went across town to the Houston Chronicle. Why was that? Did you have a position there that had more responsibility?

Paxson: The Chronicle offered me the job and more money is why it was. It's real simple. I had become women's editor on the Post and it was the same job at the Chronicle so the responsibilities were about the same. The Chronicle was the larger of the two papers and it just seemed to me to be a better opportunity, so I moved.

Gentry: Didn't Ann Landers create her column when you were women's editor there?

Paxson: Yes. The syndicate salesman came to see me as women's editor and talked to me about the column. And I read the samples that he had and I thought it was very good. And the Chronicle didn't have Dr. Crane so I thought this might be a good addition to our section. So I went down to talk to the managing editor and to try to persuade him to spend the money to buy the column. And he asked me what the column was about and of course I had the samples but he really didn't want to read them, he wanted to make sure I had read them and so I said that I thought it was very good.

And I said that for instance, one of them answers a question from a teenager, should you kiss on the first date? And the Chronicle managing editor was a rather conservative man and he frowned a little bit, and he said, "Well, I'm not sure we should be giving people that kind of advice." But he thought about it again and we took Ann Landers and the Chronicle was one of the first papers to sign her up. And she's still there.

Gentry: In the 1950s, by this time women had been in the newspaper business quite a long time. Had they been in there long enough to be trusted to make editorial decisions? And could they ever say a woman's editor ever hire and fire?

Paxson: Oh, they trusted us with editorial decisions. I decided where stories would get played in the section and approved the headlines, read the copy, did all that. Hiring and firing was another matter.

Page 152

Page 153

That's sort of involved with the level of management that you're in; I don't think that it made any difference, man or woman. I did not have the authority to hire and fire. I would interview the prospect and then the managing editor would do the final interview and make the decision. I'm not even sure at that point whether the city editor had it. So hiring and firing was another situation; it had nothing to do with women being trusted or their judgment, anything like that.

Gentry: But there were very few women around as managing editors, were there?

Paxson: Very few, at that point, yes.

Gentry: When you were at the Chronicle, wasn't the Miami Herald doing some revolutionary things with their women's pages? Can you tell me about that?

Paxson: The Miami Herald was the leading first probably real big paper in the country to begin to make changes in their women's pages. They still ran weddings and engagements and club news but they began to try to get more into the substance of what was happening the country and to try to write more stories that related to women's lives. By this time, of course, a lot of women were beginning to go back to work. And the baby boom was on. And they were trying to juggle working and taking care of babies and taking care of the house and all of the rest of it and the problems that came along with it.

We got the exchanges and we could see what the Herald was doing, which was so much further ahead of what we were doing in Houston and most papers over the country, as a matter of fact that we began to steal their ideas and tried to do some of the stories that they were doing. And we got some of them in. We still were very cautious and didn't get too far off.

Gentry: That comes from your famous statement, "plagiarize and localize"?

Paxson: Plagiarize and localize, that's right. Steal somebody else's idea and work it around to make it your own.

Gentry: But you really couldn't do too much.

Paxson: A little bit but we didn't have the resources or the staff that was good enough to do what the Herald was doing, no.

Gentry: But after four years at the Chronicle, you started looking around for another job. Why was that?

Paxson: I began to realize that I was getting too comfortable at home. I was now women's editor of the Houston Chronicle, fairly well-known in town, but I was still Roley Paxson's daughter. I still had the struggle of making what then was a very good salary I think I was up to $110 a week but they wouldn't hear of my paying rent or my paying board or of my moving out. And I finally simply reached the conclusion that if you're going to stand on your own two feet, you've got to get out. And there's only one way to move away from home and that's to move out of town.

So I started writing all over the country to the large newspapers and of course, by this time I had a little bit of a track record and I got a response from Dorothy Jurney on the Miami Herald. She wanted to interview me so we worked it out that I came by Miami on a weekend and took all their tests, interviewed with her and the managing editor and everything, and ended up with the job as a copy reader and layout person on their copy desk in the women's section.

Page 153

Page 154

Gentry: It must have been fascinating to finally get on the staff you idolized. What was it like, in comparison, to work with a creative person like Dorothy Jurney who was making all these changes in the women's section?

Paxson: Well, once I got used to it, I just loved it. I had an awful lot to learn. The Herald wrote much better headlines than we did at the Chronicle, for instance. And Dorothy was a stickler for good headlines and possibly headlines with a little bit of a play on words in them. The stories that they wrote there were longer.

Gentry: But the subject matter was so different.

Paxson: Well, yes, a little bit. This all moved so gradually. It was not a sudden transition. I was familiar with what they were doing. We were trying to do a little bit of it. And it was just getting my feet wet and learning how they did it and getting into it.

Gentry: I assume you learned a lot from Dorothy Jurney.

Paxson: I certainly did. She was one of the best teachers that I have ever had.

Gentry: Now, these women staff members at the Miami Herald, the forerunners in the country of these new women's pages, were they paid the same kind of salaries as men in similar positions in the paper?

Paxson: No, I don't think they were. I think women were still lower paid, even the women on city side. And there were some very good women reporters on the city side. But I don't think women got equal pay. I don't think the women's editor got the same pay as the sports editor.

Gentry: You stayed at the Miami Herald from 1956 to '68. And of course, the sixties were some of the most turbulent years in the country. You had the sexual revolution, hippies, the pill, kids living together. Were you able to address these issues in the women's section?

Paxson: Oh, yes. We tried to deal with as many of them as we could. One of the best ways we dealt with it was a locally written feature called the "Column with a Heart." It was an advice column up to a point but the woman who wrote it was a very imaginative person and oh, she would do things like develop a special diet. I remember one of them was called the Tubby Hubby Diet. And she would find some man who was willing to go on this diet and she would interview him when he began, she would have nutritionists work out the diet, she would take pictures of him over probably a six-week period as he was losing this weight, she would interview him when it was done, and then the nutritionist would put together a little leaflet and we would give our readers, if they wanted it, the Tubby Hubby Diet for two weeks.

Eleanor got into not only the diets, that's the most obvious one, but she did a lot of other features with psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health people, on the problems that people were facing then. Stress wasn't the great word then but she dealt a lot of with that marriage relationships, all of these

Gentry: She would deal with sexual freedom, the pill, this kind of thing?

Paxson: Yes. And of course, we covered the pill. And we had a great deal of space at the Miami Herald so that if outside articles were written that we thought would be good for the paper, we would run them. We ran, for instance, parts of Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique. We ran the complete text of the first and second reports of the Presidential Commissions on the Status of Women. President Kennedy appointed the first commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, and then President Nixon appointed the commission which was chaired by Virginia Allen. And then President Nixon appointed another commission which was chaired by Jill Ruckelshaus. The last one was so large and I wasn't at the Herald any more but they probably ran excerpts from it. But we tried to find the best writing that we could and if our people couldn't deal with it

Page 154

Page 155

and we couldn't find the experts, why run an excerpt from a book or reprint a magazine article that really dealt with it?

Gentry: Everybody I talked to, including Dorothy Jurney, says you have a great talent for management and working with people, which perhaps developed in Miami. When was it during your career that you realized you really enjoyed working with people, assigning stories to reporters, being more of a boss than a writer, so to speak?

Paxson: I'm not sure I can pinpoint exactly when that happened. I got into it, of course, a little bit at the Houston Post when I became women's editor. There was more of it on the Houston Chronicle but I was still doing a lot of writing. At the Herald, I was doing headline writing, editing and page makeup would occasionally write a feature but that was very rare. And then, of course, when Dorothy Jurney left the Herald to be transferred to Detroit and Marie Anderson took over as women's editor, I became assistant women's editor and worked very closely with Marie on the assignments. It just sort of evolved gradually, I think.

Gentry: Was that a natural ability you had or was that something you kind of learned on the job, directing people?

Paxson: Oh, I guess it's a combination of both.

Gentry: By about 1960, women's sections on newspapers were beginning to change all over the country. And I know you and Edie Greene courageously put on a program for a state meeting, a Florida meeting of managing editors males telling them some of your pet peeves and what you thought women's sections should be. What are some of the points you made in that presentation?

Paxson: Edie and I had a good time with that. We're both extroverts and we just thought this was great to get up there on this program and tell the bosses what we thought. We told them I won't go into all of it but we told them that women's pages should be a reflection of all of the interests of the women in the community, from career women to homemakers to mothers. We made a great point of saying that we were sick and tired of reading stories about women that said even though she's accomplished this thing, she still finds time to be a wife and mother. A current example I can think of is if a story was written about Sandra Day O'Connor and the story read that Sandra Day O'Connor had a brilliant law career and has become the first woman justice on the United States Supreme Court but she hasn't lost her femininity. And then we turned it around and Edie, picking out her managing editor, said, "Would you ever write a story that said Milt Kelly" who was the managing editor of the Ft. Lauderdale News "is a fine fly-cast fisherman and has won many tournaments, still hasn't lost his masculinity?" You know, when you turn it around, we were trying to make the points with the boys and I think we may have gotten a few of them.

We told them that they had a responsibility, that they had to prod their women's editors to get more than patterns, PTAs, and parties into the women's pages. We told them to stop tagging the copy as SOC and call it Women's. We told them that women's editors might be timid on occasion, not like us, that they should be encouraged to cover medical, educational, economic, sociological and community problem-type stories. Now, that's pretty broad.

We also said that the women's editors needed to be reminded to read the paper, to read every bit of the paper the sports section, the obituaries, the business pages, everything and to look at every story on every page with an eye to the woman's angle. And that may have been the first time that I used my famous "plagiarize and localize." But we tried to give them the word. Whether they followed on our suggestions, I don't know, but we had a good time doing it, I know.

Page 155

Page 156

Gentry: Could you tell how they received you and whether they went home and implemented any of these changes?

Paxson: Well, they laughed at all the right places. And her managing editor and my managing editor both said that we had done a good job. Of course, both of our papers were pretty progressive so what the rest of them did, I don't know.

Gentry: Do you think that even today, some thirty years later, newspapers could regress and have women's sections full of fluff if women's editors are not watchful or if women on the paper are not watchful?

Paxson: I think they could. It's still a male-oriented business. And if you look at the coverage, everything that goes on the sports, the business it's the male participants who get the major coverage. A woman in business is still regarded as somewhat of an oddity. And I think that women editors have to be very alert to keep pushing for this. I'm very much afraid that if they think the battle is won, that's when they're going to lose it.

Gentry: Now, in the midst of your years at the Miami Herald, 1963 to 1967, you became president of Theta Sigma Phi. Now it's Women in Communications. And you started making some big changes in that organization. Can you tell me about that?

Paxson: I had been a member of Theta Sigma Phi from the time I was at the University of Missouri and had helped to organize a chapter, and what we called an alumni chapter, then in Houston and then moved to Miami. And there was a very active alumni chapter there, so I took part in that. Some of my friends in Houston thought that it would just be great if I got involved in the organization on the national level. And so they persuaded me to run for the job of first vice president which was the vice president in charge of the alumni chapters. About the same time, the word "alumni" was changed to "professional" chapters, which it still is.

And I ran and didn't have any opposition, so I was the new first vice president. And getting into it, it sort of became obvious to me that the national approach was still very much that of a social sorority after all, the name sounded like a Greek fraternity or sorority. It was more like a social organization. And it seemed to me that if we were going to call these alumni chapters, professional chapters now that we should begin to make the organization more professional and put more emphasis on that.

In addition, of course, we were beginning to see more and more of the women who had been in journalism school, and had married and dropped out of the work force to have children and to begin to rear those children, who were now wanting to get back into the work force. And they needed reinforcement and encouragement and a network of finding where and how they might get back into the job market.

So I started pushing for that and ended up being elected national president in 1963. That's a two-year term, and then I was re-elected for another two years. And those years were fascinating, wild, hectic anything you want to call it. The president, of course, was expected to visit many chapters but I had a full-time job at the Miami Herald. So I could make visits on weekends and maybe on Monday take a day of vacation. In the four years that I was national president, according to the expense receipts which I saved and did this calculation when I went out of office in those four years, I visited forty chapters, I wrote four thousand letters, and made many, many more speeches than the forty because I was making speeches to other places.

I finally figured out probably the second year that I was national president I got it down to a schedule, because we were beginning to really change things by then and we had established a national office and had reworked the national magazine. And I got it figured out. I would get up at six o'clock in the morning, go into the kitchen, turn on the oven and set the oven timer for twenty minutes and plug in the coffee pot. Then I would sit down at the typewriter until the oven timer went off.

Page 156

Page 157

At that point, the coffee was done, I would pour my first cup of coffee and I would drag a TV dinner out of the freezer. And this was before we had TV breakfasts, these were just TV dinners. You know, chicken and peas and ham and sweet potatoes that was one of my favorites, by the way. I always thought, well, you eat ham at breakfast anyway. The TV dinner would go in the oven, I would go back into the second bedroom of my apartment which I used as an office, write more letters, and reset the kitchen timer for 6:50. When the kitchen timer went off at 6:50, I'd take the TV dinner out of the oven and while it cooled, I would sign letters and fold them and put them in envelopes. Then I would pour my second cup of coffee, have breakfast, sit down, read the paper and then shortly after eight o'clock take off for work.

Gentry: That's amazing!

Paxson: Well, it worked. I got them done.

Gentry: Well, during the years of your Theta Sig presidency, did the organization become more professional? Did they start having the professional seminars that they have now?

Paxson: We started that the year that I was elected president. And this is an example of the thinking of some of the members at that time. The convention was in Cleveland and as first vice president in charge of professional chapters, I wanted to have a seminar for women's editors on how they could do a better job, story ideas, managing your staff, the whole bit just a one-day seminar. The chairman in Cleveland could see no point in this at all. In fact, they were very much opposed to it. So opposed that we had to make all the arrangements for the room in the hotel you know, coffee in the coffee break, everything like that. I had to make them long distance myself because they simply would not do it.

But that was the beginning. We've had a great many now, since then, and these years the national convention is nothing but professional meetings. And there's a small business meeting for a couple of hours one day and that's it. The rest of it is all professional.

Gentry: In the sixties, as you traveled around to all these chapters and met professional women journalists around the country, did you see any evidence of women obtaining leadership positions such as editors, publishers in newspapers? Or were the bosses still white male?

Paxson: No, the bosses were still white male. I think the women's editors and some of the other women were moving up a little bit but this was still well before the great thrust of the women's movement and there were not that many changes.

Gentry: At the Miami Herald, where you and Dorothy Jurney and Marie Anderson and others were changing women's sections, did you get much opposition from male editors above you? And were there any taboo things you absolutely couldn't write about?

Paxson: Well, we didn't get any opposition because really it was from those male editors that Edie Greene and I took our advice that the managing editors had to support their women's editors and prod them to do better. The editors at the Miami Herald were all for everything that we were doing and they liked it. I think when the women's movement itself came along, the managing editor may have thought we covered it a little bit too heavily but that was about it. And there weren't taboos, no, there weren't that many of those. We still were not to the point where you wrote explicitly about sex but that was just the way it was then. You didn't talk about it that much. You talked around the subject.

Gentry: Well, after twelve years of working at the Miami Herald with all these great people and making all these changes, why did you decide to move to the St. Petersburg Times?

Page 157

Page 158

Paxson: Well, once again, it was a good job offer. The St. Petersburg Times, I didn't know it but they were looking for a women's editor and the managing editor there asked a friend of mine to call me and see if I was interested. That was a little bit tricky because both papers were in Florida and they had agreed they wouldn't raid each other's staffs. So the deal was that Arlene would call me and if I was interested, then I would pick up the phone and call the managing editor in St. Pete. So theoretically, I made the first move. I knew that the St. Petersburg Times was an excellent paper, a very progressive paper, and they offered me $4,000 a year more so I ended up taking it. And in early '69 moved to St. Pete.

Gentry: By the late 1960s and the early seventies, the women's movement began to deal some cruel blows to women's editors. Can you explain that? Not too many people know about that.

Paxson: That's one I can argue two ways. The leaders of the women's movement and a lot of women in the movement were opposed to the division of news on the basis of sex. They didn't like to see a women's section. They wanted it to be a feature section or something like that. And they felt that what they were trying to accomplish was just as important as a lot of other subjects that were covered on the main news side of the paper and so they should be in the main news section, too. And there's a lot of logic to that. The trouble is that the newspapers were run by men who really didn't quite know what to do with this women's movement anyway. It had been covered and was getting in a lot of papers very good coverage in the women's sections.

And the upshot of all this was that basically the male editors said, "Okay. If you want to be in the main news section, you can." And they took the story away from women's sections. At which point where it might have gotten a twenty-one inch, a full-column story in the women's section, it maybe got five or six inches on the news side.

At the same point, the editors said, "Well, now, there may be a point maybe we shouldn't segregate news by sex, so let's change this section around and we'll call it oh, we'll call it the Focus section or a Family section or a Style section or something else, give it a whole new look, a new name. And at that point, then, we've got to find a new editor for it. And that's when the women's editors got moved out.

What happened, of course, is that the women editors were replaced by male editors because for some reason no woman could edit one of these new sections. They were given the lateral two-step or just turned back to feature writers and in some cases were fired.

Gentry: Well, being an advocate for women all your life, how did you feel about this?

Paxson: I wasn't very happy about it. And then, of course, it hit me not once but twice. But go ahead.

Gentry: Well, how did the St. Petersburg Times, where you were working at this point, deal with the feminist complaints and where did that leave you?

Paxson: The St. Petersburg Times decided to change its women's section into a general feature section with a great deal of emphasis on entertainment and entertainment personalities. This was copied on the Washington Post Style section. They still kept food and fashions and home furnishings but the whole emphasis was changed. And I ended up as the number three person, which really didn't make me very happy, to be working under a man. I could have done the same thing he did.

Gentry: I'm sure you could have. And then to make it worse, didn't you win the prestigious Penney-Missouri award for excellence in women's pages after they had abolished the women's pages?

Paxson: That's right. The Penney-Missouri Competition picks out certain dates that you enter your sections, for those for one week. And that week was back in July. The change in the section was made the day after Labor Day

Page 158

Page 159

that is, the Tuesday after Labor Day. And the announcement of the awards for the Penney-Missouri Competition is always made right before Christmas. Usually the day before the Christmas the managing editor will get a telephone call from somebody at Missouri telling him that you won. So the day before Christmas, my managing editor called me to say, "Congratulations, you're a winner in the Penney-Missouri Competition." And of course, the women's section at that point had been gone for five months.

At any rate, I did go to Missouri in March to pick up the prize and the check. And by that time, I really had decided that things were not going to be very good at the St. Petersburg Times for me. I didn't get a cut in salary but certainly my responsibilities in the job that I had had been diminished and I thought that "This isn't going to last too much longer." So I started looking around for another job. Somehow, St. Petersburg found out about it and six weeks after I won the Penney-Missouri award, I was fired, with two weeks' severance pay.

Gentry: Was it hard to find another job when newspapers were dropping the women's sections where you had all this experience?

Paxson: Yes. It took me about I had been looking for probably a month and a half before being fired and it took another two months before I finally was able to get a job as women's editor on the Philadelphia Bulletin.

Gentry: You felt good about that, didn't you? A big city paper and

Paxson: Well, yes, I thought at that point that I really had it made. The Bulletin, of course, was one of the most famous papers in the country at the time. And it was a major metropolitan daily and I thought, "Well, you've reached the pinnacle of your career now, this is it." And then I found out that things are not always what they seem. The editor at the Bulletin the features editor, he was an assistant managing editor, my boss was an extremely difficult man to work for. I think basically he just didn't like women. And he second-guessed everything that I did. He made a point of demanding that the reporters give him a copy of their stories at the same time they turned them into me. And then he would try to get them edited before I did and send me always in memo form on half-sheets of paper a memo criticizing their grammar, saying "Why are we allowing this to go through?" Just one criticism after another before I had ever had a chance to look at the story and see it.

Gentry: You never had a chance to edit it. He just criticized it before you saw it.

Paxson: No. He criticized them before I edited them.

Gentry: How did you deal with such a difficult boss after having so many good ones?

Paxson: Well, it wasn't easy. I guess I just sort of learned to roll with the punches. And, of course, it had taken me a while to find this job and I was now close to being fifty and you're getting into that middle-management range where age begins to work against you. So you just sort of grit your teeth and tough it out which is what I was doing at the Philadelphia Bulletin.

Gentry: Then in 1973, didn't they abolish the women's section in the Philadelphia Bulletin?

Paxson: They did exactly the same thing on the same day: the Tuesday after Labor Day. And of course I was totally incompetent to edit the Focus section, which is what the Philadelphia Bulletin called it. And so I was given the lateral two-step and sent back to the Sunday magazine as associate editor. And the editor back there didn't know what to do with me. So for the next fourteen months, I read page proof. And he never once allowed me to read a manuscript that was submitted to his magazine.

Page 159

Page 160

Gentry: Who did that?

Paxson: He had a part-timer who came in for three days a week who did it.

Gentry: And he trusted her on it.

Paxson: He trusted her, yes.

[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]

Gentry: Did the situation ever improve for you? Did you get off that Sunday magazine?

Paxson: After fourteen months, I finally did. We had a new executive editor who reorganized the paper and established two very bright young men as what they called metro editor and deputy metro editor. And they reached back into the magazine section and pulled me out and made me assistant metro editor in charge of the beat reporters. Now, these were the education writer, the medical writer, the transportation writer, the people in our state capital bureau in Harrisburg there were fourteen of them in all. And that just gave me a complete new lease on life.

It took quite a while for me to get over it, really. Those were the darkest days of my life and destroyed a great deal of my self-confidence. And when I first got out there on the metro desk, I would be over to the metro editor, whose name was Jim Tunnell, showing him every story, asking him questions about all this. One Saturday he slapped down his pencil and he said, "Marj, you've got to stop this. You're acting like somebody who's been burned. I trust you. Just go ahead and do it." So I finally got over it, yes. Slowly, but I got over it.

Gentry: And you had another very great chance to regain your self-confidence because during that time when you were working with Jim Tunnell, you had an opportunity to be named the editor of the eight-page tabloid newspaper published in Mexico City during the UN World Conference for International Women's Year in 1975. Tell me how that came about.

Paxson: That was more luck. The UN Conference on International Women's Year was set in Mexico City and the group of organizations called the non-governmental organizations were planning to take part in it by sponsoring their own parallel conference on women's issues. It had become traditional that the NGOs would publish a daily newspaper during the conference. And so the NGOs in New York City set out to find a woman in the United States who could edit this newspaper. And they had a couple of volunteers in the office and they put them to work calling around the country and "Let's find somebody."

One of those volunteers was from Philadelphia and she had gone to Temple University. She had not studied journalism but she had taken one course in journalism. She liked the professor and so she called that professor at Temple University in their journalism department and asked him if he had any ideas of who might be a good person to edit this newspaper. And he suggested me, on the Philadelphia Bulletin.

So she called me, out of the blue. We talked about it one day and I called friends and discussed it and decided yes, I would try to do it. I went into the newspaper the next day to ask for a leave of absence. And both the metro editor and his deputy were just beside themselves with excitement. "Oh, you've got to do it, Marj, you've got to do it." They were the neatest young men in the world.

And so I agreed and in June in '75, I went to Mexico City to edit the paper. It was a bilingual newspaper, half-Spanish and half-English, and I don't speak Spanish. But we hired a translator,

Page 160

Page 161

we hired three Spanish-writing reporters, three English-writing reporters and a photographer. And that was our staff. And we put out the paper. It was not easy but we did it.

Gentry: Did you have an adequate staff and adequate facilities to work in?

Paxson: Well, for an eight-page paper we had an adequate staff, I think, and they were very hard-working people. We tried to cover the main events and issues at the official world conference where there were delegates from 103 countries, I believe it was. And also the meetings that went on at what we called the parallel conference which was called the Tribune. And then we invited people to send us statements like letters to the editor. And the photographer worked very hard. I think the staff was adequate.

The facilities left a little something to be desired because they were in the pressroom of the Tribune which was held in a big conference center at a medical school, about three miles away from the Mexican state department where the official conference was held. And the Mexican government saw no point they thought the newspaper was being emphasized much too much and they saw no point in providing us any special facilities. So we didn't have a separate phone line; we had to use the phone lines that all the reporters were using. We didn't have a special little office; we had to share typewriters with the reporters who were covering it. And these were reporters from all over the world, you know. It made things very difficult.

It's probably the hardest work that I ever did in my life because we'd start about ten o'clock in the morning and finish up the following morning at two. I followed the paper the whole way through from making the assignments in the morning to editing the copy to writing cut lines, writing the headlines, then stop for dinner and then go down to the newspaper, the English-language newspaper in Mexico City which was printing it for us, and reading type upside-down and backwards again and checking for corrections, and finally it would go to press. As I say, it could sometimes be as late as two o'clock.

Gentry: It must have been incredibly difficult when you didn't have your own phone line or your own typewriters even.

Paxson: Yes. We just hassled away and managed to get it done.

Gentry: You managed to get it out on time?

Paxson: We got it out on time every day. Yes. Yes. That's why I say it's the hardest work I ever did.

Gentry: It was like being a publisher, wasn't it, rather than an editor, what you did? You had circulation problems, you had all kinds of problems to deal with.

Paxson: Yes, you're right, because the Mexican government had agreed to deliver the printed copies of the paper to the official conference, to the Tribune, and to some of the major hotels around Mexico City where most of the delegates were staying. But they didn't always do it. One day the van that was supposed to deliver all the papers was off with a television crew. And so our papers, which had been printed since four o'clock in the morning, were still sitting on the dock at the newspaper when we caught up with it about nine o'clock in the morning. And that day one of the reporters hired a cab and piled some of the papers into the trunk of the cab, took them out to the official conference site and then came back and got some more and took them to the Tribune. We fought stuff like that all the time. It was not easy.

Gentry: But you were very proud of the results, weren't you?

Paxson: Very proud, yes. I think that's probably the most important thing I've ever done.

Page 161

Page 162

Gentry: Now, when you came home, back to the Bulletin, how did you find they had covered the conference? And did they give you any notoriety in the paper for this job that you'd been performing for a month?

Paxson: Well, don't be funny. No. They covered the confrontations, the arguments. They were covered in the Bulletin. There was certainly nothing of substance. As far as giving me any notoriety, they never announced that their assistant metro editor was going to Mexico City to run the paper.

Gentry: They never announced it?

Paxson: They never announced it, no. Friends around town had no idea that I had gone down there and done it. I came back and checked the back issues of the Bulletin and the other paper, the Inquirer. I looked at some of the exchanges to see what the papers had done. And mostly they had simply covered the confrontations and the shouting matches and the arguments and had not covered very much of any substance and really hadn't explained what the whole thing was about.

So I sat down and wrote a four-part series on the conference from my perspective as editor of this little paper. And when I finished the series, the Bulletin refused to run it. They said they had run enough on the International Women's Year conference. I sent the series to about oh, probably twenty women's editors that I knew over the country and sold it to four newspapers, so I was very pleased with that. At least it got in some papers.

Gentry: But by this time certainly you were very displeased with the Bulletin. And wasn't it about the time that you started a job search?

Paxson: The way I was treated after this International Women's Year conference, after Mexico City, convinced me that it didn't matter what, I had to get out of the Bulletin. The paper by this time was the second paper in town, it was losing money, there were people around town who gave it ten years and that's all. And I decided, it really doesn't matter, you have got to get out.

And then I was faced with the prospect of job-hunting, again of being in sort of middle-management where jobs are much harder to get, of getting a pretty good salary it was up to $22,000 by that time of possibly being over-priced for a lot of newspapers, you know. So I decided

Gentry: How old were you at this point? Mid-fifties?

Paxson: Well, this was '70. Yes.

Gentry: That was another problem.

Paxson: No. No, no, no. This was '75. I was fifty-two at this point. I went to the Bulletin in '70 and left there in the spring of '76, so I was fifty-two.

And I wrote Al Neuharth who at that point was the president of Gannett Newspaper Company. Al and I had known each other way back on the Miami Herald. In fact, we started just about the same time. He was there on the city side when I went to work for the women's section. And Al had moved up very rapidly. One time in Miami, he had given me very good advice when I got a job offer out of the blue and had just been promoted and really wasn't sure whether I should even go for a job interview. And Al said, "You've got to remember one thing: Nobody's going to look out for Marj Paxson, really look out for Marj Paxson, but Marj Paxson."

Page 162

Page 163

So I wrote him twenty years, whatever it was, later, and I told him I wanted to ask him a question. And that was simply that would it be possible for a woman my age to get a job on a newspaper now or should I look at getting into public relations or something else? And the letter came back to me and I've still got it. Scribbled across the bottom was "Call me collect as this number." So I called Al collect at that number. And when he got on the phone, he said, "That's the silliest damn question I ever heard. We want to talk to you."

So we worked out that I would do a job interview with the Gannett company. Their headquarters were in Rochester, New York, and that was the way things worked out, that eventually I got with the Gannett company.

Gentry: Now, Gannett is one of those firms that has a reputation for treating women fairly, as far as salary and advancing them, didn't it?

Paxson: Yes. And Al Neuharth was the leader in that. So I knew if I could get on somewhere with Gannett and at this point they owned forty-five or fifty newspapers so there might be some opportunities there that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Gentry: What kind of job did you envision with Gannett?

Paxson: Well, I thought that certainly after the experience that I had had in Mexico City and on the metro desk, I thought I could be the managing editor on a smaller paper or I could write. I thought I could be editor of an editorial page, write the editorials. And particularly after Mexico City, I thought I probably could be a publisher somewhere along the line.

Gentry: So you interviewed with them?

Paxson: I interviewed with them. And they came back to me and said, "We're interested in you. We will keep our eyes open and we will be in touch." That sounded pretty promising. And they stayed in touch with me about every month. They would just say, "Hey, we're still looking. Just don't give up."

In the meantime, Dorothy Jurney came back into the picture. By this time she was retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer. She had been transferred from Detroit to Philadelphia. And she was working in Washington, D.C., on writing the final report of President Ford's Commission on the Status of Women. And they needed somebody to help with editing, to write captions, to work on page layout with government printing people. She knew my situation, so she suggested me for a three months' job with the Status of Women's commission to help get this report out.

So I quit the Bulletin in March and spent the next three months in Washington, D.C., working on this report. And at some point in June, Gannett called and said, "We want you to go to Boise, Idaho, as assistant managing editor in August." So that's the way everything worked out.

Gentry: That Status of Women report was very lucrative for three months, wasn't it?

Paxson: Oh, yes. You know, from the bottom to the top, really. I don't know what grade government employee I was but I got $13,000 for those three months' work. So I was pretty high on the well, I'm forgetting the word now. One of the civil service ratings. It really came in very handy. I rented a little one-room apartment in Washington it didn't cost that much and spent the weekends at home in Philadelphia because it was only about a three-hour drive from Philadelphia to Washington.

Then when I got out to Boise, I began to look for a house. I owned the house in Philadelphia or I mean, was paying the mortgage, you know and I wanted to buy a house in Boise.

Page 163

Page 164

I found one and there was enough of that $13,000 left over that I could make the down payment on that house. So then I became an absentee landlord because I thought I would retire back in Philadelphia and owned my house in Boise. Everything just worked out fine. And suddenly I was with Gannett.

Gentry: Was that job satisfactory, in Boise?

Paxson: Yes, it was a great learning experience. That's a very nice place to be. I'd never been out West and I thoroughly enjoyed driving around, seeing the country. The job itself was great because I was helping to make up page one, one day a week, and I was doing scheduling. And for the first time in my life, I was dealing with the budget of the newsroom because up to then, women's editors just didn't deal with budgets in any way, shape or form. I had a very good time out there and I liked it.

Gentry: You were having a lot of responsibility at Boise. Then when did you become one of Gannett's first women publishers?

Paxson: I became their fourth woman publisher in February of 1978. On Thursday, the publisher of the paper in Boise walked into my office and he said, "They want you to come to Rochester." That always means something is in the works when you go to company headquarters at Rochester. And he said, "They want you to fly in Sunday and they want you to pack winter clothes and be prepared to stay a week."

His secretary made all the travel arrangements. I flew in on Sunday. Monday I was told they wanted to meet me to be the publisher in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, at a seventeen thousand circulation newspaper called Public Opinion. And they would fly me there that evening in a company jet to the Hagerstown airport which is about fifteen, twenty miles south of Chambersburg because Chambersburg didn't have an airport where I would meet the department heads.

We got there, there was a reception arranged by the old publisher. I got introduced to everybody. Al Neuharth, the president of the company, was there. The regional president, Tom Dolan, was there. They stayed about half an hour and then Tom Dolan and Al Neuharth and the previous publisher walked out to the company jet and got on that plane to take the old publisher to his new assignment. And the last thing the old publisher did was hand me the keys to his Mercury Marquis which was one of the perks of being a publisher, you got your own car. And they left and there I stood, facing a roomful of strangers as the new publisher.

Gentry: How did you establish yourself? Here you were a woman, a brand-new publisher, on a day's notice?

Paxson: Well, I just took a deep breath. First of all, I had to get acquainted with everybody on the paper the department heads, I just had to ask them question after question. They had to explain everything to me so that I understood what was going on. I had to learn the budget for the paper. Meanwhile I was getting requests from civic clubs around town to speak. And I was invited to be on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce which is par for the course, every publisher is on that board, you know, in every town. And that's the way you do it. You just meet people at the paper, ask questions, and finally you'll get the hang of it.

Gentry: And I know you brought your little dachshund to work, like Mrs. Pinchon, the publisher in the famous TV series of the time, Lou Grant.

Paxson: Right.

Gentry: And put your little dog under the desk, if I remember correctly. What did your mother say about that?

Page 164

Page 165

Paxson: Well, that's one of my better stories, because my conservative mother was really upset that her daughter would bring her miniature dachshund or small standard dachshund to the paper. We were discussing it one time and Mom said, "Well, I just don't know, Marjorie, about that dog at the office. What will 'they' think?" And I said, "Mom, I'm 'they.'" And that's when she got it through it through her head that her daughter was the boss, the top boss, in that little paper.

Gentry: That's wonderful. Now, on the serious side, when you were in Chambersburg, you had to deal with a delicate crisis. Three Mile Island and their nuclear crisis was very close to you. How did you handle that situation?

Paxson: It was very close. Chambersburg is about fifty-five miles south of Harrisburg. And of course, Three Mile Island nuclear plant is just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We found out about it the morning of March 28, 1979. Of course, it moved on the wires and the managing editor who was a woman, by the way was in to see me immediately with this. And as we began to find out more about it, I spent a great deal more time in the news room. Now, as I say, we were close to it. We were south of there. The prevailing winds blew from out of the south to the north so that any radiation or pollution contamination would have been blown away from us. So we were not concerned about that.

But it soon became evident that a lot of people in the Harrisburg area were very frightened and they had packed up their families and jumped in their cars and headed south, headed away from it. All of our motels were full. There were three or four and every one of them was full. Some families had relatives who suddenly had come down from the Harrisburg area to stay with them. My big concern was that while we had to tell the story of what had happened about this leak in radiation, we had to be very responsible in the way we told it and we couldn't write a headline that scared anybody. And that's what we tried to do. Of course, it went on for several days.

We got one call one time from a motel owner begging me to send a reporter out to talk to the people at his motel because they were so frightened. And I had to explain to him that our reporters there in Chambersburg didn't know any more about it than the people in his motel. All they knew was what was coming over the wire services, what was on TV and they could watch TV as well as we could. But for several days, it was a very scary situation because people were just so nervous and so upset.

Gannett has a monthly competition among its newspapers. And for that month or the month of April, whatever they specified that they wanted to see everybody's coverage of Three Mile Island. So we sent several days' pages in, everything that we had done on it, and everybody else did. In that competition we came in second. We were the closest Gannett paper to Three Mile Island. We came in second.

The winner was the paper in Bellingham, Washington. The judge said that it was really a toss-up but he chose the Bellingham paper because he liked their headline. And their headline read, "Nuke Plant Spits Hot Steam." Now, you can imagine what would have happened in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, if we had run that kind of a headline instead of a very low-key "Nuclear Plant Accident" kind of a headline. That's what I'm talking about with the crisis and the responsibility. And I complained to Gannett headquarters about that one, that part of being a publisher and editor was understanding what a headline in that kind of situation might do to the town. I felt like we should have won first place.

Gentry: Yes, but at least you protected the community without scaring them to death.

Paxson: Well, we tried, yes. And I think we did because they were terrified.

Gentry: That was really very responsible. But then as you're going well in Chambersburg for two years and eight months, Gannett calls you again. And what did they say this time?

Page 165

Page 166

Paxson: Well, this one wasn't quite as quick but they did want me to come out to Oklahoma and look over Muskogee. And I did. This time I had about two weeks' notice. And I said, "Yes, I'll come out here." It's a bigger paper, a bigger town. Chambersburg was about twenty thousand, Muskogee's forty thousand. Muskogee's also very close to Tulsa which is a lovely city. And I said, "Sure. I'm a native Texan so I guess I can stand the Okies and I'll just come out here," which I did. That was in October of 1980.

Gentry: What kind of paper was the Muskogee Phoenix? Who was the publisher?

Paxson: The publisher was the owner who had sold it to Gannett three years before. He had stayed on as publisher even though he had sold out. And he wanted to give up the position of publisher and so Gannett brought me in. His family had owned the paper since the early 1900s; he was the third generation to be the head of the paper. But he had two sons and two daughters and none of them was interested in the paper in the slightest. And you know, as happens so often, he decided to sell out. So he sold it to Gannett.

Gentry: After three generations of a family running the newspaper, how did you come in and establish your identity?

Paxson: He gave me the opportunity, the very first day that I was here. We'd fly in on a corporate jet; he picked us up at the airport out here in Muskogee. It was about 11:30 so he suggested that we meaning the regional president and I have lunch before we go to the paper. As we were having lunch, he was telling me about the paper and he said, "I might as well warn you that I have a policy that women can't wear pants." And I said, "What?!" Now, this is 1980, for heaven's sakes. Everybody's in pants suits. Well, he just didn't like it and women couldn't wear pants.

Well, I had come prepared to stay a week and to look every inch the lady publisher, with different suits, you know, several different pairs of shoes, different purses, everything. But I had brought one pants suit, for when I was being casual and comfortable. So I knew exactly how I would establish my identity at that newspaper. And wearing that black pants suit which I still have, by the way I walked into that paper at eight o'clock Tuesday morning and walked through the pressroom and the composing room and the news room. And I walked through the advertising department and circulation department and then went upstairs to my temporary office.

And by noon, my secretary the previous publisher hadn't moved out of his office yet so I was upstairs in a temporary location for a week or so she came upstairs and said people were beginning to ask, has there been a change in the dress code? And she said, "I told them they'd better wait until an official policy is announced." So we called a meeting of the department heads and I said yes, the dress code policy had changed, that women could wear pants suits if they wanted to. I said the only thing I was insisting on was that the employees of the Phoenix be neat and clean in their appearance and that they be dressed appropriately for the job that they had to do. And when I walked into the paper on Wednesday, I started to count. We had forty-five women working on the day side and twenty-nine were in pants suits.

Gentry: You had a lot of fans right off.

Paxson: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. They loved it.

Gentry: And then a lot of people came in to interview you and it seemed like they always asked the same old question: "How does it feel to be a woman publisher?" And what did you say to that.

Paxson: Oh, I got an easy answer to that one. I'd tell them, "I don't know how it feels to be a woman publisher. I've never been a man publisher so I don't know whether there's any difference."

Page 166

Page 167

Gentry: When you came to Muskogee, did you change of the paper's editorial stands?

Paxson: Yes, we gradually began to change them. The editor of the paper at the time was a man named John Lewis Stone. He had been with the paper for probably thirty years, something like that, a very powerful influence in the community. After I got here, he came in to visit with me and he said he wanted to go over the paper's editorial stands. He said, "The paper has been consistent in three editorial stands." He said, "Even though this is Oklahoma, we have always supported liquor by the drink." This state at that point had liquor stores but you couldn't buy liquor by the drink. And I said, "I've got no objection to that. I've been known to take a drink."

And he said, "We have always supported horse racing and parimutuel betting." And I told him that I had no problem with that, either, that I didn't play the horses but I had spent years in Florida and knew lots of people who did. So that was okay with me.

And he said, "And we have always opposed the Equal Rights Amendment." And I said, "Stoney, that's going to change." And as soon as the appropriate time came up, you know you just don't go out and announce day after tomorrow that we are as of now supporting the Equal Rights Amendment. When it came up in the news in a logical spot again, we changed our stand and we supported it. Stoney did not write that editorial but we changed it.

Gentry: In those six years as publisher in Muskogee, did you have to deal with any really serious crises?

Paxson: Well, I got hit with a union threat in March of '81. I had been here at that point five months. The editor had announced his retirement. He was going to go to work for a Fort Howard paper company. He had always been a very strong anti-union person and I think the unions were simply afraid even to try organizing around the paper with Stoney here. But when his retirement was announced, they tried to move in. We caught up with it when they tried to organize the news room. I was on the phone with corporate labor relations people; they were telling me exactly what to say, how to hold meetings, what to tell people. I never talked so hard or so fast in all my life but we did manage in about a three-week period to blunt the organizing threat and it never came to a vote.

Gentry: Looking back on all the different jobs you had in your career, was publisher the most satisfying, in spite of its responsibilities?

Paxson: Yes, I think it was because basically, I guess, for a long time in my life I was a closet boss. And then I found out that there were a lot of satisfactions and it was really kind of fun. And I thoroughly enjoyed being a publisher.

Gentry: And obviously, you thoroughly enjoyed Muskogee because you're still here, having retired in 1986.

Paxson: You're right.

Gentry: And today as we went through the azalea festival, I can see why. It's a very beautiful place to live.

Paxson: You got one taste of why I like it here. I think I should point out that if I hadn't stayed here, if I'd move any place else, I would have been starting over in a new community where I was a total stranger. When you move into town as the publisher, you meet a lot of people in a hurry and every door is open to you. I have made more friends here in less time than anywhere that I have ever lived. To move away from this it just struck me as foolishness.

Page 167

Page 168

Besides, this is green country, as they call it. It's the beautiful part of Oklahoma, the rolling hills, not the dusty part. Tulsa is a very sophisticated city and it's only forty-five minutes away. So I have the best of both worlds. I live in a small city but the big one, with all the symphony and the opera and the very fine art museums and good shopping is right down the pike. So that's why I'm staying in Oklahoma.

Gentry: A wise choice. I know you received a very handsome retirement package with Gannett and you've traveled all over the world since your retirement in '86. But you've also done some very important things for journalism. And I'm speaking mostly of establishing the National Women in Media collection at the University of Missouri. Tell me about that.

Paxson: That came about as a result of a suggestion by my tax man that I find a way to cut my income tax for a couple of years there by giving money away. He suggested that I look at Rice and the University of Missouri where I had gone and talk with them about trusts. And I did and the upshot was that I was able to give both schools blocks of Gannett Company stock and they set up these trusts that pay me quarterly income as long as I'm alive and then the money goes to the school for whatever purpose I specify.

When we got to what I wanted it spent for, Rice has no journalism, so I asked that it go to the library to buy current affairs books, publications of any kinds you know, videotapes, that sort of thing. And since I have always been kind of a history nut, I suggested that at the University of Missouri it be used to establish a collection at the library of papers of women journalists. And we dreamed up this name, the National Women in Media Collection, and I have contributed as the first contribution all of my papers from Mexico City the notes and what I wrote about it and that. Now, a number of other women journalists have contributed so I think, as it grows, it's going to be a kind of an important little piece of history, of women in the media, in magazines, broadcast; it's not limited just to newspapers.

Gentry: It was really a wonderful idea.

Paxson: Well, I kind of like it, yes.

[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]

Gentry: Now, in 1991, do you think the door is completely open for women to be editors and publishers and anything they want to be in journalism?

Paxson: I think it's a lot wider open than it was. I'm not sure in a lot of places that it is completely open. It's still pretty much a men's business.

Gentry: What advice would you give young women journalists who have ambitions to be real leaders in the field? How can they cut through the prejudices that still exist and be successful?

Paxson: The first advice I would give them is to learn their jobs very well, to learn how to do their jobs and everything connected with it very, very well, to learn how to dot all the i's and cross all the t's. And once they've got that mastered, then learn something about all the jobs around theirs, that touch on theirs. For instance, if a woman is a reporter, her copy eventually goes to the composing room. Learn something about how the composing works and what their deadlines and what some of their problems are.

Also find out how difficult it is to sell an ad. Advertising people and news people are frequently at odds but it certainly wouldn't hurt, if somebody wants to get ahead, to learn something about advertising. And then I think as they become more familiar with these things, it never hurts to let the boss know that you'd like to move up. Finally, I think young women should not try to act like a man, should not try to be one of the boys.

Page 168

Page 169

There is a difference between men and women, we look at things differently, and I have always said, vive la difference.

Gentry: Looking back on your long career in journalism, what would you most like to be remembered for, what were your greatest contributions?

Paxson: The first thing would be the paper at Mexico City. I think that's the most important thing I've ever done. And the second is the changes which I began to accomplish in Theta Sigma Phi.

Gentry: Very good. It was a great contribution.

Paxson: Thank you.

Page 169

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

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