Washington Press Club Foundation


By any standard, Marj Paxson would be considered a leader among women journalists. After graduation from the University of Missouri in 1944, she reported for United Press in Nebraska, then moved to Associated Press. Later she led women journalists in Theta Sigma Phi through a critical four years. Marj spent the majority of her career as women's editor for newspapers throughout the country, including the Houston Post, Houston Chronicle, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times and Philadelphia Bulletin, then joined Gannett and ended up as publisher of two of their papers.

Prior to interviewing Marj, I had the great advantage of reading her own account of her career in a chapter of the book, New Guardians of the Press, edited by Judith G. Clabes. Not only did this provide a detailed résumé, it gave me Marj's opinions, so I felt I knew her before meeting her.

After that, I decided to talk to women in the field who had known Marj for years who could give me further insights into her personality and strengths as a journalist. Dorothy Jurney, who hired Marj at the Miami Herald, told me, "Marj has so much managerial ability. She's a take-charge woman, but never offensive. Brilliant people working in the newsroom have to mesh. Marj was excellent at blending creative minds. Her news sense is the finest. She could evaluate an idea, then choose the best reporters for the story. She always knew how to handle people and problems, and was great to work with."

Among Marj's most important accomplishments is her leadership of Theta Sigma Phi, now Women in Communications, as national president from 1963 to 1967, pivotal years when the organization of women journalists focused more in professionalism. "Those were decisive years when a philosophy of change was at stake," says Mary Jane Snyder, a Chicago journalist who has known Marj since 1951 and enthusiastically supported her presidency. "We needed a woman with strong leadership qualities, a real professional. Marj was the right person at the right time. She hits the ground running. She's a woman with high expectations who has the talent to mesh divergent people together, yet do it in a non-threatening manner so everybody feels comfortable."

In 1975, Marj was named editor of the daily tabloid for the UN Women's Year Conference in Mexico City. Facing many problems, Marj managed an international staff and created a successful paper, an accomplishment she regards as one of the most important of her career.

Marj's skills as a manager were tested even more during the last ten years of her career when she joined Gannett, become assistant managing editor of the Idaho Statesman in 1976. In 1978, she became Gannett's fourth woman publisher, first at the Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, then at the Phoenix in Muskogee, Oklahoma.

I first met Marj at her home in Muskogee in January of 1991 and spent five consecutive days interviewing her. Rapport came easily. We both decided that the best way to achieve continuity in such a varied career is interview straight through it day after day without interruptions. Marj Paxson is an interviewer's dream. By her own admission, she's a "pack rat" who saves everything. It was my good fortune that she also organizes everything she saves. For days we sat on the floor of her study unearthing memos, notes and pictures from packing boxes which provided invaluable detail in the interviews. These papers will eventually be put in the National Women in Media Collection at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri. It was like panning for gold. Marj's memory is superb. Not only does she remember the year something happened; she usually knows the month, date, day of the week and time. In twenty years of interviewing, I have never worked with anyone with this degree of recall.

Marj, who has never married, lives alone, except for an ever-present affectionate dog named Typo, so we were able to interview every day without interruption at her home in Muskogee. It is a lovely home on an acreage surrounded by trees and flowers which she cultivates in her own greenhouse. All six interviews, five audio and one videotaped, were done in Marj's tastefully decorated living room where we were surrounded by art and artifacts from her many trips abroad, most since her retirement in 1986.

After singer Merle Haggard popularized Muskogee in his country classic, "Okie from Muskogee," some may wonder why a sophisticated journalist with an international reputation would choose to retire to a small town in Oklahoma. Marj introduced me to many of her friends and the best restaurants in the town where she has been a well-rooted civic leader since 1980 when she became publisher. The Houston native made me a believer in her warm, comfortable lifestyle in "Green Country," an hour's drive from Tulsa. I found myself carefully coordinating our video interviews in April to mesh with Muskogee's lush azalea festival as a visual backdrop.

"One of the keys to success in Marj's career has been her flexibility," says longtime friend Mary Jane Snyder. "She can move often, throw herself into anything and get involved in her community and neighborhood immediately, making new friends and keeping all the old ones. Not every woman can do that."

Marj Paxson continues to make her mark on journalism after retirement. In 1987, she created the National Women in Media Collection at the University of Missouri, a repository for the papers of many leading women journalists.

Diane K. Gentry
May 1991

Brief Bio:

August 13, 1923 ~ Born, Houston, Texas
1944 ~ Graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism (after attending Rice University the first two years)
1944-1946 ~ Reporter, United Press, Lincoln, Nebraska
1946-1948 ~ Radio wire editor, Associated Press, Omaha, Nebraska
1948-1952 ~ Houston Post, Society Editor, Women's Editor
1952-1956 ~ Houston Chronicle, Women's Editor
1946-1968 ~ Miami Herald, hired as copy editor on women's desk, became Assistant Women's Editor in 1959
1963-1967 ~ National President of Theta Sigma Phi, now Women in Communications, Inc.
1968-1970 ~ St. Petersburg Times, Women's Editor
1970-1976 ~ Philadelphia Bulletin, Women's Editor, Assistant Metro Editor
June 1975 ~ Editor of daily newspaper, UN Women's Year Conference, Mexico City
1976-1978 ~ Idaho Statesman, Boise, Assistant Managing Editor
1978-1980 ~ Publisher and Editor of Public Opinion, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania
July 1980 ~ Associate editor of daily newspaper for the UN Mid-Decade for Women Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark
1980-1986 ~ Publisher of Muskogee Phoenix, Muskogee, Oklahoma
1986-present ~ Writes a weekly column for the Muskogee Phoenix
1987 ~ Created the National Women in Media Collection at the University of Missouri

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