Reporter, 94, shares advice with students

 

September 2 was Kathleen Powell Day at Elon's School of Communications. She shared her big smile and hard-earned advice with students in a classroom and was honored with a special luncheon. Details...

Powell became a news reporter in the 1920s. In her career in journalism, she worked at the Allentown (Pa.) Chronicle and News, Chanandaigua (N.Y.) Messenger; Washington Star Magazine (free-lance); and the Fort Myers (Fla.) News-Press. She's 94 now, and living in Elon's Twin Lakes retirement community, but she's still writing. She has produced copy for City-County magazine, an area publication.

She prepared the following remarks about herself and her career before her visit to Elon, and read them in addition to sharing exemporaneous comments and answering student questions:

I have tried to think how to tell you something about my career as a journalist without it being too long or boring. The best way, I decided, would be to start off giving you the why and how of its beginning and then jot down just the highlights of the next many years. If you have questions I would try and answer them. I won't go quite back to "I was born in a small town ..." but don't feel too hopeful because I am going to go back almost that far ...

I wanted to be a writer since I was four years old. My little stories and poems were a thing to expect - and perhaps dread - at all family gatherings. I contributed to publications of all the schools I attended. About the time I was enrolling in college, realism was setting in. I had a feeling that it might take more than a year or two for me to become rich and famous with my short stories and novels. Meanwhile, I better prepare myself for a job that would bring in a weekly check. The course therefore I chose was secretarial. Journalism courses were not available, at least not in my locality, and I wouldn't have chosen them anyway. I was going to be a writer.

Fortunately for me - and the reading public - after my first year of college I had a chance to work for the society editor of the local evening paper. It was just a summer job but I was lucky to get a job at all. She had found out I could type. My typing, thanks to a mean, nasty typing teacher at college, was accurate and fast.

At the end of the summer, I was invited to stay on the paper as a cub reporter, working mainly in the society department. It was at that point that I began to revise my thinking. Sure, writing about somebody's white satin wedding gown or how beautifully appointed the tea table was at Mrs. Gotcha's soiree wasn't exactly what I was capable of doing. Still it was putting words together into sentences.

In fact, as the years went on and I worked on various papers, I found out that good newspaper writing is an art of its own. Moreover, as a staff member, even a cub, I had to do what was required of all the others in the newsroom. That is, come up with an idea for a weekly feature story. Then get the story and write it. That was priceless training for any young person. It made you open your eyes to things around you to see that stories abound if you only look.

A couple of incidents that broke the monotony of the type of writing I was mostly doing. One, the society editor wrote a monthly column on advice to the lovelorn and sometimes didn't even get one letter asking for advice. When this happened, I filled in with a letter recounting some gamy stuff for that early 20's Age of Innocence. The other noteworthy exception was when the sports writer and I exchanged assignments for an evening. He wrote about a fancy dress-ball gown, and I covered a basketball game. The editor threw out both of our efforts with a stern warning not to try that again if we wanted to keep our jobs.

In addition to the jobs I did at newspapers, I handled a lot of PR work for good causes as a volunteer in the various places where I lived. My other writing jobs over the years were many: While in Buffalo, N.Y., I wrote a monthly column for a slick national beauty trade magazine; I wrote several hour-long fictional plays for a local radio station (I think it was WBEN).

In times of financial need, I also worked at various regularly paying jobs: saleswoman in a department store; going house-to-house asking people what beer they drank for an advertising firm; serving as typist for a different ad firm where one job was turning out five radio commercials a week for one of their clients - a beer company. I also helped my husband run a small machine shop.

Living in the Washington, D.C. area for 20 years, I did a lot of writing for the federal government in various agencies. When the budget allowed, I free-lanced, selling to many national magazines, including Mademoiselle, Today's Health, etc. Most of the pay went for my research trips. I went to nuclear facilities in Chicago and Oak Ridge, Tenn.; sailed out of Gloucester on a small fishing boat to trawl the North Atlantic; and sailed on the diesel-powered submarine Diablo on a training cruise as the only non-Navy person aboard, out of New London, Conn.. Later I was invited to join other journalists for an early cruise of our second nuclear submarine, the Seawolf. The deisel sub was well-named, Diablo. On one dive we almost didn't surface again.

On the staff of the News-Press in Fort Myers (which became a Gannett paper while I worked there), I wrote one or two feature stories a week plus two or three columns about people. I was in the "People" department, which the 70 or so editors and reporters in the news department called "The Baby Pen." That they should be so lucky!

Only in Canandiagua did I ever have what might be called a "regular beat." Three of us put out the daily paper - the editor, a woman who did society and obits, and I covered everything from State Supreme Court to Farm Bureau.

At the News-Press I wrote about things I felt should have the light of day turned on them - good, upbeat things. For instance, the Miccosukee Indians and their move into modern times with cement block houses.

I went on a two-day press cruise when the Navy took on women as full crew members; and I booked myself for a visit to an oil rig in the North Atlantic so that I could write about the men who worked on the rigs and the four women who did the housekeeping work. I slept the night on a mattress on the flight deck because the bunks were stuffy. The near-sighted editors had told me I could take the time to go to the oil rig but they would not pay my expenses. They did not even send a photographer along. After my story was deemed worthy of sending out to all other 70 or 80 Gannett papers, they broke down and reimbursed me.

All I have to say is that reporting can be a good way to make a living. Just go out and do what you can, and live life!

 

 

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Last Modified:  9/23/02
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