Finding Your People in a Conference Hotel

I got back a couple days ago from the annual conference of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and OSCLGGender, held this year in San Francisco. It’s a “boutique” conference – 120 or so women and men gathered to talk about issues that really matter to me. I attended panels considering women and mental health, feminism and social media, and what might happen if personhood legislation was ever successful. And I spent even more time outside of those panels meeting scholars I hadn’t known before, catching up with friends, and drinking wine. Yeah, lots of wine.

I’ve only been attending the OSCLG conference for a few years. But in November, I’ll head to Chicago for the NCA100th meeting of the National Communication Association. How many NCA meetings have I been to? Well, I started graduate school in communication in 1981. I haven’t been to all of the conferences since then, but I’m sure I’d run out of fingers and toes if I tried to tally up my attendance. While in Chicago, I’ll probably only attend the panels I’m a part of (Why did I agree to respond to so many panels? Why?) and will spend the rest of the time with my people. The people I only see at NCA and who make attending both mandatory and intensely pleasurable. There will be talk, good food, and wine. Yeah, lots of wine.

Conferences have always been a big part of my professional life. Academic meetings allow you to share your research and writing, hear from leading scholars in your field, and participate in the shared governance of an academic discipline. These meetings have also allowed me to forge and maintain connections with colleagues from around the country and world. Academic and writing lives can sometimes be isolating and mine has also been a bit nomadic. But at a conference, I can see people from every phase of my career. It can be hard to make my way across the hotel lobby in an efficient manner, but it’s so worth it.

But conferences aren’t a part of work for many. Oh, there might be an occasional opportunity for a regional or national meeting, but lots of jobs don’t have the regular gatherings in which those who share a vocation get together to talk about their work and develop life-long connections with far-flung kindred professional spirits.

I thought my mom was in one of those jobs where conferences weren’t a thing. Don’t get me wrong. She was very connected in the local community – there was no shortage of events to fill up her calendar. But, as far as I know, she never attended a gathering of women’s page editors to talk about craft, to share story and layout ideas, to develop friendships. I figured there weren’t such meetings.

But I was wrong.

It turns out, these meetings of women’s page editors were a really big thing in the 1960s and 1970s. The first large gathering happened in 1959. As I described in a previous blog post, the meeting was sponsored by the American Press Institute and was held on the campus of Columbia University in New York. Marie Anderson and Marj Paxson were both there representing the Miami Herald. Dorothy Jurney, who had recently left the Herald to take the helm at the Detroit Free Press, was also there. As were Maggie Savoy of the Arizona Republic and Gloria Biggs of the St. Petersburg Times. A lot of these women already knew each other. But Vivian Castleberry, who had recently taken on the women’s editor role at the Dallas Times Herald didn’t know them yet. I imagine that she looked around the room and realized that “these are my people.”Penney Award

The editors had submitted pages ahead of time for critique. They attended workshops on writing, layout, and story ideas. They complained about the play that women’s issues received on the Associated Press wire and compared notes about the challenges of covering society (and Society) in their home communities. And they forged relationships that continued for many years. Who knows? There may have been some wine involved.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the most regular gatherings of women’s page editors happened in Columbia, Missouri, every spring. Top women’s pages around the country were honored through an award competition sponsored by the J.C. Penney Corporation and the University of Missouri. Winning a Penney-Missouri award was a coveted honor experienced by many of the ladies I study – indeed, Marie Anderson won so often she was barred from the competition for several years. But perhaps more important than the monetary prize, medal, and bracelet charm received by winners was the gathering in the spring with speakers, classes, and tours. Women’s page editors returned year after year, forming a network that sustained them through their careers and sometimes into retirement.

As I looked through the Penney-Missouri award archives in Columbia last month, I noticed that in 1969, one of the award winners was Tish Myers of the Birmingham, Michigan Eccentric, a twice-a-week paper in suburban Detroit. At this time, my mother was women’s editor for the Farmington Observer, one town over. A few years after this, the Observer and Eccentric newspaper chains merged.

So someone much like my mother had won a Missouri-Penney award. That fact gave me pause, for I don’t think Mom ever knew about the awards. I’m quite sure her work was never nominated by the higher-ups at her paper.

But I’ve seen her pages from this time period. I’ve read the stories she wrote about cutting edge issues in women’s health, education, religion, and politics.

To quote Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, Margaret Miller could have been a contender. And if her history had been a bit different and she had won an award or just attended these conferences, I know that she would have benefited from the workshops and from friendships with Dorothy, Marj, Marie, Maggie, Vivian, and Gloria. And, what’s more, their lives would have been enriched because of her.

2 thoughts on “Finding Your People in a Conference Hotel”

  1. Kathy, this is a good reminder of how much we are enriched by conference conversations (and don’t forget the chocolate at OSCLG).​


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