Certain women in history are normally celebrated during Women’s History Month — the suffragists, women scientists. Yet in the history of every community across America are women whose influence inspired and encouraged generations of younger women.
Not long ago, I read an article about the final gifts of the Adams Trust in the daily newspaper where I grew up in northeastern Indiana. The Adams Trust distributed millions of dollars to the citizens of Whitley County, Indiana, after the death of former newspaper owner and publisher Hester Little Adams in 1983.
Long before there was an Adams Trust, Hester Little Adams intervened, prodded and encouraged young women in an informal way. An uncertain economic environment in the late seventies left many young adults without summer work, but I ended up being a beneficiary of Adams’ interest.
Journalism was a hot college major after the popularity of “All the President’s Men” and the Watergate scandal that brought down the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Many two-newspaper towns eliminated papers – generally the lower-circulation afternoon edition – yet reporting remained a popular major. The economy and fewer newspapers left limited internships or entry-level jobs.
In summer 1978, I stayed in my college town, working nights as a waitress at a country club. But one day Hester Adams called my parents’ house after reading an article about a journalism scholarship I won at school in her own paper. That award netted a second, ultimately more valuable, blessing — Hester asked my father if I needed a job. She told him she liked to hire college journalism students.
She interviewed me over the phone and offered me a job, at twice the minimum wage of the day. I quit the waitress job that day and moved back to my parent’s house.
Thirty years later, I know I was lucky to get the proverbial foot in the door as well as a paycheck.
Hester Little Adams reigned over her old manual typewriter in a corner of a dusty, smoky newsroom that looked like a set from “The Front Page.” Hester was a petite, white-haired woman, who suffered from curvature of the spine. Though she was less than five feet tall, she had a towering and memorable character.
Hester always dressed impeccably, usually in a tailored suit with white piping and clunky, black, square-heeled pumps. She carried a large purse, filled with newspaper clippings and other information papers about everything from the Bicentennial to Purdue University sports, as well as her interests, family history, gardening, agriculture, and home economics.
Early mornings before the paper went to bed, people wandered in and out of the newsroom to speak with Hester — everyone from now-Senator Dan Coats, who fronted for then-Senator Dan Quayle, to a member of a rural church who wanted a piece written about the congregation’s 125th anniversary. Hester was also present at various public meetings, a little giant with the power of the pen.
During a summer festival called “Old Settlers Days,” Hester was almost robbed of her purse by a “carnie” in front of the newspaper office, an old concrete structure that was a block from the town square where the 100-year-old courthouse stood. On that hot July afternoon, Hester whacked the perpetrator with her large purse and gave him a good verbal reprimand. He ran off quickly, probably hurting more from the sting of her barbs than the bruises from her over-sized floral carpetbag.
Minutes after I arrived on my first day, Mrs. John Quincy Adams graciously asked me to call her Hester and gave me assignments. She sent me to the police station downtown for a story about something that happened the night before. She also instructed me to read and report on the daily police logs.
This was so exciting for me. While I worked on student publications in college as well as a small weekly in high school, I felt like Mary Tyler Moore in the TV newsroom. I walked the two blocks to the police station with my thin reporter’s pad and pen in hand, head held high.
I retrieved the information, typed my story on a manual typewriter, and placed it on the copy editor’s wire spindle. After two years of college, I was convinced I knew everything about the newspaper business, and frankly, thought I knew everything about life. Why I had a journalism professor who was with Morley Safer on the ground in Vietnam! Wasn’t I hot stuff?
The copy editor, a brooding woman named Eloise, was not aware of my superior knowledge of the world and found several errors in my quite unremarkable piece.
What? Didn’t I get an “A” in all my journalism classes? I was horrified and ready to leave. Yet, I swallowed my pride, redid my work, and spent the next two years learning from generous women who were going to retire from that newspaper, and still cared enough to promote and encourage me.
Hester could charm or scare, depending on her mood. She engaged me in her interests and taught me about Indiana and Whitley County history. She assigned me stories about 100-year-old churches; I found myself climbing into church spires, crossing old cemeteries and listening to rich stories of a shared heritage. She also took a personal interest in my welfare, sometimes sending me back to my little studio apartment with a freezer-load of 4-H beef.
During the two summers I worked at The Post and Mail, I covered the county fair, gathering information and snapping pictures of the winners, both people and animals. That first summer, I had no idea how to get the correct exposure from the Rolleiflex. The camera bag had an ancient light meter and enclosed written instructions in Egyptian hieroglyphics, well, German. I did not make any award-winning photojournalism that summer. Hester fielded a number of complaints from parents whose blue-ribbon son’s or daughter’s face washed out in the photo. But by the next summer, I had experience and a photojournalism class on my résumé. I was ready to rock and roll.
What I learned during my time at the newspaper about playing fair, showing mutual respect, and keeping a sense of humor at work has been beneficial throughout my career. But the most important lesson for me was the responsibility of a community newspaper. This newspaper continues to advocate for its citizens and remains an essential part of a growing community. While I no longer live there, those rural journalism roots are a vital part of me.
After I finished my two summers at the paper, Hester stayed in touch with me until her death. She occasionally asked me to cover a county-related event near my college. That she took a personal interest in nurturing me as a young journalist was a gift.
Now, more than three decades later, I write a bi-weekly column for The Post and Mail, as well as other Indiana newspapers. The Post and Mail will always be my “home paper.” Friends have asked me why I still write for this newspaper after not living in the area for thirty-some years, and having been published multiple places in different sites and publications regionally and nationally. I see it as payment on a debt, a debt I can never fully repay.
Thank you, Hester, on behalf of all those young women you championed.
Guest contributor Amy McVay Abbott is an Indiana writer whose column “The Raven Lunatic” runs in a dozen newspapers and magazines. Amy specializes in health writing, with a passion for rehabilitation and disability issues. She also enjoys writing about politics, travel and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at @ravenonhealth, at her web-site www.amyabbottwrites.com or as Bernadine Spitzsnogel on Open Salon. She likes to hear from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image used with permission from Amy McVay Abbott.