Each year, the members of Nebraska Press Women gather in the spring for a convention to announce the winners of their communications contest and to provide continuing education in areas members would like to learn. This year, as things have been extremely rough for me, personally and professionally, I debated skipping the event.
When Friday morning came, my husband, Paul, asked me if I still wanted to go. “Yes and no,” I said. I wanted to attend, but am so wiped out from the ever-increasing assignments at work that four days hiding in my house instead looked promising. However, a promise is a promise. I gathered my things and began my journey to Broken Bow, the site of this years convention.
The hardest part of my drive was at the beginning. I’ve made the trip between Scottsbluff and Alliance dozens of times. It’s familiar. There is nothing new to see. For someone who needs their mind focused, especially in a car, this can be a daunting time.
I thought the music would be enough to distract me. It wasn’t. The fight between my brain and I raged on for that 37-minute stretch of road. The memories surfaced. I fought them back. I said and did the things I needed to do to stay in the here and now. And it worked. Suddenly, I was staring at a train somewhere in the Sandhills. I had missed the transition from city of Alliance to open country, but that was okay.
The train was led by the usual orange, black, yellow BNSF engine, but there was a curious black one behind it. I could make out a horse in the logo and the word “southern.” I didn’t dare to look for too long, lest I become one with the train. I lifted my camera from the passenger seat and took a guess photo for later on. It’s how I do all photos while driving. Lift the camera up with my right hand while keeping my left hand on the steering wheel, then guess where you need to point the lens. Sometimes, the photos are spectacular. Sometimes, you just delete them without telling anyone. When I returned home, I zoomed in on the photo to see, “Norfolk Southern.” It’s something I will have to investigate further. I don’t know much about the railroad network other than Alliance is a big railroad town, but that railway doesn’t typically come into Nebraska.
I made my way through the winding, picturesque Sandhills of Nebraska, looking at everything I could while maintaining my car on the road. I saw scores of calves in the fields. I wondered before I left how many there would be after the late March blizzard. There were certainly a lot to me. Whether it was what was expected by ranchers, I cannot say.
The ranchers lost a lot in that storm. I suspect my momentary glee of seeing calves frolicking together or walking near their mother is not enough to change the fate of so many from that storm. Still, I took it as a good sign.
I continued passing small towns along the way – Ellsworth, Mullen, Thedford, Halsey – each with its unique history. I had no time to stop, but did my best to slow down and be cautious. After all, I wouldn’t want to accidentally run over a squirrel.
I didn’t speed too much. Then again, with such beauty everywhere, why would you want to traverse the Sandhills too quickly?
I pulled into Broken Bow about 1:30 p.m. I had lost an hour in time traveling into the central time zone. It seemed as if the only place in town that was open was McDonald’s and I reluctantly went to eat there. The fries were burned. I tried not to get angry, but I’ve worked fast food. Fries only burn when someone isn’t paying attention or hasn’t changed the oil in a while.
I checked into my room and unloaded my belongings. The window near my bed revealed a view of the local mortuary while the view from near the television had the entire city square, complete with bandstand, on display. I later learned from the director of the chamber of commerce, the square was part of the deal in Broken Bow becoming a town.
I had planned to eat dinner alone, but the women who sit on the board of Nebraska Press Women insisted I sit and eat with them. They were conducting board business, but there was no reason to be alone. It was during dinner that I realized things were different.
In any other setting, I would be uncomfortable, wishing I was anywhere but there even if it meant starving. The women in NPW don’t have those hoity-toity airs that they’re better than you in any way. So I sat there with my dinosaur t-shirt and flannel jacket and enjoyed the company.
That night, I barricaded the door just in case, and fell asleep to a college lacrosse match.
Saturday morning was filled with learning. Lunchtime always brings awards. That’s when high school students are presented with their journalism awards and scholarships are handed out.
I take particular joy in what happens next – the induction of worthy candidates in the Marian Andersen Nebraska Women Journalists Hall of Fame. This year, the stories hit me a little harder. Regular readers of my words online know the immense struggles I have had over the past year and how it seems to be getting worse. Other than my husband, Paul, who has always been there to listen, there is no one else I felt I could talk to about what is happening in general to journalism and to me, specifically.
Ruth Brown has had a full and fantastic career. Her list of accomplishments is long. It was her words, however, that drew me in.
Like Brown, I sometimes think about the long distances I have to drive to attend the conference and the many things I could be doing. This year, it was especially true. I didn’t want to go. I’m worn down, beaten down, and exhausted from the amount of work on my plate. I didn’t want to go, but I had made a commitment, so I went. I did not regret it.
“Once I am here, it’s so valuable – the networking as well as what I learned,” Brown said.
Brown said the women who are in the hall of fame, “persisted in their aspirations, they persisted in their professions, overcoming gender barriers and other obstacles, some of which we may never know.” This was certainly true of Maggie Mobley (1846-1907), who was also inducted.
Mobley was born in Ireland and lived in several cities in America before moving to Omaha. After marrying Seth Mobley, the couple moved to North Platte in 1869. They established the Platte Valley Independent. Within 90 days, the paper had more than 300 subscribers and advertisers. She published original poetry in the newspaper as well as editorials denouncing wrong where she saw it. The couple moved the newspaper to Grand Island after fallout from one of her editorials. The Grand Island Independent traces its legacy to Mobley.
NPW member Bette Pore said Seth and Maggie sometimes erupted in battle with rival newspaper publishers in the area, with one of the most notorious battles resulting in Maggie using a bullwhip on a fellow publisher.
One nemesis was J.L. Wiley, who published a temperance paper out of the Independent’s building but soon took his business elsewhere when his relationship with Maggie and her husband became strained.
This is my favorite part of the story: That tension between Wylie and Mobley reached the breaking point when, as he tried to avoid running into Maggie at a town meeting in January, 1873, she produced a bullwhip from the folds of her skirt and used it to snap Wylie’s hat to the floor. The headline for the incident? “COWHIDED” on page 3.
Undoubtedly, Mobley pissed off people. What little I know of her, I think I would have liked her.
After the ceremony, I was invited to join three other women in a carpool headed out to Broken Bow II, a wind farm, to learn about windmills. We made jokes about how we would surely get windmill cancer after being near so many in such a short amount of time.
The tour was great, and I won’t write much about it here as I’ve been asked to write something for the NPW newsletter. This time, instead of sitting silently in a car as we traveled to some location, I participated in the conversation. I felt welcomed. I felt like someone else understood.
I was able to discuss the things I cannot discuss back home. I was not dismissed. I was not told I was whining. I was listened to. It was refreshing not only to get things off my chest, but to talk to other women who understand the perils of the job, the inherent sexism, and the new overworked, overstressed, and falling apart reporter.
They asked questions of me to understand more. They asked questions of me so they could give me tips on how to better cope. They asked questions of me so that they might be better able to advise the generation behind me who dreams of a career in journalism.
I felt like, for the first time in a long time, I belonged somewhere.
That conversation continued later on during dinner and the awards ceremony. I saw that everyone was there to truly lift up one another. It didn’t matter who you were, where you came from, what you believed. It didn’t matter if you won a single award or dozens. Everyone was happy to recognize and celebrate each others’ achievements. There wasn’t a sense of pettiness that you lost out to someone. There was only joy in each others’ accomplishments.
When I was called up to receive the third place sweepstakes award in the communications contest, I was surprised. I never thought I would hold such a thing. It reads, “NPW Communications Contest, Marianne Beel Sweepstakes Award, Third Place, Irene North.” Sure, I’m going to knock LuAnn and Lori out of second and first next time, but this felt good. I did something that mattered. Other people saw it, too.
I have not hidden the fact that I have been unhappy for some time at my job. These ladies reminded me why I do it. It’s not for the awards. It’s not for the accolades. It’s what Ruth said earlier in the day.
“Each of us believes in our profession because then, and now, journalism matters. It matters a great deal. It’s ethical storytelling. It’s truth telling.”
I hope that I, and journalism, can survive the current onslaught to decimate the media and the hatcheting of newsrooms across the country. I fear that it’s going to get worse and I may not be able to survive the next round of cuts, the next round of “do more with even less,” the next round of “produce or else.”
I’m struggling to keep up with my assigned work, which is nearly impossible to complete at the pace expected. I’m just plain tired and haven’t figured out how to do more than just exist at the moment.
In the end, I was glad I went. These women are an inspiration. My mental health is always priority number one, but I now know that I have several dozen shoulders I can lean on.
As I drove back home, tired from going to bed after midnight and rising too early, past the beauty, the cows, and the trains, I tried to keep it all in perspective. I texted on and off to Paul on the way home, letting him know I was inching closer toward home.
Just outside Alliance, I couldn’t wait any longer. I turned off Highway 2, drove down a road marked 437 Trl about a quarter of a mile and parked the car on the side of the road. I had to pee. Gas stations in Alliance were still too far away.
I got back in my car, drove through Alliance and back home to Scottsbluff. It was a quiet morning, windy as usual. A chill was in the air. A storm was coming. For now, Paul and the cats, and a pile of laundry were calling my name. I retreated into the warmth of my home with new memories and supports to help keep me going.