I Believe I Can Fly

I like to joke that when I lost my TV news reporter job, it took two men to fill it. While that did happen, it’s not the whole truth. The real story shamed me, and I’m guessing something like that just wouldn’t happen today. And that’s a good thing.

At the end of 1979, I was 26 years old, already divorced (I know what you’re thinking, but that’s another story) and majoring in Radio and TV  at Portland Community College. I’d had two years of college at the University of Kansas in the early 70s, in Theater, of all things, but I was far from any sort of degree. When ABC affiliate KATU Television in Portland asked my professor to recommend someone for a temporary job as a production assistant for a morning show, he sent me. I happened to be older than the other kids in my class, so he probably thought I’d make his program look good. Anyway, my first day was Halloween, and when I walked through those doors at Channel Two, knees shaking, I was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

It took me only a few months to land a permanent job as newsroom secretary, answering phones and doing administrative tasks for the news director. I was good at the phone answering part, but I didn’t really know how to type in those days, and I laugh now to think about how that must have looked to my new employers. I learned fast, though, and the weekend producer, who is a friend to this day, started letting me try my hand at writing news stories. I soon moved up to a news writer job, which was the hardest thing I’d ever tried to do. Trial by fire, that’s what it was, being responsible for what the anchors said on the air, and somehow I survived. In those days we had manual typewriters, and we used eight-ply carbon paper. Our scripts were literally pounded out in three-inch columns, which would be run through the teleprompter on a conveyor belt contraption up in the production booth during the newscasts. That was my job, and I absolutely loved it. By hanging around in the newsroom all day, writing stories and ripping wire and helping the producers and running that prompter, I knew everything that was going on, not only in our region, but in the world! For an under-educated woman like me, it was heady stuff, and it changed me forever.

Pretty soon, they started letting me voice stories that came in from stringers around the area. Then, finally, I was given the weekend reporter job. I was still a writer during the week, but I got to go out on stories on the weekends. I did that for years, working nights and weekends. Reporters came and went, and I worked my way up by doing the crappy shifts. I eventually got a day shift, though, and got to cover everything from courts to government to crime to disasters to features. I interviewed Gerald Ford and Jesse Jackson. I went to New York and Rome on stories. I covered a notorious murder trial from start to finish. You name it, I covered it. It was a hard job with deadlines every single day. All of a sudden the technology changed, and reporters had to go live. I was never fantastic at that, but I did it. I like to think that most of the time I got the facts straight. I was a quick study, and they could send me out on pretty much anything and I’d bring back the story. I did not miss deadlines, either. I didn’t win any awards (never applied for any) but I did okay.

When I had been at the station for eight years or so, I got pregnant. I was among the first female TV reporters in Portland to work during an entire pregnancy. I worked up until the end, had the baby, and went on a three-month maternity leave. I had made an agreement with my boss, the news director, that I’d work three days a week when I returned. That was the deal.

While I was gone, things changed at the station. The news director left and a new one was hired. I wasn’t there to introduce myself, and when it was time for me to come back to work my job had disappeared.  I got called into the guy’s office, and he told me that I looked “tired and overweight.” I was 35 years old. I was tired; I had a tiny baby at home who didn’t sleep much. Overweight? Well, I was still carrying 15 pounds or so, but I still weighed less than I do now. And when I see myself in photos from that time, I looked pretty good. The news director offered me another job, which was acting as a producer for a fellow reporter. Not knowing what else to do, I took it. It was absolutely humiliating, and I hated it.

As for my reporter job? The new news director brought in two men from his old station in North Carolina. With all due respect for these two men, I will say that one of them outweighed me by 100 pounds, easy, and the other was not better looking than I was. These guys were not responsible for my fall from grace, and I had nothing against them. Maybe they were better reporters than I was. But I felt so ashamed, such a failure. I just didn’t have any fight in me. I let this guy steal my career, and I did nothing. A year and a half later, I left TV and began another career at Oregon Health and Science University. It all worked out in the end, and I’d never want to work in TV news now, but it rankles me to this day.

Here’s the thing: If I had been a man, this would not have happened to me. In fact, I probably could have mounted a legal challenge, and maybe I would even have won. But I didn’t, and for more than 25 years, I’ve tried to come to terms with that. At the time, I did not believe I was worthy of that job. I didn’t not believe I was smart enough, pretty enough, educated enough. I did not believe I was talented enough.

Years have gone by, obviously, and I made a wonderful new career for myself making videos for non-profits and health organizations. I’ve learned so much, and have become a video editor, something I never would have done if I’d stayed in news. But more importantly,  I’ve found myself championing the young women in my life. All my friends’ daughters, my nieces, the neighbor girls, the young women I worked with. I always tell them that they deserve to be respected. I ask them to believe in themselves, in their worth. I tell them they deserve to be loved and treated well in their relationships. I encourage them to stay in school, get an education they can be proud of. God, I wish somebody had said any of those things to me. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference in my life. But it might have if I had just believed.

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5 thoughts on “I Believe I Can Fly

  1. lisagroening says:

    Sandy–some painful similarities for us. But maybe the point of the bullshit we’ve experienced is just what you and I are doing now : trying to give young women and girls our perspective so they can be as empowered as possible. KATU was the best of many things for me, but the time period left a lot to be desired in terms of equal opportunity.

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  2. jacqueline j says:

    HI Sandy, Wow that brings back memories. I was hired at KATU in 1980 because of affirmative action – the only woman maintenance engineer on the west coast and maybe the country. It took me two years+ to “prove” myself and the whole time my supervisor was whispering in my ear that he was going to get me fired. arghhhh! And I, too, try to be an example to young women, especially my precious daughter. Remember Anita Hill? Those were the days. Thanks for reminding us all of what it used to be like – and I dare say, still is many places.

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  3. Margie says:

    Oh Sandy, those were the bad old days. I remember being on the air throughout my pregnancy, and how excited the viewers were to watch me grow. It was 1980, and I don’t think anybody in Portland had been pregnant on the air. Every day the mail brought booties and receiving blankets. The viewers did not seem to find my baby body repugnant. (I gained 27 pounds.) But then I was called into the manager’s office and told I was too fat to be on the air. I was told my maternity leave would start the following Monday, A MONTH BEFORE MY BABY WAS DUE. This meant I would get a month’s less time at home with my baby before having to return to work. Oh– and they had hired Mrs. Oregon to fill in for me. I was furious. That night I went into labor. My daughter was born healthy and well, and I got my full maternity leave. I showed them…I guess. And then, when I resigned to take a job as a newspaper columnist? The station manager said, “This was the smartest thing you could have done. At your age, you had two, maybe three years left on the air. But you’ll be able to write for a long time.” I was 36. And then there was the time, after my divorce, when the general manager told me I’d be fired if I didnt date the advertiser who owned car dealerships… The bad old days, indeed. You were a great reporter and you deserved a promotion, not the treatment they gave you. I pray women today are treated with the respect they deserve.

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