home with the most powerful in Washington
By Vivian Vahlberg, 1983 Inductee
Everyone in my seventh-grade carpool to Oklahoma City’s Taft Junior High School wanted to try out for the school newspaper. I didn’t.
I had no interest in getting my hands dirty with printers’ ink. When I learned that being on newspaper staff meant writing the stories, my attitude changed. I tried out and, despite being initially clueless, was chosen editor, the start of an amazing career in and around journalism.
Little did I realize then where journalism would take me. First, it took me to Washington, D.C. where I got to report for The Daily Oklahoman (and then also for the Colorado Springs Sun) for 12 years, writing about whatever happened in Washington that affected Oklahoma or Colorado more than other states—from the actions of the states’ congressional delegations to Native American affairs; defense, agriculture, and energy policy; campaign finance; and U.S. Supreme Court cases.
Among the notables I covered were U.S. Senators Henry Bellmon and David Boren, U.S. Senators and presidential candidates Fred Harris and Gary Hart, and U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert. I even ventured outside D.C. occasionally, writing about Oklahomans working on North Sea oil rigs off the coast of Norway, national political conventions, and a presidential trip.
One of my first assignments was to cover the all-male National Press Club’s 1971 vote to finally admit women as members. How amazing that, 11 years later, I would become the club’s first woman president, helping this important Washington institution put its discriminatory past behind it. This was considered such a milestone that President Ronald Reagan swore me in, braving picketers from the National Organization for Women who saluted my selection while protesting Reagan’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment.
My year as president in 1982 was jam-packed with challenges, including presiding over 70 hour-long luncheon programs that were always broadcast live nationally, and sometimes internationally. As president, I hosted our high-profile speakers at a pre-luncheon reception and then presided over the luncheon program, introducing and questioning the featured guests. Speakers included many heads of state, among them India’s Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, the queen of the Netherlands, media giants Al Neuharth and Dan Rather, and entertainment greats such as Francis Ford Coppola and Gene Kelly.
The speakers always made news, but I remember the personal things—like how Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands considered her luncheon appearance so important she spent 90 minutes with me beforehand. Or, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s nervousness when her son got stuck in the elevator of the National Press Building, which had been undergoing a massive reconstruction. Or, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’ disingenuous reply when I asked about corruption in his country: “You must be thinking of some other country.”
Through my involvement with the Press Club, I came to see what a difference nonprofit organizations make, helping news professionals do together what they cannot do alone—fight First Amendment battles, develop new skills, promote diversity in staffing and news coverage, and jointly address financial and technological challenges buffeting news businesses.
So, when my family and I moved to Chicago, Illinois in the 1980s, my career shifted from doing journalism to working in the nonprofit sector on programs affecting journalism. Sometimes I ran programs, as executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists and as managing director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. Other times I led foundation investments in journalism-related initiatives, such as when I was director of Journalism Programs at McCormick Tribune Foundation and manager of the Community News Matters program at The Chicago Community Trust. Along the way, I also conducted research on community news needs and Internet news usage.
Fortunately, in recent years, the path has led me back to Oklahoma City twice a year, to consult about journalism grant-making with the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
It’s always great to return home!