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Evelyn King

Our longtime colleague Evelyn King would arrive every Wednesday in the Missoulian newsroom to alternately write on and wrestle with a computer, a device she seemed to consider a mortal enemy invented to eat her weekly columns.

But if computers dragged her kicking and screaming into journalism's 20th century, it was King and women like her who dragged newspapers there in the first place.

King - whose final and long-running weekly column was published earlier this month - died Tuesday at an age she considered no one's business but her own.

"Less than 90 but more than 80" was as close as one of her children, Sally King, could pin it down.

But long before the column she wrote almost to the end, back in the 1940s, King blazed a trail into the men's-only club that was largely American journalism at the time.

Once there, she kept fighting - for the right to cover beats that had been the exclusive territory of males, and for pay equal to what the guys got for doing the same job.

"She was a pioneer in the truest sense," says former Missoulian editorial page editor Steve Woodruff. "It may be hard for people to comprehend now, at a paper where you have a female publisher, a female editor, a female city editor and a female editorial page editor - women have obviously shattered the glass ceiling - but Evelyn was the woman who gave them a leg up."

***

She came to the Missoulian at a time when women didn't just face bias in the workplace.

Carol Van Valkenburg, who heads the Department of Print Journalism at the University of Montana's School of Journalism, relates a story she was told by King's classmate at UM, Dorothy Powers.

"Dean Stone came in to teach the first day," Van Valkenburg says, "and told the class he'd like to speak to the women alone."

Once the males were gone and the room was reduced to a handful of female journalism students, Stone advised them to all change their major.

"I suppose the thinking at the time was that journalism was too difficult for women - you deal with a lot of crude situations, it's too dangerous, you work late, et cetera," Van Valkenburg says. " ‘It's a man's game,' is what he said."

Evelyn King, Dorothy Powers and the others sat and glared at Stone.

"The women were so mad," Van Valkenburg says. "Not a one of them got up, not a one offered to change their major. But you can see what they faced back then - even educators did not see them as capable of doing the job."

Evelyn King, who was born in Round Butte, raised in Pablo and graduated from Ronan High School, spent most of the next 65 years or so years proving them wrong.

***

She began, at the age of 21 and while still in college, as the paper's night police reporter, visiting the hospitals, police and fire departments, sheriff's office and jail each evening.

"She got her break when World War II began," says another former Missoulian opinion page editor, Sam Reynolds. "It had been strictly a male profession, but so many men were off in the service and they needed people to do the work."

Still, the job notice on the journalism school bulletin board specifically sought male applicants.

King's first boss was Deane Jones, an occasionally brusque man who became one of her dearest friends over the next half-century.

It was Jones who gave King her first bylined front-page story - back "in the days when bylines were as rare as gold medals," she would recall later - about a visiting dignitary during the war.

And it was Jones who published her first photograph. The paper had just started using pictures, had purchased a couple of cameras and had hired a local photographer to give reporters lessons in how to use them.

King had attended only one brief session when Jones told her, "A busload of soldiers is going through town, headed for the coast - go take a picture."

"But, but, I'm not a photographer," King protested.

"You had a lesson, didn't you? Jones shot back.

"I got the picture," King wrote later. "He put it on page one."

***

Though she left the Missoulian for several years to raise her family of five children, she returned when the oldest were still in high school and resumed her career full time.

Along the way she started her column, which she called "Patches." Through it, for some 40 years, readers followed the King family through triumphs and tragedies.

"Her column was hugely important to her," Woodruff says. "I edited it for a while, and it was not easy, because she wrote it the way she thought it needed to be, and she didn't approve of anybody else's thumbprint on it. She retained a lifelong relationship with readers through the column, and it wasn't the newspaper's relationship with readers, it was hers."

She would write about birthdays, graduations, vacations, pet peeves. She could find a column in a Sunday stroll by the river.

She'd write about trying to quit smoking and, after kicking the habit years later on her umpteenth try, devoted at least one column a year to telling readers that if she could do it, anyone could.

We read about the unexpected loss of her first husband, Colie King. About her remarriage, years later, to Dick Moore. As she moved into a retirement filled with dances and music, swimming and Senior Games, we followed her there.

She could take us to tears, too. Several months after writing about her oldest granddaughter saving the life of the victim of a traffic accident on McDonald Pass in 2003, King was penning another column about 27-year-old Larissa Haarr.

"My first-born granddaughter left this planet early Tuesday morning from an open-air tent in her backyard with her family close by," King wrote of Larissa, who was diagnosed with malignant melanoma just weeks after she had come upon the crash scene outside Helena.

She told how Larissa, a "child of nature," insisted her last days on Earth be spent outdoors, in a tent under an ancient tree in the backyard, first in a wheelchair, then a recliner, and finally in a hospital bed.

"Mars was glowing through smoky skies," King wrote of the day Larissa died.

The weekly column had continued for a quarter-century after King's retirement, in the mid-1980s, from the Missoulian.

The final one, which appeared May 2, worked in many of her favorite subjects over the years - her children, both Colie and Dick, swimming, and a plug for the 25th Montana Senior Olympics.

"I don't know the editor who could have taken that column away from her," says former reporter John Stromnes. "They would have come out of it with bruised toes at the least."

***

"I just don't know why I read that woman's column," someone told retired UM journalism professor Sharon Barrett one time, "but I read it every week."

Barrett, another one-time colleague of King, says it was probably because, once again, King was ahead of her time.

"The column was very personal, and that may be the reason," Barrett says. "Nowadays we have bloggers telling us everything they're doing, but Evelyn's been doing that for the last 40 years."

Although she and King entered journalism three decades apart and with vastly different outlooks on it as a career, former Missoulian reporter Mea Andrews says she was always keenly aware of King's importance in paving the way.

"The ultimate thing about Evelyn was she was feisty," Andrews says. "I knew when I came in 1978 that it was women like her who had fought to make room in the newsroom for women like me. I knew she stood up at a time when that was hard."

"The thing I remember most when I was a young reporter there was that Evelyn was all about women's equal rights," Van Valkenburg says. "It seems odd now to think of the Equal Rights Amendment as a huge controversial issue, but it really was, and Evelyn did everything she could to bring it to the fore and get people talking about it. She was adamant that women be treated equally to men, and be paid the same for doing the same job. She'd scream bloody murder about those things."

"A woman of enormous energy," says Reynolds.

"Adventurous and assertive," says daughter Sally, "long before she got old."

"She loved teasing, and she could take it as well as give it, which I always liked," Woodruff says.

"Nobody liked to have fun more than Evelyn," Van Valkenburg adds. "The ringleaders in the newsroom were a lot of young, wild people, but Evelyn was always right there with us."

Barrett doesn't care how old King was, she says she was still shocked at the news of her death.

"I just always expected Evelyn King to go on and on forever," Barrett says. "I was sure her column would always be there, every Sunday."

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that even though Evelyn is gone, her column isn't - not quite yet.

Her daughters plan to write the final "Patches" for her next week.

"It only seemed fitting," Sally King says, "that Evelyn King's last column ought to be about Evelyn King."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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