Gazing out her office window on the last day at work, Sally Mauk shrugged off the sentimentality that might develop after 31 years as the news director of Montana Public Radio.
The walls of her office are still adorned with a who’s who of significant interviews, including Hillary Clinton, Kathleen Sebelius and Elizabeth Edwards. Her editing platform is still powered up. Her boxes haven’t been packed.
It doesn’t look like Mauk is retiring at the close of business.
“I’m trying to think of today as just another day,” Mauk said Friday morning before going back on air. “I have mixed emotions for sure. I can’t imagine having done anything more thrilling that what I’ve done.”
What Mauk has done over the past three decades could be told with a number of voices. William Marcus, the general manager at MTPR, described Mauk’s journalistic style as always informed, never predictable and sometimes intimidating.
Gov. Steve Bullock said Mauk’s insightful questions have helped shape and inform the public dialogue. University of Montana President Royce Engstrom praised the professional and civil way Mauk posed her hard-hitting questions.
Mauk only grins at the accolades and remains stoic in the face of her retirement. Even after all these years, she still gets knots in her stomach as the 5:30 deadline approaches. She still regrets the words she mispronounced on air and the interviews that didn’t go as she had hoped.
The news is a thrilling yet serious business, she says. Complete and balanced stories help shape the public dialogue, push past the partisan rhetoric and break down the complexity of the issues.
“Everything we think and do and decide is based on the information we get,” Mauk said. “It’s our job to give people that information. What a responsibility that is. Journalism couldn’t be more relevant.”
The thing about 30 years – it’s a lifetime for some. UM students who tune into MTPR have known no other voice. Mauk has been there for an entire generation, bringing the news to listeners.
But it wasn’t always this way.
More than three decades back, Mauk worked as a wilderness ranger on the Kootenai National Forest. At the time, her predecessor at KUFM – Jill Hoyt – ran a radio show on the day’s biggest issues, wilderness mining being one of them.
Hoyt invited Mauk to speak on the program. Happenstance had dropped Mauk in the right place at the right time. KUFM was shorthanded and Mauk, having performed well during the interview, was offered a job.
“The funding for my ranger position had been cut and I was looking for a change,” Mauk said. “The station was much smaller then. We only reached the Missoula vicinity at the time and (Hoyt) was a one-woman band in the newsroom.”
Like many journalists with years under their belt, Mauk is loathe to listen to her old tapes. Moving from a job as a ranger with the Forest Service to that of a radio journalist involved a learning curve – the mastering of reel-to-reel tapes, cut and splice, and the art of the interview.
“I didn’t know much about sitting in front of a microphone, or being a journalist for that matter,” Mauk said. “I think my education on that began when I covered the Montana Legislature in the mid-’80s.”
It was there Mauk met strong reporters – she names Missoulian State Bureau reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison as two.
Hanging around the Capitol, she also dove into the state’s crucial issues and met the players who directed the outcome.
“That was my education as a reporter,” she said. “I think I’m a good listener. I hear what people are saying.”
Seated beside her radio equipment emblazoned with a University of Kansas Jayhawks sticker – her alma mater – Mauk says the people who touched her the most were those who were the most open and honest with her.
More times than not, they were average people – firefighters digging line, survivors of tragedy and those who strove to make a difference in the world.
“I remember interviewing a man in his 40s who was dying of lung cancer and had never smoked in his life,” Mauk said. “He was very open in talking about the process he was going through facing death. Those interviews stay with you all your life. I think that was one of the only interviews where I turned off the tape and burst into tears.”
After thousands of interviews, Mauk admits they tend to blur together over time. One day becomes the next and the deadlines always loom.
But some interviews do stand out. Looking at Mauk’s wall, they would be hard to forget.
“Hillary Clinton was a very impressive person to meet – smart, very warm and interesting,” Mauk said. “Covering the 2008 Democratic National Convention was a highlight for sure – seeing the first African-American nominated to be president.”
Last summer, Mauk appeared daily at the incident command post in Lolo as the Lolo Creek Complex fires burned over the ridge. She was there on the fire line in her flame-resistant jacket and hardhat, interviewing firefighters and capturing ambient sound.
It was also last summer when she took vacation. She contemplated her time and how she wanted to spend it moving forward. Her conclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise: She didn’t want to miss another Montana summer, starting now.
“The only thing that surpasses my love for my job is my love of Montana, and I want to explore that love and have the time to do that,” she said. “I’ve loved this job, but I won’t miss the daily deadline, honestly. I think that’s what gets all journalists in the end – the stress of the deadline.”