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Marking Women's History Month with a recollection of two women who had key roles in my history

Before this year's Women's History Month ends, I want to offer a recollection of two women who are key parts of my history. And who paved the way for a third woman.

It's a legitimate journalistic journey because Women's History Month is not only about celebrating women's accomplishments but also the contributions they have made to make life better for others.

So this column is to share about the impact of my mother, Hazel, whom I wrote about last Mother's Day, so I won't repeat the column, only the enduring part, and my first journalism boss, Roberta "Bobbie" Ulrich.

First Bobbi. As I wrote in a column a few years ago, when I mention to friends or associates that my first boss and journalistic mentor was a woman, there's often a doubletake because of their quick awareness that I'm referring back to the early '60s.That's a long-ago time when many assume that women were unlikely to be the boss.

Bobbie Ulrich was the manager of the Spokane bureau for United Press International when I went to work for her in 1961 while still a student at Gonzaga University.

Although she was only 32 at the time, she had already acquired respect from the then-exclusive male-reporter "club" against whom she competed on behalf of a wire service whose mantra was "Get it first but get it right." She made a point of doing both.
Bobbie UlrichBobbie Ulrich fulfilled a mentor role in building journalistic skills in a nurturing way

But she fulfilled the mentor role of building journalistic skills in a nurturing way that it only occurred to me much later was significantly successful in part because she was a mom, raising two sons while missing a few beats guiding UPI's news coverage in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.

I long ago decided that the skills of mentoring are simply different when they are employed by a mom.

Bobbie and I had a chance to spend part of two days together a few years ago at her alma mater, Washington State University, where she was being honored by the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications with a Hall of Achievement Award for her journalistic contributions.

Our time together then included sitting on a couch enjoying martinis and reminiscing at a gathering at WSU president Kirk Schultz's home to celebrate Bobbie and other honorees at the 10th Anniversary of the Hall of Achievement Ceremony,

I've told friends and acquaintances that Bobbie was largely responsible for the key steps on my career path, at least the UPI two decades that preceded my business journalism focus.

After her four years of training and mentoring in Spokane, I graduated from Gonzaga and was sent by UPI to Olympia, where I soon became state political editor, then to roles in Pacific Northwest, then Southern California as an executive overseeing UPI business in those regions.

Eventually, I was named the wire service's San Francisco-based executive responsible for business activities in the Western States region. I cherished the congratulatory notes I got from her, via inter-office teletype read by all employees, with each promotion.  

One of my favorite stories to indicate what kind of a take-no-prisoners competitor she was came when she went to cover a WSU football game. Bobbie covered college football games at a time sports writers were reluctant to have a woman in the press box.

This story relates to the Cougars' home opener for the 1962 football season when three weeks earlier ordered a telephone installed in the press box, she arrived an hour before kickoff the find no phone had been installed, so her ongoing communication with the UPI staff members during the game would not be possible.

She picked up another reporter's phone and dialed the home number of the president of General Telephone, the provider of phone service to much of the area. The president answered and heard Bobbie say: "Hi, Al, this is Bobbie Ulrich," to which he replied, "well, hello, Bobbie; how are you."

"Not too happy right now. I just got to the Cougar press box, and I don't find the phone I ordered in three weeks ago. It's only an hour 'til game time, but I know you will have the phone here by then."
She hung up, and the phone installer showed up and completed the installation with minutes to spare before kickoff.

We haven't visited lately, but Bobbie is among those who get the Harp.

Now to mom, whom I wrote about last Mother's Day, reflecting on the woman I referred to as a "boys' mom," not merely because of her three sons but also because of the mothering she did for other boys, including eventual grandsons, nearly right up to her death in 2004 at the age of 82.

So I won't repeat that column, other than what some who read it told me was the most compelling part.

That was about her being pretty hard-nosed about teaching us to be the best we could be. Thus, on several occasions, when I was seven or eight years old, and I'd come home crying from having been in a fistfight with neighborhood kids, she'd march me back to the scene and force me to have a proper fistfight with the offending kid.
I can't remember ever losing one of those fistfights. Even on the occasion when I begged tearfully: "But mom, there are two of them!" She marched me back anyway and made the bigger kid stand aside until I had sent his pal home crying after our fight, then she motioned him to step in and get his due.

Even from the perspective of now almost eight decades, I still view that "battlefield education" by my mother as a remarkable, perhaps even unique, chapter in my early development. And many who have heard the story have remarked cryptically: "That explains a lot, Flynn."

So the lessons of both helped prepare me for how to recognize the woman who should be my wife. So I met Betsy in math class at Gonzaga as I returned to school after time in the U.S. Marines picked her out and sat behind her to get to know her. She turned out to be the one.

The final Women's History note with reference to contributions to my history is, of course, reserved for Betsy when I had an opportunity to publicly acknowledge her role as I was inducted into the Puget Sound Business Hall of Fame a decade ago.

Inducted as Hall of Fame laureates with me were retired Alaska Airlines CEO Bill Ayer and Venture firm Cable & Howse founders Elwood (Woody) Howse and Tom Cable, and as it came to my turn to speak, I asked the four wives to stand and be recognized.

So as Betsy, along with Pam Ayer, Ginger Howse, and Barbara Cable stood, I shared with the audience that these were the only wives that any of the four of us ever had, and Betsy and the other three needed to be recognized as the key reasons why we four were there to be honored that evening.
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