In Memory: Nancy Woodhull

April 1, 1997: Nancy Woodhull, trailblazer for women in journalism, dies at 52

By Glenda Holste

Photo of Jaws Member Nancy Woodhull
Nancy Woodhull

Nancy Woodhull was at the podium introducing linguist Deborah Tannen, a long- sought-after speaker for JAWS camp. Woodhull had arranged to get Tannen on our dance card in Napa last fall. They were, after all, friends from when Woodhull was a news executive who had read “You Just Don’t Understand.” Woodhull not only got the message, she passed it on.

Nancy Jane Woodhull, who died Tuesday (April 1) at her home in Pittsford, N.Y., said at her last JAWS camp that she was glad Tannen was there with us in California in September because JAWS was special and always “filled my well.”

For that we can be grateful. Woodhull filled every well she passed. It is exquisitely special to know that JAWS supported her personally, too.

She was a journalist, a feminist, a mother of a daughter, a generous friend, a smart mentor, a graceful change agent and a jolt of analytical energy. Woodhull broke glass ceilings then reached through the shards to lift others up to their potential.

The obituaries say Woodhull was a founding editor of USA Today, former president of the Gannett News Service, a longtime trustee of the Freedom Forum and had been executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York. The obits also note that she had been president of Nancy Woodhull & Associates, a Southern Progress magazine executive and had started her career as a reporter in New Jersey and Detroit. Woodhull was a editor for other Gannett papers before being present at the creation of USA Today. Her leadership in the Women, Men and Media project and as president of the National Women’s Hall of Fame are cited. She was vice chair of the International Women’s Media Foundation and active member and supporter of the Association for Women Journalists.

When the most powerful figures in journalism gathered each April for the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, Woodhull was playing a prominent part. When other executives needed a nudge to get it, Woodhull was there pushing. Politely. Smartly. But pushing.

For our little circle, Woodhull was a sister and godmother to all of us in JAWS. She was, quite simply, always there with and for us. Woodhull joined JAWS in 1989 when we were a rowdy network. We invited this eminent editor to speak at camp and set up a cardboard box on a table for a podium. The honorarium consisted of a gilt aspen leaf pin.

When JAWS got serious about becoming more than, to borrow Kay Mills’ description, “a bunch of middle-aged white women talking to ourselves,” Woodhull made me appear to know what I was doing when applying to the Freedom Forum for a big-fix scholarship grant. We received the $15,000 and with it, reached enough young campers and campers of color in 1992 that we have been able to cherish the richness of our diversity ever since.

When JAWS needs a place for the board to meet or to hold a leaders’ retreat, Woodhull made us welcome. In a splendid vintage Aurora, N.Y., guest house that belongs to Wells College, a woman’s school where Woodhull served on the board of directors. Overlooking Central Park and the rivers that bound Manhattan.

Woodhull made things happen. Here’s a JAWS-moment example. It was Friday afternoon in St. Paul, when every newsie knows the big crunch is on to produce Saturday, Sunday and Monday papers all at once. Cynthia Lozano and your humble servant, however, were dressed up and hauling luggage down with them in a crowded elevator. The goal was to catch the plane that would take them to New York for the JAWS reception and retreat at Woodhull’s new digs high above Madison Avenue. “Where are you going?” a photographer asks with the predictable edge in his voice. “New York City,” we said. “Why?” he shot back. And Cynthia said, “Because we can.” The photographer shut his mouth. The elevator door opened. The plane was on time and we went crosstown in Manhattan’s Friday evening rush hour.

That evening, Betty Anne Williams put it this way: Our feet were sinking deep into the carpet, we were getting a knock-out view from Woodhull’s new office and visiting with the New York JAWS contingent on that perfect Friday evening last July. “Look at this,” Betty Anne said, almost dancing and radiating her glorious smile. “Look at this and it belongs to one of us.”

Woodhull, who was diagnosed with cancer in November, was senior vice president for communications of the Freedom Forum at the time of her death. She turned 52 on March 1. And, as Mindi Keirnan said, Woodhull lived abut 75 years in those 52.

Woodhull leaves her husband, William Watson, daughter, Tennessee Jane Watson, mother May Cromwell, and thousands of sisters. Services were to be held in Rochester, New York, Arlington, Va., and with many tears and plenty of stories next September at JAWS camp.

As we try to fill our wells again, Nancy would advise a strategy we know works: Do something for another woman every day.

For more details on the life and career of Nancy Woodhull as well as information on funeral arrangements go to the Freedom Forum’s WWW site. For another JAWS perspective, read President Rachel Jones column.

From Gayle Reeves

Texas JAWSians are considering making a contribution to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, in Nancy’s memory. I realize there are lots of ways to honor Nancy, but I wonder if other JAWSians would like to join us in this.

I talked to Sarah (sp?) Suggs, exec direc of the Hall of Fame, this morning. She said we could make a contribution to the Hall’s just-being-created permanent endowment, pay for a plaque for Nancy on the Wall of Fame, or perhaps contribute to a new effort to do educational outreach via a Hall of Fame website. While the last seems the most appropriate to me, any are possible.  Let me know what you think.

From: Christine Van Dusen

new JAWS member, reporter, Observer-Dispatch (Utica, NY)

Nancy Woodhull is remembered as a woman who reached out to help others, and I have truly benefited and grown because of that generosity. She came into my life as a guest professor at the University of Rochester. She became my advisor, my mentor and my guide through the unfamiliar and sometimes rough waters of professional journalism.

Everything good that has happened to me as a reporter, she has had a hand in. And as a result, she’s helped me to become a better person.

A story I like to tell: I was at the Freedom Forum for a book discussion on World War II journalists. I was sitting back, relaxing, sipping a glass of wine, confident that I was just there to observe with the thirty or so others in the audience. But Nancy rarely let me be a quiet bystander. She changed gears in the conversation and began talking about young journalists. And suddenly, I heard her say, “In our audience tonight, we have a 23-year-old woman who is about to start her first job. Christy, what do you think, as a young journalist?” All eyes turned to me. I’m sure I looked like a deer caught in headlights, but I calmed my nerves and gave it my best effort.

I have friends and acquaintences in our profession because of Nancy. She is the reason I am a part of JAWS — she introduced me to Rachel Jones at a reception, and Rachel and I have kept contact ever since.

Nancy Woodhull has helped me so many times, it could take pages to recount them all. And I only knew her for less than four years. I am sad she will not be here to share more time with me and the others she has touched.

But in many ways, she is here with us. In fact, I sensed her presence at the reception following the funeral service in Rochester, NY. I was sitting at a table with a few people that I hardly knew, sad and a bit timid in the presence of intelligent strangers. But just then, someone I had met through Nancy sat down next to me and started a lively conversation. She introduced me to her friends and they introduced me to their friends…

It was as if she was there, expanding the circle that she first created so long ago and that will continue in her memory.