JAWS at 35: Unspoken, unquiet missions

This is what I know about the first JAWS gathering, 35 years ago this month at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado: As organizer Tad Bartimus led our troop of 15 up to a mountain cabin to hear Jean Gaddy Wilson report on the number of women in newsrooms and editor’s offices (bleak); as we sat around a campfire introducing ourselves (what an eclectic group!); as we laughed and grimaced and told stories of knowing joy in our profession despite the rotten ways we were often treated….I knew I was home.

Jane Marshall
JAWS/ first president, Jane Marshall

Ah, those infant years. Before grandiose thoughts of a future, before paperwork, before internal struggles, reinventions and sophisticated programming. Even then we knew what we had was precious. Of course we each faced different hurdles in our lives and in our work. But we were sister journalists. We were problem solvers. We could make things happen. We knew people who knew people. We knew how to laugh. And we conjured up unspoken yet unquiet missions. Three of them.

No. 1: Geography

One of the first JAWS pledges – back when fundraising to pay for stamps meant passing the coffee cup – was location. Future gatherings, we determined, had to include mountains, nearby shopping, no more than two airplanes, no cities or convention centers. We outgrew a couple of those pledges. But over 35 years we have met in interesting places for our adventures. Without JAWS I would not have known Glacier National Park. Or explored the historic Banff Springs Hotel through the back door. Or whitewater rafted on the Snake River (When Kathy Bonk decided it should become a race, the male guides looked horrified). Or listened for elk calls in the Grand Tetons. Or hiked the shores of Lake Champlain (Vt.) in the snow. Or eaten posole at Santa Ana Pueblo or a bacon flight in Palm Springs or heirloom grits and goat cheese in Asheville. JAWS always meant geography lessons.

No. 2: Worldview

JAWS is our own personal Hubble, showing us universes we might never have witnessed. I forget much, but some moments during the 35 years shine like stars: Byllye Avery turning us into gospel singers as she preached about women’s health and poverty. Molly Ivins pointing out that many national problems would not be festering if we journalists had been paying attention (“There’s a terrible tendency to quote people with titles and they all lie”). A panel of researchers and border patrol (one of few men ever to grace programming) telling truths about undocumented immigration. Marian Wright Edelman’s compassion; Margaret Atwood’s wit; Pat Schroeder’s political commitment; Gloria Steinem’s easy eloquence; Zainab Salbi’s humanitarian spirit. Playwrights and park rangers. Artists and advocates. Trailblazers and teachers.  The people we encountered – their words, their ideas, their lives – broadened our world, making us better journalists and wiser people.

No. 3: Friendship

When they were wee, my daughters learned a song: Make new friends and keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. That’s JAWS. Every year, about a third of those at our annual symposium are new. They are a diverse group in every way. Delightful. Interesting. Shiny silver possibilities. After 35 years, I have gold enough for a thousand crowns. Need talking off a ledge; call on JAWS gold. Need a long-distance “attagirl”; call on JAWS gold. Need an opinion on a piece of writing, or a computer catastrophe solved, or a reading list or permission to scream or a brain nudge; call on JAWS gold. Sad, happy, laughing, crying, lonely, sick and tired of the living room? JAWS gold. The most golden memories are personal: the dinner party Kay and Connie gave my daughter when she graduated from USC; stalking donuts in Portland with Glenda, Pam and Gina; Sunday brunch with the DC crew when I was in town; Sharon, Nancy and Bonnie traveling halfway across the country to spend a weekend at my Kansas farmhouse; natty lunch with Julie and Paula in Santa Fe; Betsy Wade saying “I need a Jane Marshall hug” (Me? Gulp!); laughing so hard my gut hurt with Judy and so many others! Over the years, we gradually changed from journalists who were friends to friends who were journalists. Yes, we learned data mining, phone photography, mentoring, book publishing, and so much more. Building professional skills is what JAWS does. But, to me, the “personal growth” part is what binds us and what makes us JAWS. For 35 years we have grown through our unspoken yet unquiet missions: hikes and horseback rides, guests who touched our lives during fireside chats or barroom conversations, the deep friendships that is JAWS’s yeast. I think there is a word for all this. Care. I won’t be around for 35 more years. But my hope is that that word – care – reverberates through our next bit of history. When it does it changes lives, it reminds us that – whatever our differences – we are a special community. Thank you, JAWS.