By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, Helen Thomas, Walter Cronkite, Hunter S. Thompson, Barbara Walters, Jim Lehrer — journalism comes with an extensive pantheon of notable figures, as inescapable for idealistic cub reporters as the inevitable realization that you will likely never make that list, and the eventuality that you will, someday, accidentally print “asses” when you mean “assess.”
Having such an ingrained roster of professional idols is helpful in an aspirational sense, but they’re distant, mythic role models, at best.
How much use is that? Ted Koppel isn’t going to copyedit my page proofs. I can’t call Tim Russert to help me phrase a question to which a political candidate will actually give a straight answer. And some of the pantheon’s most legendary exploits — eliciting tears during interviews, reporting under the influence of hallucinogens, using porn titles as nicknames for sources — don’t exactly constitute a practical how-to guide.
Lucky for me I got to know Katherine Parker, a real, live model of how to be a member of this profession in this particular corner of the universe. Her most prominent traits — moderate, humble, trusting and kind — aren’t conjured by the names above. And her reporting career was conducted in a time and place so far from anywhere considered notable in the mythos of capital-j Journalism as to barely qualify as a suburb of the middle of nowhere.
But she’s meant more to me than any of the inherited roster of reporters I’m supposed to idolize, and my life here has been indelibly enhanced by Katherine, just as Soldotna, her home, has been.
Katherine and Charlie Parker moved to Soldotna in 1961 to homestead on 40 acres atop a hill overlooking the still-infant community. Charlie worked as a surveyor and owner of the Map Shop, and in 1972 Katherine hired on as reporter for the Cheechako News. She became a fixture at public meetings, taking copious notes for her reporting, and chronicled all manner of happenings around town.
Charlie loved to bend his quick wit and sharp tongue to the politics of the day, penning an often-inflammatory column called “The Muckraker” for the paper. Whereas Katherine used her observant, temperate nature to produce fair reporting, and used her meticulous skills in grammar and diplomacy to simmer Charlie’s columns when he boiled over the editorial line. She worked for the Cheechako until it folded in 1982, squeezed out by the Peninsula Clarion, then still young but growing steadily. Since then she invested herself in community pursuits, particularly the Soldotna Historical Society and championing the effort to establish a cemetery in Soldotna.
I met Katherine about 10 years ago, in circumstances that were irresistibly intriguing. She called the newsroom of the Peninsula Clarion, where I worked at the time, looking for someone to fill her vacant rental house.
She thought a reporter would make a responsible tenant. I thought she was obviously, from her voice, elderly, and perhaps suffering from the stereotypes of advancing age. After all, didn’t she know the stereotypes of reporters — pushy, nosy, messy and perpetually broke, partially due to drinking their body weight in cheap booze?
Just as any good reporter does, she knew there are exceptions to every rule, and allowed me to move into her “Yellow House” above Farnsworth Park, which she and Charlie had built and lived in after their initial homestead cabin. I like to think she found me to be a good tenant. Regardless, I immediately found her to be sharper and more avidly engaged in news than most people half her age.
I’d bring the monthly rent check to her at the Map Shop, which she ran since Charlie died in 2001. I quickly learned to schedule my visits on free afternoons so as to enjoy the leisurely experience of dusting off her vast store of local knowledge. I’d look out the shop’s windows, across the sloping valley floor to the Kenai River, and get a glimpse of what she saw from her much-longer vantage.
To me, Soldotna has always been Fred Meyer, summer traffic congestion, dated-looking public buildings, paved streets, stoplights, city water at the turn of a faucet and an ambulance a mere 911 call away. To her, all that was still new, done by and for “the younger people.” Her Soldotna was dirt roads, hand-dug wells, a contentious fight to incorporate the borough and build a seat for the new municipality, a community effort to construct a hospital, and a population she knew personally.
She’d tell me not only what she thought of the current doings of political figures, but of what they’d been like as children. She could trace the lineage of any plot in town — what had been built where, when and by whom. My favorite was when she’d tell me about being a reporter at “the paper,” when that meant the Cheechako, before what I thought of as “the paper” — the Clarion — even existed.
Katherine was generous to her community. She and Charlie donated several parcels of land — on which sit the Nazarene church, the senior center and Parker Park. She was devoted to preserving the history of the area, and you could not find a more supportive, optimistic and proud member of the community. Beyond even all that, the breadth and depth of knowledge she shared with anyone willing to listen was nothing short of a gift.
Being purposefully small town, even if that means “small time,” I’ve never thought of journalism in terms of foreign bureaus, the White House press corps or the names listed above. For me, it’s living and working in a community. Katherine set my most meaningful example of how to do that, even though much of it contradicted what I’d learned from textbooks and college classes. And many of the lessons weren’t even verbalized as such — she wasn’t one to lecture or, heaven forbid, pontificate. But her example spoke loud and clear:
v Be independent. At 88 years old, recovering from a broken hip, Katherine was still living at home, alone, since Charlie died. Even though her daughter and grandkids wanted her living with them, Katherine absolutely wouldn’t live anywhere but her beloved home. There certainly comes a time when admitting limitations and accepting help is wise, even unavoidable. But she was still an example to me that making the most of one’s life is only accomplished through individual determination.
v To cover a community, live in the community. Journalism texts say to remain separate — don’t have any relationships beyond professional with your sources and don’t get involved in anything you might cover. That’s all well and good in a big city or a big news enterprise, with plenty of opportunities outside of your narrow beat, but in a small town all that approach gets you is isolation. Besides being a lonely existence, it doesn’t help in reporting, since being outside looking in only gives you a glimpse of the surface. There are still boundaries to maintain — no involvement in politics or governmental affairs, don’t spout off your opinions, and certainly don’t let any of your involvements obfuscate your objectivity. But don’t limit yourself to binoculars distance, either.
v It’s OK to care. Again, the oeuvre says to be detached, and there’s a good point in that, as you should never let personal leanings influence your reporting. But the only way to prevent that is to acknowledge how you feel in the first place. We’re human. Yes, even reporters. We like people, we dislike people. We agree with some ideas, we disagree with others. We root for certain outcomes, we dread the alternatives. It’s inevitable, and it’s informative to realize those things in order to prevent personal opinions from becoming professional biases. Katherine cared deeply about her community. Though she was remarkably accepting of changes in town — “Well, I don’t know about that, but I suppose it will be good for the young people” — if she did disagree with something, it was with best interests at heart.
v If you can’t say anything nice… . Those things and people you don’t like? That’s all well and good, but you’d best keep that to yourself. The smaller the community, the wider the chasms created when bridges are burned. Katherine was a particular person. She wanted things the way she wanted them and had an opinion about everyone and everything, but I never heard her say a coarse word about any of it. She had a masterful way of getting her point across without you even realizing she was doing it. A ringing endorsement from Katherine was, “Real good, then.” A strongly voiced opinion was, “You know, I really do think that … .” And extreme displeasure? “I just don’t know about that.”
v Work for what you want. Katherine would tell me how she’d never been busier than when she was a reporter, that someone was always upset about something, that there was some crises or another perpetually looming on the horizon — and that she couldn’t imagine any profession she’d enjoy as thoroughly. Anytime I’d talk with her she’d work in the double-edged sword of community journalism — “You must be busy with your paper,” and, “I bet you’re writing about something interesting.” I took them as fitting observations and mission directives. If I wasn’t both at that moment, I should be.
Katherine died Nov. 11, and was laid to rest with Charlie in Soldotna Memorial Park on Nov. 17. She was temperate, kind, intelligent, compassionate and, yes, stubborn, but polite about it. Katherine wasn’t a loudly larger-than-life personality, but her life had a bigger impact on this community than most of us ever will.
My ears will never hear all the Katherineisms I’ve gotten so used to over the years — the way her “hello” in answering the phone tremulated over four notes when most people just hit two; how she’d hang up with, “Bye now” when she was done speaking, regardless of where you thought you were in the conversation; and the occasional high praise she’d lavish when I wrote something she particularly liked: “Real good, Jenny.”
I’ll hear her in my mind, I’ll remember her in my heart, I’ll be forever lucky to have gotten a glimpse of how she saw her home, and I’ll continue to work toward the example she set.
One area particularly needing improvement is that, “If you can’t say anything nice” bit. So here goes:
As for Katherine being gone, I just don’t know about that.
I just don’t know about that at all.
Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor of the Redoubt Reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.