By Diana Elbasha
The Working Press
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists are remembering three former presidents as effective leaders and eloquent storytellers.
Jean Otto, Ernie Ford and Phil Record all passed away since SPJ’s October 2010 national convention. Otto was SPJ’s first female president.
“She made SPJ matter when issues came before Congress or courts. If we were not playing in that arena, we might not exist today,” said Sigma Delta Chi Foundation President Steve Geimann, who worked nearly three decades alongside Otto in various settings. He described her as firm, determined and influential.
Defending journalism was Otto’s first love: she spent much of her 1979-80 term advocating for free speech and access to information, ultimately creating a legal presence for the society in Washington – the epicenter of the justice system, Geimann said.
Sara Stone, a former SPJ board member and long-time friend of Otto, admired her not just for her dedication to the industry but also for a personality that was as warm and kind as it was fierce and passionate.
Otto, a reporter and editor in Wisconsin and Colorado for nearly 50 years, died Sept. 15. She was 86.
Colleagues remembered the late journalist as a First Amendment champion, noting she founded the First Amendment Congress, a coalition of journalism organizations that advocated for free speech for nearly a decade. She also wrote about the experiences in her aptly titled autobiography, “First Love: Memoirs of a First Amendment Freedom Fighter.”
Members insisted that no other SPJ leader had left as lasting an impression on the society as Otto did. That is, until Ernie Ford came along.
“Ernie was an amazing character, and a hard-driving news director … he steered SPJ through some difficult times,” said Ethics Committee Vice Chair Fred Brown, a former national vice president who succeeded Ford as Region 9 director.
Ford, who was national president in 1991-92, took on the role of executive director – described as one of the most difficult in SPJ – the following year.
Members said he worked tirelessly to keep SPJ afloat at a time when it was approaching financial ruin. They said the organization might not have survived without his and Otto’s efforts.
Ford died June 1 at age 70 after a long career in print and broadcast journalism. He later taught at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where SPJ was founded.
“No one is indispensable,” Stone said. “But Ernie and Jean left such lasting marks on the society that it is apt to be a long time before someone comes along to fill their shoes.”
Members also remembered Texas journalist Phil Record for his 55-year dedication to SPJ. He was president in 1983, held that post for the SDX Foundation and was in charge of SPJ’s first-ever Planning Committee.
“He certainly had a reputation of being ‘Mr. Ethics,’” said former SPJ President Georgiana Vines. “He definitely was, for those of us who were around, someone we looked up to.”
Howard Dubin, treasurer of the SDX Foundation, said Record was an inspirational teacher and compelling speaker: “He could get up and just talk, extemporaneously, the kind we’re all envious of. He literally could just have an audience in tears. He was that inspirational.”
A devout Roman Catholic, Record always extended a helping hand, Vines said.
“If any of us were ever in trouble, he told us we were on his prayer list. It was pretty reassuring to be on his list,” she said.
Record, a long-time reporter at the Forth Worth Star-Telegram, died Oct. 30, 2010. He was 81.