By Josie Harris
Alumni and friends gathered at the University of Montana School of Journalism on Friday, September 23 to celebrate the unveiling of new, large-scale, vibrant piece of art hanging in Don Anderson Hall designed to honor women pioneers in Montana’s journalism history. The piece features seven trail-blazing women and artifacts related to their work.
The idea for the women’s wall was conceived shortly after Jane Jeffers Rybus ’46 passed away in October 2018. As a Griz, she was known around campus as “Jeff” and during World War II became UM’s first woman student body president.
Her death moved Tom and Pam Rybus, her son and daughter-in-law and supporters of the Montana Media Lab, to approach then interim Dean and later Director of the J-School Denise Dowling and then Development Director Gita Saedi Kiely to explore how Jeff and her legacy could be honored.
Together, they developed the idea to create a piece of art celebrating Montana women who made ground-breaking achievements in journalism and media.
In addition to Rybus, Dowling and Kiely thought to pay tribute to other women journalists in Montana’s history. After a year-long search including hours of research, faculty input and discussion, they selected six more women to be featured on the wall including Dorothy Rochon Powers, Judith Blakely Morgan, Bonnie Red Elk, Dorothy Johnson, Gretchen Billings, and Aline Mosby.
To make their vision a reality, they commissioned artist and alumna Amber Bushnell McBath ’11, an innovative media artist, to curate the glowing homage to the seven honorees.
Viewers gathered on Friday to admire the completed work for the first time. Found on the first floor of the School of Journalism—suitably located near the Montana Media Lab, which is devoted to innovation, experimentation and emerging media—the women’s wall greets students along the popular gathering and studying spot that stretches across the J-School’s south entrance.
At the dedication event, Dowling invited family members of the honorees to speak.
Erin Billings ’95, who was herself a dogged and acclaimed political journalist and now works in strategic communications, spoke passionately of her grandmother, Gretchen Billings, who wrote and edited for the People’s Voice, a progressive Helena-based paper. In the 1940s-60s, Gretchen didn’t just cover controversial topics, she ran into them.
“She broke the glass ceiling for women in political journalism,” Billings said..
Kristofer Boyd, Bonnie Red Elk’s nephew, who worked alongside Red Elk at her self-started paper, the Fort Peck Journal, expressed great appreciation for her influence and devotion to holding tribal government officials to account, and for standing out in an industry often dominated by men.
“I’m glad things are changing, I really am,” Boyd said.
Following the dedication, Lee Banville, the new director of the School of Journalism, held a panel discussion with three young women in journalism: Maritsa Georgiou ’07, Katheryn Houghton ’15 and Madison Dapcevich ’17. They each shared insights into their very different careers.
Georgiou, a national correspondent for Newsy and award-winning broadcast journalist, spoke of her dedication to getting across the whole story.
“Even if it takes seven minutes to tell,” she said, “I want everyone else to know everything I learned, too.”
Covering all things healthcare as the Montana correspondent for the nonprofit Kaiser Health News, Houghton challenged the assertion that healthcare is an uninteresting, dry topic. “When you talk about access to healthcare, you’re talking about people’s most personal moments,” Houghton said.
As a science reporter and fact-checker at Lead Stories and former science communication fellow with the Ocean Exploration Trust aboard the E/V Nautilus, Dapcevich hardly struggles to make her beat interesting. Instead, Madison said her challenge as a science fact-checker stems from the complicated process of science. She can’t always deliver the answers people want when they want them.
The women’s wall and the dedication represents a great collaborative effort to honor the inspirational women who “blazed a trail for our young female and male students,” Dowling said.
Follow the J-School here and on Instagram @umjschool in the coming days and weeks as we profile each of the outstanding women honored in this dedication.