COLUMBIA — Tad Bartimus has traveled on four continents, written four books, was named a Pulitzer finalist twice and won countless awards. But perhaps her most important contribution to journalism is that her career shattered the notion that the hard news business was men’s work.
Bartimus, who graduated from the MU School of Journalism in 1969, will be the keynote speaker Tuesday at the celebration of the 20-year anniversary of the National Women in the Media collection. The collection, housed at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection in Ellis Library, has grown to 850 boxes of personal and professional memories, dating back to the Civil War, that tell the story of women in the media.
Bartimus, who was among the first people to donate items to the collection, was born in Trenton.Her career started to take shape when she was in high school. She let everyone know that she would, one day, be covering the war in Vietnam.
In “War Torn,” a 2002 book that tells the stories of nine female journalists who covered Vietnam, Bartimus recalled that talk of the war drove the conversation at her family’s dinner table.
“It was osmosis, rather than epiphany,” she wrote, “that set me on my course.”
At MU, spring break 1968 was a preview of an epic career to come. Only months after the Tet Offensive was announced, Bartimus negotiated a plane ticket to Hawaii from Henry J. “Hank” Waters III, then editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, in exchange for a series of stories about soldiers on leave and “the tenor of the times.” She figured that if she couldn’t be in Vietnam, she was at least going to report on it.
Three days out of college, Bartimus was hired by The Associated Press. In “War Torn,” she described how she wrote incessantly to a “chauvinist” general manager and the AP personnel department, begging for a ticket to Vietnam. In 1973, Bartimus was given a chance to experience a war zone from behind her reporter’s notebook as an AP correspondent.
In Vietnam, while covering farmers in the Mekong Delta, Bartimus was exposed to the chemical Agent Orange. She later struggled with severe fatigue, muscle-joint pain and other symptoms, according to a doctor’s report printed in “War Torn.” Years later, doctors still couldn’t come up with a diagnosis. For 15 years, she fought insurance companies for worker’s compensation claim. In 1992, the AP declared her incapacitated, and her 25-year career with the wire service was over.
“Surviving a war,” she wrote, “doesn’t mean you escape being its victim.”
Despite her illness, Bartimus continued to influence women in the field before her career ended. In 1984, she and five other women were invited to take a break from the newsroom to have a conversation about the state of women in the media. That led to the creation of the Journalism and Women Symposium, or JAWS, in 1985.
“What these people needed was a vacation and a retreat,” Bartimus said. “The first year we had 16 women. ... The second year, we had 36, and the third year, we had to close registration at 60 because we didn’t have enough hotel rooms. From that came JAWS.”
Today, JAWS numbers almost 1,000 members, and the annual conference provides a respite for women in the field and an opportunity to check in on the status quo of women in the media.
The National Women in the Media collection features photographs, notes from interviews, clips, paperwork, personal letters and other riches tucked away in the hundreds of folders packed in aging cardboard boxes. Bartimus has donated nearly 14 boxes of material to the collection.
“(WHMC Director) Nancy Lankford told me from the very beginning, ‘Throw nothing away, because you can’t judge what is important,’” Bartimus said. “I think that served the collection so well. By having everything — story notes, old letters, diaries, love letters — you can see the real person, not just the professional struggle.”
Bartimus continues to write today. Her “Among Friends” column launched in 1998 and is now available in 36 publications. She puts the current events of the day through her ever-insightful lens.
Although she is a pioneer in journalism, “Among Friends” tells of life beyond the quest for a byline. Her first column, published on Mothers Day in 1998, begins, “Women’s work is primordial. Since Eve, we have chopped food with knives on boards, scrubbed cloth, cooked over fire. The advent of microwaves and self-cleaning ovens has made our tasks easier than they need to be, since we now do the work of our fathers as well as our mothers.”
IF YOU GO
Who: Tad Bartimus and a panel featuring MU faculty Mary Kay Blakely, Jan Colbert and Jacqui Banaszynski and Kim Voss of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
What: Lecture, panel discussion and reception to celebrate the National Women in the Media collection’s first 20 years at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection.
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Ellis Library Auditorium.
For more information, go to whmc.umsystem.edu/news/nwmreception.html or call 882-6028.