Thursday, March 1, 1951: She wants to be a sports reporter

Posted on December 27th, 2005 – 1:01 AM
By Ben Welter
Jo Smith, 1951
Minneapolis Tribune

Wes Fesler, a three-time All-America football player at Ohio State, arrived in Minneapolis in the winter of 1951 to coach the Golden Gophers, replacing the legendary Bernie Bierman. Tribune reporter Gerry Sohle somehow worked Fesler into this story about Jo Smith, right, a University of Minnesota student who was pursuing a career in sports reporting.

NOTE OF INTEREST ONLY TO COPY EDITORS: My colleague John Addington, known as “the Styatollah” hearabouts, recalls that the Tribune’s stylebook of the era called for dropping the “the” from the University of Minnesota, as in “she is sports editor of the Minnesota Daily at University of Minnesota.” Maybe they were trying to save ink.

How did things turn out for Jo Smith? A hint: She landed in Gainesville, Fla., after stops in Rhinelander, Wis., and Chapel Hill, N.C. An update follows this story, which appeared on a features page — not sports — in the Minneapolis Morning Tribune.


Her Goal Is Writing
In the Field of Sports


Wes Fesler has a reputation for being both a fine football coach and a good talker. But a little brown-haired, round-faced girl had Fesler tongue-tied for a moment or two the other morning.

She is Jo Smith, who wants more than anything else to be a sports writer. Currently she is sports editor of the Minnesota Daily at University of Minnesota.

She and I went out to ask the new Minnesota football coach what he thought about Jo’s chance to succeed.

FESLER TILTED back his chair and thought awhile, “I suspect Jo will have a difficult job,” he said.

“She’ll have to depend mostly on just reporting the event, I don’t think she’ll be able to get as much background for her stories as the men can.

“I just don’t know what the attitude of players and coaches would be,” Fesler continued. “I’ve never been interviewed by a girl sports reporter. I guess I’d give her the same story I would a man.

“But I suppose generally a coach would be more likely to wonder what Jo’s qualifications are. They’d never think of questioning a man’s qualifications, though I imagine some aren’t as good as Jo’s.”

JO ACCEPTED that with a smile. Fesler went on: “There are some other problems. For instance, at Ohio State women weren’t allowed in the press box.”

That brought some reaction from both Jo and myself. We have shared the indignity of being barred from Memorial stadium press box. We also have had the pleasure of being invited to return to the press box. So we know that is a tradition that can be broken.

Fesler wished Jo luck and complimented her on her determination.

Wes Fesler
April 1951: New coach Wes Fesler gets acquainted with his players during spring drills at Northrop field. (Minneapolis Tribune photo)

As we prepared to leave and Fesler got ready to go to luncheon, I asked him about his family. He looked unhappy.

“They haven’t come up from Columbus yet and I’ve never been so homesick in my life,” he said. He and Mrs. Fesler have two sons and a daughter.

Jo and I walked across the campus and she told me how she got interested in sports and sports writing. It started when Jo was literally in the cradle. Her grandmother, Mrs. Edward Thomas of Deephaven, loved to listen to baseball broadcasts. Jo heard them instead of lullabys.

WHEN SHE WAS three years old, her grandfather took her to see the Golden Gloves, hockey and football games. Jo just naturally read the sports pages of the newspapers and followed sporting events. When there were no professional games to see, she watched park board games.

One of the greatest disappointments of Jo’s life came when she wasn’t allowed to write sports for the Southwest high school paper. She had to console herself with writing editorials.

She didn’t work up the courage to apply for a job on the Minnesota Daily sports staff until the end of her sophomore year in college. Then she had to stretch the truth a little to get the job.

“I told the sports editor I could write about tennis,” she told me. “I really didn’t know much about it but I learned quickly.”

AFTER A YEAR as a sports reporter, she was appointed sports editor. Then came her exile from the press box at the stadium during the National Collegiate Athletic association track meet last summer. But by football season she had a pass to the box and in addition to her reporting for the Daily, she sent material on Minnesota games to the Chicago Tribune.

Though she won’t graduate until June, Jo has started job hunting. With the help of the school of journalism, she is sounding out sports editors and writers around the country. So far she has had no offers but the response hasn’t been entirely discouraging.

“The idea of a girl writing sports just seems to be too ‘new’ for most men writers to take,” Jo said. “But I’m not going to give up – yet.”

Jo is the daughter of Mr. And Mrs. R.B. Smith, 5352 Chowen avenue S.

December 2005 update: Jo Smith, the “little brown-haired, round-faced girl” who vigorously pursued a job in sports reporting, is now a retired journalism professor. She lives just a couple of blocks from the University of Florida’s baseball stadium in Gainesville and still follows sports closely. Her career milestones:

  • Sports editor/wire editor at the Rhinelander Daily News in Wisconsin.
  • General-assignment reporter and night manager at the United Press in Minneapolis.
  • Master’s degree in journalism at the University of Minnesota.
  • Journalism instructor at the University of North Carolina.
  • Journalism professor at the University of Florida.

    “I think I was the last person in my graduating class to get a job because I was holding out for a sports job,” she recalled in a telephone interview. “AP did a story about me and said I was the only female sports editor in Wisconsin and the only woman sports editor at a daily in the country at that time.”

    Smith, now 75, shared a wide range of memories:

    On the Minnesota Daily: “I had been named sports editor in the spring [of 1950]. … The NCAA track and field championships were held at Minnesota that year … at the old Memorial Stadium. We were sent the usual press passes, one for the sports editor and one for the track reporter. When we got to the press box, the guy said, ‘You can’t come in here. This is off limits to women.’ We explained that we’d received press passes and I was sports editor of the Daily. He let us in that day but insisted I couldn’t come back because women weren’t allowed in the press box. I was totally flabbergasted. I had no idea you couldn’t get in there.

    “The editor of the paper and I went to the athletic department officials and explained our case. They gave us the old thing about the bad language I’d encounter. And they said that the people at the major papers [including the Tribune] wouldn’t allow it. …

    “We went to see the president of the university, J. Lewis Morrill. … His office had a view of Coffman Union, and he made some remark about did I realize there was a faculty club in the union? I said I didn’t. ‘What would you think if I told you that women faculty can’t use the club?’ I told him that would be unfair. He said he agreed but that it was out of his control. ‘But I think I can do something about this.’ He spoke to someone in the athletic department. He said: ‘If anyone should be able to get into the press box, it should be the sports editor of the student newspaper.’

    “I was not an activist. I was naïve and thought if you had the job, you got to do the things that came with the job.”

    Jo Smith, 1952
    June 1952: Rhinelander Daily News sports editor Jo Smith interviews athletes at Rhinelander High. From left: Terry Treau, Duane Snyder, Don Johnson and Bob Hack. (Minneapolis Tribune photo)

    On Rhinelander: “At first there was resistance from the coaches who said they wouldn’t talk to a girl. But we worked it out and some later gave me job recommendations. … They liked to test me. One time I went up there [to the high school] and the basketball coach was about to cut his squad from 15 to 10 for a tourney. There was a lot of controversy as to what those cuts would be. And he said something challenging like, OK, Miss Smarty, who would you cut? We both wrote out separate lists — and they matched.”

    On the United Press: “Most of the interviews I did were on the phone. I did a couple that I especially enjoyed. I interviewed Joe Hauser. At the time, he was making a splash as the ancient manager up at Duluth, he must have been in his 60s or 70s and could still hit the ball out of the park. … . I interviewed Bronko Nagurski and Tony Zale, the middleweight boxing champion who fought people like Rocky Graziano.”

    On the University of Florida: She taught there for about 29 years, specializing in media law. She was the founding director of Florida’s Freedom of Information Center, now the Brechner Center, in 1977. She retired from the university as professor emeritus in 1988.

    “When I retired, they told me I had taught more than 10,000 students.” Among them were Deborah Amos of National Public radio, swimmer Tracy Caulkins and home-improvement expert Bob Vila.

    On her favorite sport: “I became a baseball fan as a baby in the cradle and have never left it. And adore it. I still have season tickets here for the University of Florida.” Favorite player? “We’re very fond here of David Eckstein. He was a walk-on here.” She saw him at tryouts and remembers thinking: “I wish [coach] Joe Arnold would keep that little blond kid.” He did, and the 5-7 shortstop starred for the Gators before moving on to the big leagues.

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