February 23, 2010

The Maverick Mary Conn Brown

Mary Conn Brown, center, climbed mountains, flew airplanes, swore like a sailor and drank like a soldier -- all the while running a business, The Redmond Spokesman, for 40 years.

Journalist, adventurer, crusty, a hard drinker and even heavier smoker, feisty and foul-mouthed – all those terms have been used to describe the Redmond Spokesman’s most memorable and longest tenured publisher and editor, Mary Conn Brown.

“She was five feet tall and weighed at most 100 pounds. Yet she maintained a powerful presence for 40 years as a newspaper editor in a town otherwise run by men. As tough, intelligent or tenacious as she had to be in anything, she was. Beyond the paper and print shop, it applied to climbing mountains, flying airplanes and maintaining her ribald, eccentric personality in a town where that, too, was not encouraged,” wrote Barry Stranahan, who as a teen worked for Brown, and whose mother, Martha Stranahan, was also a noted Central Oregon newspaperwoman.

She was born Mary Elizabeth Conn on Oct. 19, 1905, in Lakeview, the daughter of La Fayette Conn, then in his 40s, and Lora Butler Conn, 25 years his junior.

“Mary was very adventurous, very smart and very eccentric.
She jumped out of airplanes, for heaven’s sake -
you never knew what she’d be doing.
Judge Conn, who died in Lakeview at age 77 in 1938, was born in Roseburg in 1861, and graduated from Willamette University. He practiced law in Salem before moving to Lakeview in 1892, where he served as district attorney and circuit court judge. He married schoolteacher and music teacher Lora Fern Butler of Dallas, Ore., in 1901. In addition to daughter Mary, they had a son, Theodore, two years younger.

In the mid-1920s Mary Brown headed off to college at Willamette University in Salem, but left after learning the school prohibited dancing. She transferred to the University of Oregon, where she spent time as day editor of the Oregon Daily Emerald, graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in journalism and met Redmond boy and fellow journalism student Joseph Colbert
Brown, son of Edward and Daisy Brown, who were in the creamery business.

After graduation Mary headed to Bend, where she was a reporter for The Bend Bulletin. The 1930 census lists newspaper reporter Mary Brown as a lodger at a rooming house at Broadway and Louisiana in Bend.

By the fall of 1931 Joe and Mary were married. After buying The Spokesman in the fall of 1931 for $10,000, the Browns set out to modernize it, buying the latest model Linotype, a typesetting machine, in 1932.

“Mary was a pea on a hot skillet;
close to a constant motion machine.”

“The Redmond Spokesman has decided to look like a newspaper, as well as act like one,” they wrote. “Besides living in Redmond, we are also living in 1932. A modern newspaper, in a modern town, cannot be published with 1910 printing equipment.”

Through the decade The Spokesman also acquired a new press and added new features, such as comics.

By 1939 The Spokesman had won the prize for top weekly in the state three consecutive times and was awarded permanent possession of the Hal E. Hoss Trophy (though somehow it still remains at the Malheur Enterprise).

In accepting the award Joe Brown gave “full credit for the accomplishment to his wife, Mary Brown,” said an article in The Bulletin at the time.

In a 1978 interview Mary recalled the key to success: “National news has no place in the weekly paper. That’s how you get the edge on the radio and TV. You know you have to carry the local chitchat.”

Barry Stranahan describes a day at The Spokesman in the 1960s: “Harry Sly was in charge of the press room, so he was ultimately responsible if the page was off-register, smudged, faint or incorrectly placed. He was not much taller than Mary and permanently bent forward as he was, could and would jaw chin to chin with her. Mary , too, could and would be ready to do just that. They each had their own 60 or so years behind them and would square off as equals, Harry with a cigar stub clenched in the corner of this mouth and Mary with a menthol in hers. And they would converse in long strings of phrases I could not, for reasons of propriety, even think to relate here. Presently they would come to an understanding. Harry would utter one last glorious string of what pretty much summed it up to him and head for his toolbox. Mary would turn and head back toward her office in the front of the building, stopping to talk to a couple of the back room workers on the way. But she’d be checking back.”

Brown was co-editor and publisher of The Redmond Spokesman from 1931 until 1955, when she became sole publisher after she and Joe divorced.

During World War II, when Joe was away serving in the Navy (he served aboard and eventually commanded the USS Susquehanna, a tanker), Mary Brown ran the The Spokesman with the help of local housewives and in 1942 was elected the first female president of the Oregon Press Association.

“She was a newspaper person Number One.
She had a tremendous gift for spelling and grammar;
she was tough when it came to journalism, a real perfectionist.
She’d sit at an old manual typewriter and bang out stories lickety split.”

Yet Mary Brown’s life was lived far beyond the newspaper office and her personality made a big impression on the community. A petite woman, Brown was often seen rushing down the sidewalk in high heels with a pad of paper and pen in one hand and a cigarette in the other – always a Tareyton in a long holder. In her later years she sported hair dyed jet black and clothes more suited to girls a fraction her age.

An airplane ride when she was a child left a lasting impression and Mary vowed to learn to fly, eventually earning a commercial license.

“I can’t think of anything I liked better than flying,” Brown recalled in a 1980 interview in The Bulletin. She continued to fly well into her 60s.

Brown served for 20 years on the Redmond Airport Commission, 10 as secretary, taking the minutes, handling the books, filling out stacks of applications for federal grants, and taking calls when the public toilet at the original terminal needing unclogging.

She was also one of a group who each contributed $10 to purchase 40 acres at Cline Falls to build an airstrip to fill in while the Army used what was to become Roberts Field. The group borrowed graders, got to work and the strip was ready for take-offs and landings that day.

Mary also skied (and broke her leg skiing at Skyliners west of Bend in February 1939) and climbed mountains, including all the Cascades peaks except St. Helens and Adams.

In August 1928, she and a fellow female Bulletin staffer, Mary Ellen Foley, made the hike up Bachelor Butte (now Mt. Bachelor) by moonlight, leaving Bend after work. After a delay due to car trouble they started the hike about 11 p.m. and reached the lookout station at the top about 1:30 a.m. They were back at work by 7 a.m.

In July 1937 Brown and good friend and frequent climbing companion, Nellie Nooe (later Sly) reached the summit of Mt. Rainier in Washington using a new route up Cadaver Gap.
Over the years South Sister was one of Mary Brown’s favorite places in Central Oregon’s backyard to show others. She took her nephews and their friends, Scouts and visitors up the mountain.

After 24 years of marriage and no children, Mary and Joe divorced and life changed. As both publisher and editor of the Spokesman, time for climbing mountains and other adventures grew short. Joe remarried a younger woman and went on to have several children, eventually moving to Washington State.

Always close to her brother Ted, Mary treasured her time with her nephews, especially Truman, who often came to stay in Redmond. As a youngster she would allow him to sit on a stool and watch the huge letterpress.

Mary wasn’t just adventurous on weekends; she was no stranger to innovation or change in the professional realm. In 1967 she continued to modernize the paper, abandoning hot lead (and its aroma) for modern offset printing, a move Spokesman production manager Jim Sage described as taking real guts. It also meant the end of the line for printing The Spokesman in Redmond. Brown contracted with The Bulletin in Bend for printing press services.

A few years later Mary approached Sage with an idea to invest in a “quick print” business, a direction both saw the printing industry heading. The pair opened Pronto Print in Bend and operated as partners for several years before Sage bought her out.

After selling the newspaper to Western Communications in 1971, Brown retained the printing business, Midstate Printing, but it wasn’t the same as owning a newspaper.

“When she decided to sell the paper I remember telling her that she should sell the print shop and keep the paper; that’s where her passion was. After she sold and did just printing, she was sad,” said Sage. “(Before she sold the paper) every time a politician hit town, their first stop was to see Mary Brown. The fire chief, police chief – (if you were smart) you kept the editor on your side. When she sold the paper all these people never came back. I felt that bothered her. She went from a very important person to ordinary.”

After retirement (she sold Midstate in 1980) Mary settled into a little house near downtown with 13 cats and a big black sheepdog that used to accompany her to work. She worked a while for the new owners of the print shop but it wasn’t the same.

“It doesn’t smell like a print shop anymore,” Brown lamented at one point. “Kinda miss it.”
After suffering a few years of poor health Mary Brown died Oct. 6, 1982, at age 77. Her ashes were scattered on Mount Jefferson.

-- story by Trish Pinkerton andLeslie Pugmire Hole
Spokesman staff

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your article on Mary Brown... An institution in Central Oregon.... Mary had one speed "Over Drive"!

I was with my father at the construction of the air field at cline falls. Started early in the morning and a plane landed late in the afternoon.

Roberts Field was used for Coast Patrols as it was socked in only for 2 or 3 days a year due to fog...In the later years it was a training base for P-38 fighter planes....


Dean Short