A career suggestion that changed everything

On a warm afternoon a couple years ago, executive editor Mary Lee Hagert slipped out of the newsroom to enjoy the autumn bloom in front of the Lillie Suburban Newspapers building.

When Hagert's career began, female reporters were expected to wear skirts and dress shoes, even when the event they were assigned to cover was taking place at the top of an uneven stone stairway in a state park.

The Iowa State Daily was a cacophony of clattering typewriters, which student reporters like Hagert quickly learned to tune out as they wrote stories on deadline.

Giving tours to Scout troops and grade-school classes gave Hagert a chance to discuss the latest edition of the newspaper and the different jobs required to put it together.

On her last day in the newsroom, Hagert and longtime coworker friends paused for a photo. From left are Linda Baumeister, Pamela O'Meara, Hagert and Kitty Sundberg.

Girls high school basketball was a big deal in Iowa back in the ‘60s. 

There were girls teams only in small towns; the big towns and cities had no sports programs for girls. 

This was the pre-Title IX era, and the game was constricted by an odd set of rules that were based on the premise that girls were fragile and needed protection. But those small-towns girls teams rivaled the boys teams for popularity, and their fans packed gyms on Friday nights.

The annual peak of the basketball frenzy would be the state tournament, when kids and parents poured into Des Moines Veterans Auditorium to cheer on the girls teams, which had nicknames like Raiderettes, Hawkettes, Lady Rebels and the unfortunate Cattlefeederettes.

The pageantry was something to behold and no one described it better — or more playfully — than the Des Moines Register’s satirical columnist Donald Kaul.

Once a year he would put away his political-pundit’s pen and have great fun describing the quirky, six-on-six, half-court game and the surrounding spectacle. 

Kaul’s columns were good-natured humor, and I remember giggling as I read them. Back then my family subscribed to both the Register, which circulated statewide, and the hometown Le Mars Daily Sentinel. I read both papers in the kitchen after school, sometimes reading aloud interesting excerpts to my mother. 

I recall one occasion when she asked what I was chuckling about, and I responded it was a corny pun Kaul made about the Ida Grove, Iowa, girls team being in an “Ida groove.”
I added that someday I’d like to be a writer like him.

‘A good fit’

But by the time I reached college and was considering career paths, that grade-school aspiration was long forgotten. Instead, the path I planned was to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a teacher.
Then as freshman year was winding down, my English composition instructor pulled me aside and inquired about my major. When I told her it was education, she hesitated a moment, almost as if weighing whether she should offer some unsolicited advice, and then plunged ahead. 

She said she thought I was a good storyteller and encouraged me to consider a career in journalism, adding, “I think that would be a good fit for you.”

The suggestion was so unexpected that it left me a bit speechless — not the most promising start to a potential news writing career — but I considered it all summer. The next school year I declared a new major: journalism. 

After completing a few reporting classes, the Iowa State Daily hired me as a student writer. The Daily newsroom was a cacophony of clattering typewriters and robust conversations on the events of the day. 

I remember, too, the sense of anticipation the first time I received an assignment, and the sting when the copy editor handed back the story with red marks and a note that said I had “buried the lead.”

Despite my steep learning curve, the Daily kept me on staff and busy, writing and learning for the next two years.

After graduation, I wore many hats — news reporter, sportswriter, photographer and darkroom assistant — at a couple Iowa daily newspapers.

Then, when my future husband, Karl, began graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I applied for jobs in the Twin Cities and landed one as a beat reporter at Lillie Suburban Newspapers. 

During my long tenure at Lillie News, I went from a reporter covering city council meetings to a news editor to the executive editor, who was tasked with hiring the reporters. 

Now I was the person wielding the red pen and telling cub reporters that they had “buried the lead” and coaching them on ways to incorporate essential facts earlier in their articles.

The next edition

Over the years, I wrote more stories and columns than I can count, met more interesting people from all walks of life than I can possibly remember and had tremendous colleagues, more numerous than I can mention in this space.

I’m one of those lucky people who had an endlessly rewarding and creative career working for a media organization that held high the noble journalistic principles of fairness, inclusiveness, accuracy and excellence.

I realize, too, that I’m one of those rare individuals who spent an entire working life in the same field, and, for me, it was always in the same high-energy, intellectually stimulating setting — a print publication newsroom.

Perhaps that hard-learned lesson of not burying the lead never completely took hold, as I realize I’m just now revealing this column’s essential fact — I’m embarking on a new chapter in my life story: retirement. 

The baton has been passed to the capable hands of a new editor-in-chief, Mike Munzenrider, and although I still intend to write occasional columns, my status is now “editor emeritus.”

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’ve been thinking about our holiday tradition of reflecting on the past year and mentioning a few things about which we are particularly grateful, before beginning the feast.

This year I plan to reach back before 2017, to that day when a busy college professor took the time to give positive feedback on my writing, changing the course of my life and shaping who I am today.

And also thank my parents, who recognized the importance of being informed citizens and subscribed to two papers when I was young. 

When that instructor offered her advice, little did she know the foundation for that possible career path had already been built in the family kitchen, when I read snippets from newspaper articles that I found interesting or funny to my mother. 

Those newspapers truly were my “window into the world” and exposed me to facets of life that I never saw in my hometown of 7,500 people. They also helped form my unending curiosity about the who, what, why, when, where and how of the happenings of the day. 

Through them I developed a lifelong interest in world and national events, politics and all the other topics that revealed truths and insights into the human experience ... as well as an enduring fondness for bad puns. 


– Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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