Winifred Imhof Cook blazed a path on a typewriter.
She grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania and knew she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps as a journalist. When she graduated from Penn State in 1948, few women worked in the country’s newsrooms as journalists.
“My mom was a pathbreaker,” her daughter, Pam Cook, of the Bay Area, said. Winifred Cook became an editor and writer at the Trenton Times, a daily in New Jersey. Eventually, she joined the staff of the Home News in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where she worked for 25 years as a features writer and one of the first consumer affairs editors in the country.
Nowadays, 70 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 work in the paid labor force. In the 1950s, Cook was more of an anomaly.
She was the only mother who scheduled parent-teacher conferences in the evening because she worked during the day, her daughter recalled. She knew her male colleagues got paid more than their female counterparts, and the unfairness rankled her, Pam Cook said.
Winifred Cook built her career interviewing noteworthy individuals, like Lucille Ball, Barry Goldwater Jr., Malcolm Forbes and Vidal Sassoon. She investigated consumer issues. The paper nominated her work for a Pulitzer once. She won a string of awards. She made an impression in less obvious ways, as well. A former classmate told Pam Cook decades later that he decided to pursue a career in journalism after their elementary school class visited her mom in the newsroom.
Winifred Cook retired in the mid-‘80s, long before the digital revolution transformed newsrooms. Her stories don’t exist on the internet, but in boxes filled with folders of clips her daughter inherited after her mom passed away in 1995. That year, her former paper merged with the News Tribune of Woodbridge Township. It was later bought by Gannett.
Her daughter has spent years going through boxes of old clips and memorabilia, sending stories and photos to historical societies or libraries who may have an interest in preserving some of it. Earlier this year, Pam Cook came across a clipping in those files from a Life magazine article published in 1953. It was yellowed and delicate, like old paper gets when it ages. Life magazine had written an editorial that was a paean to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's investigative reporting and fearlessness of its editorial page. The piece marked the 75th anniversary of the paper with effusive praise.
Winifred Cook didn’t have any connection to St. Louis or its paper, but the piece must have inspired her when she read it because she had saved it for decades.
Her daughter decided it should go to a female journalist, so she Googled our paper’s website, stltoday.com. She came across the names of features writers, picked one and mailed the old clipping with a short note. Given the turnover in newsrooms these days, she wasn’t sure if the writer even still worked there.
In early August, I had returned from a week’s vacation to a stack of mail in my newsroom mailbox. A package from California caught my eye. Most of my snail mail arrives from somewhere in the Midwest.
I opened it and pulled out a creased and faded page. The words that inspired a trailblazing newswoman about my paper’s courageous editorial page arrived the same week I started writing editorials for that same paper.
It felt like Winifred Imhof Cook was shaking a fist at those attacking journalists today. Perhaps she was encouraging the rest of us to keep on keeping on.
I got that page framed.
It brings to mind the work journalists around the world aim to do. It honors the writers who upheld the values of the Pulitzer platform engraved in our lobby and printed at the top of our editorial section every day -- regardless of the consequences.
Even more, that worn page reminds me of the newswomen who made a space for more voices at the table.
Newspapers have suffered deep cuts in staff and rising attacks on journalists and the freedom of the press itself. The final paragraphs of the Life editorial show how a few things stay the same, and how much everything changes.
"The Post-Dispatch in its 75th successful year is living proof that journalism cannot survive but prosper by speaking its mind and serving as the conscience -- even when a conscience must be irritating -- of democracy."
The paper marked its 140th year of daily publication on Wednesday.
Thanks, Winifred Cook, for the reminder of what endures.