I’ve never gone to any of my high school reunions and don’t ever plan to. It’s just not a time I want to reminisce about.
Joan Barron has had an immeasurable impact on her colleagues in the press corps and the entire state of Wyoming. For the past half-century, she has been the eyes and ears of residents who can’t participate first-hand in the government functions that have so much bearing on their lives. She’s expertly covered the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
The newest member of the Wyoming Press Association’s Hall of Fame — and the first ever reporter inducted — has a sterling reputation for being fair and accurate. Her opinion columns in the Casper Star-Tribune feature politically incisive insights that are sharpened by her unique historical perspective.
Star-Tribune alumni came to the event from far and wide. Bill Luckett, who succeeded me as Joan’s capital bureau assistant when I moved to Casper 20 years ago, flew from his home in Oregon because, he said, he simply couldn’t miss it.
I can relate with Luckett and others who shared how much they valued the years they spent working alongside Barron in the Capitol Building’s media office. Barron and whoever else was assigned to the bureau were the only reporters there year-round.
“The phone was ringing all the time, and every single call was for Joan,” Luckett said. “That went on for years. There were so many sources she had known forever.”
Charles Pelkey, an attorney and Democratic state representative from Laramie, was the reporter I replaced when I began working with Barron in 1993.
“She had the respect of people on both sides of the aisle,” Pelkey said at Barron’s induction ceremony. “Frankly, if I hadn’t got my start in journalism under her tutelage as a reporter, there’s no telling what Burger King I’d be working at today.”
Luckett wants young reporters beginning their careers to know why Barron is so respected by her peers, news sources and readers. “She embodies professionalism and integrity,” he said. “She took her job seriously, knew the rules that we all understand in this job, and lived them better than anybody I know.”
The fact that Barron is the only reporter to be inducted into WPA’s Hall of Fame, joining many esteemed publishers, editors and newspaper executives, is telling — and something she’s proud of.
“I think it’s important that you’re recognizing a reporter,” Joan told the banquet crowd. “We are kind of on the lower rungs of the hierarchy in the newsroom. You can’t have a newspaper without reporters.”
Her contributions were recognized by two former governors, Mike Sullivan and Dave Freudenthal, whose congratulatory letters were shared at the event.
“I suspect you have inquired, cajoled, cross-examined and reported upon more Wyoming politicians, their politics, positions, habits and eccentricities than any journalist in the history of the state,” Sullivan wrote.
Freudenthal noted an interview technique she employed with great success: calmly bringing up controversial comments or assertions from others to provoke a response. “Her tone was always even, with just enough modulation at the end of the question to encourage a less than thoughtful response,” he wrote.
Freudenthal admired the reporter’s methods, but claimed that early on he learned not to fall for Barron’s “art of silence” — a tactic that often made interview subjects nervous enough to volunteer information.
Rob Hurless, former Star-Tribune publisher, compared Barron’s approach to how detectives and lawyers pry information from people. But where patient silence is an inquisitorial technique most have to hone with training and practice, the tactic, he said, “absolutely natural,” for Joan.
Her deadpan sense of humor was also on display at Friday’s induction ceremony. As she recounted some of her favorite memories about 1970s-era legislators, she paused and said, “They drank more. They really did. And they were a lot more freewheeling.”
The last night of the session was typically a big party night, she recalled. “So they couldn’t be accused of drinking in the Capitol, they would slip out on the fire escape,” she recalled. “It was cold, but they didn’t care.”
Tom Rea, a former Star-Tribune city editor who worked with Barron during several sessions, marveled at the amount of copy she produced. “She led by example,” he told me. “She put her head down and produced about three or four times as much work as I did.”
I certainly couldn’t match her output, either. No one could. But what impresses me most is her encyclopedic knowledge of Wyoming politics. Such institutional memory about state events is a precious rarity, especially in this day of whole-sale budget-driven newspaper layoffs.
Rea, editor of the history-based website wyohistory.org, said when he assigned a writer to a piece about Wyoming’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973, he told her to call Barron.
It was the right move, because Barron remembered the detail that ERA supporters cloaked the statue of Wyoming suffragette Esther Hobart Morris with flowers at the Capitol’s entrance. Armed with this information, Rea was able to locate a hard-to-find photo of the event.
Barron was a nurse before serving as the paper’s capital bureau chief for 45 years. She “officially” retired from her full-time job in 2014, but continues to masterfully write her Sunday column, covering both current and historic events.
Perhaps one of the reasons Barron became my friend and mentor is that we are both lifelong Democrats. When she started covering the Legislature, she recalled, the wire service reporters told her she’d have to register to vote as an independent, or risk the wrath of Republican lawmakers who were in charge of everything.
“I thought about it, and my whole family were Irish railroaders, union people, so I thought, ‘I’m not going to change,’ and actually it worked out OK,” she said. “I felt I could be objective and fair.”
She always was, a quality that could irk Democrats as well as the GOP. Bruce McCormack, retired Cody Enterprise publisher, revealed that when he was her assistant in 1977, then Gov. Ed Herschler called the pair into his office to vent about a series of articles on state government corruption in which the governor’s name kept popping up.
“He got madder and madder, and he’s pounding and pounding the table,” said McCormack, who described himself as a very nervous cub reporter. “He said, ‘Leave me out of your stories!’”
Herschler continued his tirade for some time, McCormack said, before throwing them out of the office.
“We walked out and I’m shaking and need to clean my pants,” McCormack said. “And Joan looks at me and says, ‘I didn’t think that went too bad.’”
A priceless story about a treasured Wyoming journalist was a perfect way to cap the evening. But on my way out, I asked Luckett what he would have said if he had taken a turn at the mic to share memories of Joan.
Luckett broke into a grin. “I would have looked at her and said, ‘I realize you’re not perfect, but in six years, I never found any evidence to prove that.’”