Chris Dubbs is a military historian living in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and has worked as a newspaper journalist, editor, and publisher. He is the author of numerous books, including An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I (Nebraska, 2020), American Journalists in the Great War: Rewriting the Rules of Reporting (Nebraska, 2017) and America’s U-Boats: Terror Trophies of World War I (Nebraska, 2014).
I finally connected with veteran journalist Judy Woodruff. We had become digital acquaintances in 2019 when she wrote the foreword for my book An Unladylike Profession. We had exchanged emails and worked together over drafts of the foreword, but had never met.
In December 2022, when she came to speak in Erie, PA, at the university from which I am retired, we took advantage of the situation to meet face to face. That meeting occurred just two weeks before she was scheduled to step down from her position as anchor of PBS NewsHour.
My book brought to light the courageous work of female journalists who challenged oppressive gender norms and society’s expectations of how any journalist—male or female—reported a war. In Woodruff’s foreword, she gave credit to these female reporters from World War I for ushering in the century of progress for women in the media, and in particular how they opened doors for those women who would later cover World War II, Vietnam, and who now routinely report from today’s conflict zones.
What Woodruff did not mention in that foreword was the role that she herself has played in pioneering the expanded role for women in the media. Roughly 100 years separate today from World War I, and for over half of that century—56 years—Woodruff has been a fixture in the national spotlight. She began her career at WQXI-TV, Atlanta, GA in 1968. Judy has long been an advocate for women in the media, but it is her own career that stands as a shining example of their progress.
In May 2022, when Woodruff announced that she would be stepping down as the anchor of PBS NewsHour at year’s end, accolades poured in, praising her and lamenting the end of her remarkable career. The New York Times wrote: “the last grown-up in Washington journalism” was signing off. All of this was well-deserved eulogy, just a bit premature. They had misinterpreted the term “stepping down.”
I should note here that Judy and I are the same age, both born in 1946, the avant garde of the Baby Boom generation that prides itself on flaunting convention. (You will also note in the photo that she has weathered the years better than yours truly.) Eight years ago, as I approached the end of a long career in academia, I developed the habit of putting air quotes around any mention of that word indicating a departure from the workforce. “Yes, I am about to ‘retire,’” I would say to colleagues and then bracket the word with fluttering fingers, a gesture that invariably drew a puzzled expression.
What I had kept a dark secret all my life is that employment had always been a nuisance for me because it took time away from writing. Freed of that encumbrance in “retirement,” I began to write more than ever and publish at a brisk pace—five books in eight years. The University of Nebraska Press has indulged my obsession by publishing three of those books.
Which brings me back to Woodruff. When she speaks about her post-news-anchor future, she does not use air quotes, nor mention the word retirement. Instead, she speaks excitedly about her next project—“Judy Woodruff Presents: America at a Crossroads.” The instant she steps down from the anchor desk, she is embarking on a two-year project to explore America’s fractured political state. She will travel the country, interviewing ordinary citizens, politicians, writers, historians, and religious and community leaders. She will report regularly for this series on the NewsHour, with possible primetime specials for PBS.
I suppose because she and I are of the same generational cohort, I feel a special connection to Woodruff at this juncture in her career. I have “stepped down” from my career, but am working just as hard, on my own terms. The driving pace of my writing keeps me going. I mean that figuratively and literally. And nothing frightens me more—and I suspect the same is true for Woodruff—than to imagine a day when I will no longer be able to do this.