MISSOULA – Legendary newspaperwoman and University of Montana alumna Dorothy Rochon Powers broke glass ceilings throughout the course of her storied career.
1959: First woman to win the Human Interest Storytelling Ernie Pyle Award. 1977: First woman to serve as The Spokane Spokesman-Review’s editorial page editor. 1979: First female president of the UM Foundation board of trustees.
Always leading the way, she served as an inspiration to countless journalists through her dogged nature and fearless and compassionate reporting.
“Dorothy was a pioneer in journalism, demonstrating the power of telling stories about everyday heroes, and inspiring many women in the newsroom and in other careers,” said Peggy Kuhr, UM vice president for integrated communications and former dean of the UM School of Journalism. Kuhr worked with Powers at The Spokesman-Review.
Even after her passing in 2014, Powers inspires others to make a difference. She and her husband, Elwood, made a provision in their will to support incoming UM students.
Their estate gift of $1.1 million has created the Elwood and Dorothy Rochon Powers Scholarship, which will be awarded to graduates of Montana high schools who show financial need and academic merit. Their gift has created an endowed fund that will provide for the scholarship in perpetuity. Another $260,000 will support general University scholarships.
“Dorothy was grateful for her journalism education,” said UM Professor Emeritus Carol Van Valkenburg, “but she wished to provide support that would allow all kinds of students to benefit, as she did, from the great education offered at UM.”
The impact of her generosity will be substantial, as scholarships are a key recruitment tool for the University, and financial assistance enables many students to go to college who otherwise couldn’t afford to attend.
Powers, who grew up in Anaconda, Montana, studied journalism at UM in the early 1940s, when few women entered the profession. In interviews years later, she told how a school administrator even warned the female students away.
“He told us we were entering a man’s field, and that we had no business in it. He said there was no way we’d be anything but society editors.”
The admonition merely fired up Powers. She not only stayed in the college, she became a news editor at the Kaimin, UM’s student newspaper. Upon graduation in 1943, she immediately got a reporting job at The Spokesman-Review.
Like women across the country, she filled a position vacated by a man who had gone off to war. She covered everything from the courts to the stockyards, averaging an astonishing 13 articles a day.
In a letter dated Jan. 24, 1944, she wrote, “I am so happy with this job I practically sing all day long. As far as I’m concerned, there just is no equal to journalism as a profession.”
When the war ended, she didn’t head home – she stayed at the newspaper and went on to have a 40-year career that made her a beloved and celebrated local figure.
“I think Dorothy will probably be remembered as one of the legendary figures of Northwest journalism,” said former Spokesman-Review editorial board member Steve Witter in an article published after Powers’ death. “She was an investigative reporter well before the term was invented.”
She specialized in stories that exposed the plight of people such as the mentally ill, homeless or incarcerated. Her reporting was highly principled, and she was a natural leader in the newsroom and in the community.
She often credited her parents for instilling a love of literature and writing. Her father had written dispatches from the Philippines and Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and he and Powers’ mother, a teacher, ensured that she and her brother never lacked for reading material.
She honored her father, who raised her after her mother died, with her first substantial gift to UM. In 1959, she donated the $1,000 prize from her Ernie Pyle Award to the University to establish the C.G. Rochon Scholarship, which supports Anaconda High School students who want to study journalism. That scholarship is still awarded to this day. This year’s recipient, Lacee Moodry, is a freshman from Anaconda.
Later, she pledged funds to name a room after her father in Don Anderson Hall, the new School of Journalism building completed in 2007.
She said of that gift, “I consider it the most important achievement of my lifetime.”