A Woman with Stories to Tell: Behind the Byline of Patty Williamson, PhD

Patty Williamson has told many stories in her eight-plus decades on earth but there is one whose memory prompts a smile from Patty greater than the imagination of her fellow Marceline, Missouri, resident Walt Disney.

It didn’t involve an interview with a famous local figure and it certainly didn’t follow standard journalism protocol in format or tone. That would come much later when she began writing for newspapers and magazines, including the Peninsula Pulse and Door County Living, both of which have carried her byline for nearly a decade.

Like most small-town stories, it was born on a sidewalk. At the time, Patty and her mother lived with her grandparents. Her grandfather owned a blacksmith shop next door, where nine-year-old Patty loved to hang out.

“I was sitting on the sidewalk outside his shop playing jacks and some man came along and said, ‘Does your kitty play, too?’” Patty recalled. “My cat, Thomas Jefferson, was sitting beside me. I wrote a little story about that…about my cat playing jacks with me.”

While stories that defy belief aren’t anything new to children, not all of those stories lead to a lifetime of storytelling like Patty’s did. It helped that she came from a family steeped in education and the pursuit of knowledge — her mother taught second grade, her father was a high school principal and football coach, and their extended families (aunts, uncles and cousins) all taught in schools.

“When we had a family reunion it was kind of like a PTA meeting!” Patty said. “Because they all had school stories to tell.”

Patty wasn’t privy to the inner workings of school administration at the time (though she would be later on) but she did have the confidence to tell stories about the goings on in her own world. She started her first newspaper in junior high, covering the inner workings of the classrooms, schoolyards and athletic games of sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

By high school, she was feature editor of the school yearbook and as a senior, edited the monthly high school newspaper — a robust 8½ x 11-inch, 4 – 6 page publication filled with updates on school activities and old sports news. Patty herself was making headlines as the high-scoring team member in intramural girls’ basketball, earning the nickname “Basket Pat Lewis” (her maiden name) by the sports editor.

“I do have a copy of the last newspaper when we were seniors,” she said. “Our class colors were green and yellow and it was printed on yellow paper with green ink to honor the occasion. I do remember that I had a staff meeting at the beginning of our senior year for people who indicated that they would be willing to write. I had read a lot about newspapers and I knew how you conducted meetings and made assignments. Nobody was nearly as interested as I was (laughs). They wanted to go to football practice. But it was a good little newspaper. I look back now and think, for 17-year-olds, the writing wasn’t too bad.”

Those years, both at the newspaper and in the classroom, were formative for Patty. As a senior, she had her first short story published (“The Angel’s Glow”) in a magazine put out by Kirksville State Teachers College, now Truman State University. She had also been going steady with her classmate, and high school newspaper mimeographer Howard Williamson, who would become her husband at the end of her sophomore year at the University of Missouri — Columbia in April of 1954. The two had met as eight-year-olds in Marceline.

At the university, Patty pursued a degree in journalism (and of course, started a newspaper freshman year in her dorm room). She had earned a Herrick journalism scholarship, which would have covered the last half of her four-year schooling had a life-changing matter not come up.

“We got married in April, by July I was pregnant,” Patty said. “You didn’t go to school if you were pregnant. They didn’t say you couldn’t but nobody did.”

They remained in Columbia while Howard finished his degree in agricultural education, graduating in 1956 and taking a teaching job in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. In the meantime, the couple went into family mode, with Patty taking a break from school to raise their three children (Mike, Lynn and Lisa).

When their youngest was one-and-a-half, education was shifting in the country. In the aftermath of the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in 1957, the United States government put a greater emphasis on encouraging students to pursue careers in math and science, and counted on high school counselors to help them achieve this mission. By 1962, Howard received a National Defense Education Act Fellowship to pursue a degree as a school guidance counselor and returned to the University of Missouri. Patty did too.

At 28, with three young kids under tow, she and Howard moved into three-room student housing at the university and over the course of 15 months, the duo worked on their degrees — Howard on a master’s and Patty on a bachelor’s in journalism and English education.

“Which I didn’t really want to do,” she said of the English degree. “In those days it was really recommended for women because you could always get a job teaching. That was what you could do.”

Patty was adamant about achieving her dream to work for a newspaper. She picked up part-time hours for a journalism professor and worked the desk at the journalism school. At the time, there were two publications at the university:  a student newspaper and a professional daily, which Patty wrote and copy edited for.

There, Patty got her first taste of journalism’s reality — the stress of the news desk, crunch of deadlines and the watchful eye of a supervisor, whose criticisms helped shape Patty into a deadline- and detail-abiding journalist.

“I remember one day…he corralled me after I had spent a day on the copy desk,” Patty said. “He said, ‘Mrs. Williamson, you can do better. You can do better than that,’ and I cried. And the next day I wrote 26 headlines that were published, so I thought, ‘Yes! We’ll show you!’ But it was so exciting to me because that had been my dream all my life, to do newspaper work.”

After walking away with their degrees on the same day in 1963 and relocating to suburban St. Louis, where Howard became a school guidance counselor, Patty kept that dream alive through freelancing and occasional stints as an editor. She also earned her master’s at University of Missouri — St. Louis.

“We had three newspapers for three communities in that part of suburban St. Louis and they had three editors that each got two weeks vacation in the summer and I worked several summers those six weeks substituting for the editors,” Patty recalled. “That was in the days of hot type and the office was in front. I was up there with the sales people and in the back you could hear those machines going. Every Wednesday afternoon, which was the day we put the papers to bed, they all came out on Thursday, old Mr. Buhrman, dear old sweet man who owned those three papers, he would go to the bakery and they would clear the stone in back where they had put the paper together, the type — individual letters for the headlines — and we’d have pastry and tea. That was a sweet time, too. I just loved it. I did that for three summers.”

These experiences paved the way for what would become a two-decades long career in public relations at Missouri school districts where there was plenty of news to be told. And in some cases, to not be told.

She recalled the difficulty of doing PR for a district where school board members were being investigated for criminal malfeasance and the teachers’ union regularly went on strike, once even picketing in Patty and her husband’s front yard. (Patty had already left for work, so Howard invited the picketers in for coffee and donuts. They declined.)

“It culminated in we had two superintendents in the building, the board fired the one who had been doing an excellent job as far as I could see and he refused to leave so he stayed in the superintendent’s office,” Patty said. “The board considered him fired even though he was still there and they appointed an assistant superintendent who was also a great fellow as the new superintendent and he had his office down here and the one that wouldn’t go had his office up here and that was interesting. Who were you taking orders from, the official one or the one that didn’t go? It was a funny time.”

As a rare female presence in school administration, Patty decided to pursue a doctorate “to show I was as good as the men in the office.”

“Women administrators, especially at the central office level, were pretty rare in those days,” Patty said. “No such thing as a woman superintendent. I was qualified to be one but I had no desire at all to do that.”

But she did have a desire to write, publishing articles in local newspapers and national career magazines. By the mid-1980s, she had left the education field and started a freelancing career. So it’s no surprise that the best gift she ever received would be in written form — a little book called The Best of Door County, which in 1990 introduced Patty and Howard to a peninsula in Wisconsin they had only heard of through friends’ travels.

“I think it was $4.95 but it listed restaurants and shops and B&Bs and special activities,” Patty said. “Howard was in charge of summer school that year and he got through the end of July. We didn’t have vacation plans and I said this just sounds like such a pretty place, why don’t we go to Door County? We had two weeks and so he said, look in the book and see where you want to go.”

That summer, they spent nearly two weeks in Ephraim and were instantly smitten with the peninsula. In 1992, they bought a cottage on Kangaroo Lake. Its quiet setting proved a relaxing summertime reprieve from their final working years, and a great place of healing following the death of Patty’s mother in February 1992 and a month later, the loss of their youngest daughter in an automobile accident.

Since 1997, the couple has called Kangaroo Lake home from April 1 to the Monday before Thanksgiving (“just in time to thaw out the turkey” for the holiday at their wintertime locale, their beloved St. Louis). Here, Patty dedicates her days to volunteering at Northern Sky Theater, Zion United Methodist Church and Door Shakespeare. She has also published two books, one each on the history of Kangaroo Lake and Northern Sky Theater.

In the late 2000s, at the suggestion of her local friend Dave Studebaker, Patty approached the Peninsula Pulse with a story pitch on the history of the Pioneer Store in Ellison Bay. She was given the go-ahead, marking the beginning of a freelancing career that has spanned nearly a decade and included hundreds of headlines, from historical articles on lighthouse keepers and Door County’s influential pioneers to personal profiles on the county’s movers and shakers.

“People say, ‘oh, I bet you get a lot of money,’ and I say, ‘No, but I sure meet a lot of interesting people!’” Patty said. “And I think that’s the big pay.”

Her enthusiasm for researching and sharing the peninsula’s history and personalities has gained her a legion of dedicated followers who cherish Patty’s ability to perfectly capture every subject with the perfect words.

“When I get the Pulse, first thing I look for is her article and when I’m through with it then I do the rest,” said Sherrill Eichler, who served on the Kangaroo Lake Association board with Patty for many years. “There’s just something fireside chat about Patty’s articles…she’s going to pull stuff out of the person that she’s interviewing that has been on the back shelf for years, that has been forgotten, and she has the ability to pull that forward and then incorporate it in an article.”

“I’m sure some people would say I talk too much in an interview,” Patty said. “But I think if you can make a person feel like you relate to them, ‘oh, I know what that’s like’…just establish the relationship. I obviously like them, I like these people and I think they can sense that, and I’m interested in them. Often they start out saying, well I don’t know what I can tell you.”

On Fridays during the year when the newest Pulse hits the newsstands, and five times a year when Door County Living is published, Door County residents find out what those subjects have to say through articles crafted with the thoughtful attention of this grandmotherly storyteller.

Of that gift, Studebaker said it best.

“In addition to our wonderful geography and nature here, it’s the people who make it a really interesting and special place, a neat place to visit and an even neater place to live,” Studebaker said. “…She gives back and it gives all of us who read the Pulse and Door County Living another view of the people here and an introduction to some special people we wouldn’t get to know otherwise.”

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