Morley and me

The first thing I noticed were the shoes. It may sound strange, but I guess deep down inside, like a lot of women, I harbor an appreciation for nice footwear. Call it a shoe fetish, but as I stood there in the narrow hallway, trying hard to avoid eye contact, the shoes provided a nice diversion. They were fine-grained, smooth, brown leather. Well made and tailored. Practical. Classy.

Although the word I blurted out, I believe, was “snazzy” as the shoe’s owners passed by. So much for being incognito.

See, almost as much as I love good shoes, I hate uncomfortable silence. Thankfully, that was now about to become awkward conversation, which I happen to be quite good at. I mentally flogged myself for the misstep and hoped the shoe-wearer didn’t hear, or would at the very least, take the strange compliment, politely smile and keep walking.

Unfortunately, the plan went more awry when the shoes stopped in their tracks, and my panic quickly set in. As the new kid on the editing block, I had successfully navigated my first few months of tenure at the Durango Herald under the radar. Yes, like many a local writer and public relations person, I cut my literary teeth at that local brick-and-mortar, main street institution. As a semi-recent college grad, I was overjoyed to be living a ski-bum, river-rat existence and actually working in my field. I kept waiting for someone to pull the rug out. You know, call me out on the fact that I really didn’t know anything at all about journalism and send me back to paste-up or worse, classifieds. As such, I did my best not to call attention to myself, which was easily done on my graveyard rotation. But now, months of hiding behind a massive computer monitor, averting my eyes and taking the back staircase had caught up with me. Not only did I find myself face to face with Morley Ballantine, the head boss woman, keeper of the red pen and veritable pillar of the Colorado news community, but I had referred to her shoes as “snazzy.”

Of course, the dread over the situation was entirely a figment of my imagination, soon diffused by that wise, warm smile that I would come to know over the next six years. Not only did she excuse my slightly inappropriate lexicon (nerves have a way of doing that, I once used the word “titillating” in an interview), but turns out we had more in common than good taste in shoes and a solid Minnesota upbringing. That fateful day sparked the beginning of many encounters within those hallowed halls with Morley, who would always repay well-meaning inquiries with those of her own. Not just a “Hi, how are you,” but a “Hello. How are you?”

Which isn’t to say I was spared the wrath of the red pen during those years. In fact, my creative usage of the English language often merited pages fairly bleeding in red ink.

Yet, during our regular visits, including a few invites into the Friday afternoon inner sanctum (where I politely declined libations due to the fact that I was, technically, working), I realized there was much to learn from Morley. Dare I say, as we sat there on opposite sides of the desk swapping stories, that she found my tales as fascinating as I found those office walls, covered in a lifetime of awards, honors, and personal and public achievement. In that time, I grew to respect Morley, not just for putting in an eight-hour day when she should be kicking back and enjoying the fruits of her life’s labor, but for her steadfast convictions and willingness to go to the mat. And there was always that razor-sharp wit when you least expected it – served up in as few, unminced words as possible, using perfect grammar, of course.

Perhaps the most poignant example of this came on my final day at the Herald. As was custom back in the day (before an afternoon bender mysteriously charged to the company card curtailed the tradition) the newsroom had gathered for a going-away lunch for me and a few other employees. I found myself sitting next to Morley, who had not been completely filled in on my departure’s details – of which, even I was not fully clear. I took a deep breath and explained that I was leaving to spread my wings, as foolish as that may be, and start a free, weekly, newspaper.

She raised her eyebrows and curtly asked, “Well, who is going to print you?”

Knowing full well that hers was the only press in Southwest Colorado, and perhaps, my new endeavor could remotely be construed as competition, I cringed and replied that I was hoping that was where she would come in.

What seemed an eternity passed as I awaited a response. She leaned over, patted me on the shoulder and being the consummate businesswoman and benevolent philanthropist that she was, said with a wink and a reassuring smile, “Of course, I will take your credit card.”

Maybe it was due to her relentless devotion to the printed word, or her tireless championing of the underdog, but she sent me off that day with her blessing and best wishes. I believe that was the last time I really sat down and talked to Morley. A few years later, I heard her health was faltering, and wished her and her family the best. Somehow, a greeting card seemed grossly insignificant for a woman of her stature, but aside from having such a huge public presence, I knew she liked her privacy.

Over the years, however, Morley was often in my thoughts. Just last week, I wondered how she was doing as I waved to Richard, her son, en route to making my weekly newspaper rounds. A few days later, I heard that Morley had passed away at the age of 84, and like much of the community, felt deeply saddened at the news. And although she will be missed, there is no denying the huge legacy she leaves behind and the even bigger shoes she has left to be filled.

– Missy Votel



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows