Mary Judson

Mary Henkel Judson was the first woman elected president of Texas Press Association, the 113th person to lead the 110-year-old association.

She was the daughter of Cap and Kitty Henkel and a “newspaper brat.” Her parents were publishers of the Mid-County Review in Nederland when Judson was born in 1953.

Her first paying job was as a columnist for the Refugio County Press. As a fifth-grade student in 1963, she wrote “Junior Beat” about the comings and goings of elementary and middle school students. She went on to write a similar column as a student at Refugio High School.

She attended Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos and worked at the San Marcos Record when it went daily.

She transferred to the University of Texas at Austin where she majored in journalism and worked as a summer intern at the Corpus Christi Caller where she met her future husband, Murray Judson, a staff photographer.

After another semester at UT, Judson went to work at the San Patricio County News in Sinton as assistant news editor. She left the newspaper in April 1976 when she married.

She and Murray moved to Refugio where they assumed editor and publisher positions from her parents who were retiring.

In January 1981 the Judsons purchased the Port Aransas South Jetty and the following September they bought the Refugio County Press.

They moved to Port Aransas in May 1983. In spring 1989 the Judsons and George Phenix purchased the Goliad Advance-Guard.

Judson served as president of South Texas Press Association (1980-81) and Texas Gulf Coast Press Association (1994-95).

Link to Judson’s newspaper:

Read Mary Judson’s interview:

My name is Mary Judson, I’m editor and co-publisher of Port Aransas South Jetty newspaper in Port Aransas, Texas.  I was born on Jan. 4, 1953, in Port Arthur, Texas.  Janis Joplin and I share a hometown. What next?

Wanda Cash:  How did you get into the newspaper business?  What drew you to it?

MJ:         I was born into it.  My parents were newspaper people and I resisted it until I needed a job after my freshman year in college and I went to work for my dad at the Refugio County Press and fell in love with it.  I particularly liked feature writing at that time.  I’ve now become someone who likes just the facts, ma’am.

WC:  So tell us about your career.  You started in Refugio, then?

MJ:  Actually my first job at the Refugio County Press was as the junior beat reporter when I was 12 years old or something like that, doing a little social column.  And from there I went to work for my dad the summer after my freshman year in college.  Was hooked on it, went back to Southwest Texas State University and began to major in journalism and that carried on into the University of Texas and my, I worked at the San Marcos Record during that period at Southwest Texas, now Texas State.  And from there I went to the University of Texas and dropped out. Walter Cronkite and I are both dropouts. I went to work in Sinton at the San Patricio County News for the Tracy family.

And then when my parents decided to retire from the Refugio County Press it was quite convenient that Murray and I were getting married about that same time and they proposed that we come and take over the newspaper, which we did.  They didn’t own it, a small corporation owned it.  So we went to work for the small corporation and had a beach house in Port Aransas.

And everybody kept saying why don’t y’all buy the South Jetty?  And every time we talked to the owner he wanted a million dollars and this was in 1970-something.  And we said, “Yeah, when you’re serious give us a call.”  So one day he said, called and said, “I’m serious.”  So we actually bought the Port Aransas paper first and then turned around and bought the Refugio paper from that small corporation. Then a couple of years later we ended up selling the Refugio paper and moving to Port Aransas. This is not completely historically accurate is that, okay?  Because I don’t remember, that’s one of the things I failed to write down.  Anyway, when I went to Port Aransas that is when I think I really became more of a journalist. It was much more challenging. I had a much more demanding audience and it really honed my skills.

I’m not used to talking about myself, so it’s a little uncomfortable.  My educational training was at the University of Texas, and of course, growing up in the newspaper business I did circulation with Daddy in the wee hours of the morning, that sort of thing in the olden days back when we did less of the post office’s job.  Now we do more of the post office’s job and pay them more to do less.

Lessons that my work has taught me.  I guess probably to look at all sides.  I’m probably annoyingly … and I don’t know what will happen to me when I’m not a newspaper person any more.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to just take half the story and run with it.  But that’s probably the biggest thing.  I never could just believe the gossip on the street, it’s usually not right.

And favorite stories from my newspaper career?  I wish I had as interesting a life as people like Willis Webb had, but I have not had that kind of a life.  We’ve had crazy employee situations.

We’ve had, probably one of the most dramatic things that ever happened was we had a shooter out in a pasture on the waterfront.  He was bipolar and he was out there with a gun and it was a big lock-down and I was up all night because I got trapped at the office.  They wouldn’t let me back into my neighborhood because it was in my backyard, actually.  And so I had to stay there all night and it was press night and so it was a very big challenging in writing on deadline.  That was pretty exciting and the man ended up killing himself and wounding some police officers.

WC:  Tell us about running a newspaper in a resort town.

MJ:  That is really neat. That’s exciting. There’s always something different.  A sperm whale beached itself on the beach just last week. And it was euthanized and they did a necropsy right on the beach, that’s an autopsy on a mammal.

And Cuban refugees picked up offshore by a tanker and brought into, picked up by the Coast Guard and brought in, our reporter road the boat, the Coast Guard boat, back into the Coast Guard station.

Tall ships coming through on their way to Corpus Christi ,which we’re the greeting point, we’re the entry to the Port of Corpus Christi.

The development issues, the environmental issues, the tourism.  People, permanent residents trying to preserve their home and their heritage while we’re growing as a tourist resort destination.  It’s, I call it reporter heaven. It’s really a lot of fun. I never have to worry about something for the front page.

WC:         Do you feel like you’re permanently on vacation?

MJ:         No. We are not on vacation. Everyone else is on island time. I would love to take a vacation in Port Aransas, but no it’s work just like anywhere else, except for Murray wears shorts to work and I don’t have to wear hose.  So that’s kinda nice.

WC:  Tell us what you do at the paper and your type of leadership.

MJ:  Okay.  Most recently I’ve actually become a real editor.  Before I was mostly a reporter who acted as the editor and developed the news package.  Now I have two reporters and a part-time staff writer who does rewrites and soft news.  So I’m spending more time planning the news package, actually editing reporters’ stories and more of a leading other people rather than leading myself.  And I’m kinda learning that job actually and it’s challenging and it’s fun.  And I have a great staff, so—

WC:  Talk about your leadership.

MJ:  Well, that is something that I am developing, but I would have to say that I try to develop a team concept where it’s not about me, it’s not about the reporters, it’s not about the photographers, the ad sales people. It’s all about the South Jetty. It’s the baby that we want to take care of so team work and I’m not a upfront. I’m not an out-front person that wants to crack a whip or get a lot of credit.  I would rather stay in the background and put out this wonderful product and so my leadership style is to try to get people to buy into that.  It needs some work.

WC:  Are you pursuing any training or development courses to help you lead?

MJ:  Actually I am.  I am looking into resources for that and this session today that we had with Texas Press was one of the things that I had asked about because our paper’s growing and I’ve not had to do this before so I need help. I need to find books, I need to see if TPA can put on management type sessions and in the conversation on the TPA list server.  I found out there are other people in this position.  So I think probably TPA is gonna be our best resource.

WC:  Talk a little bit about TPA and your involvement over the years.

MJ:  Well, TPA is fantastic. When I was first involved in TPA as a professional person I was very active in a lot of the seminars that we used to have.

Do you remember the news clinics and all?  I would be a news clinic chairman and all and TPA just offered so much and I wanted to be a part of it. So I enjoyed that.

Now TPA has really evolved. I think the services that they provide are just incredible.  The list server alone would be worth everything.  That is, it’s discussions among newspaper publishers and they have it for publishers, editors, advertising people and there might even be a technology list server.  I’m not a tech person so I’m not sure about that.  But that’s a fantastic service.

The press conventions are very, very good. Even if the speakers aren’t good, which is on rare occasion, just networking with other publishers. So I’m a cheerleader for TPA and of course the Newspaper Foundation which funds a lot of this.

WC:  And what has been your direct involvement with TPA?

MJ:  I was on the board of directors for about 10 years and then I was put into the officer rotation. I was the first woman president of Texas Press Association.

WC:  At the tender age?

MJ:  Oh, how old was I?  I don’t know how old I was, early 40s?  Something like that?  You probably know better than I do. Early 40s.

WC:  And talk about that.  The first woman president of the Texas Press Association, which at that time had existed for more than a hundred years under male domination.

MJ:  Yes.  It was a hundred and ten years old when I was first put into rotation and I probably was on the board longer than any other past president and it wasn’t that I was running for office at all.  I loved helping with other news clinics and whatever else I did.  I like being involved.  I got more out of it by putting something into it.  But being the first woman, I had already been the first woman president of South Texas Press and technically, I was the second.  I think Mrs. Salter from Kerrville was the first.  She filled her husband’s term when he died.  And when I became president of South Texas Press there were actually women who had their noses bent out of joint because they just didn’t think that was a woman’s place and that was in 1977 and I was 20-something.  I was not 30 years old.  I was 25 or 26.

But when I became president of Texas Press Association, I will never forget Hal Cunningham from Llano. He was already in, he was not very mobile, but he and Hazel were sitting, we used to sit up on the head table. He was sitting right below there and he had Hazel come over and get me after I was introduced as the second vice president. And he wanted to tell me how proud he was and how much he supported me and that meant the world to me. And I felt that if I had his support everything was gonna be okay. And not only his support I had everyone, as far as I know I had everyone’s support.

It was scary, though. I was afraid that things might be a little different and some things were. Some of the things that the previous past presidents had done, I was not asked to do, that had to do with some sports thing. I don’t even remember what it was and it didn’t matter to me. But I wasn’t in that male loop. That’s about the only thing that I can think of that I might have been left out of. And it doesn’t even happen any more, I don’t think, whatever it was.

WC:  So you were a pioneer for women in journalism.

MJ:  Well, I don’t look at myself that way but I suppose technically, maybe.

WC:  Coming to ownership and the publisher’s job early and being president of a regional press association and then the state organization.  Serious accomplishments for a woman.

MJ:  Well, I suppose I have never thought of that so much because my mother was a real strong woman. She was probably one of the early feminists.  And my parents never, ever put in my head that because I was a woman I couldn’t do anything, do certain things.  It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do that.  And I was surrounded.  You know at that time the women were there.  They were in the newspaper business but they took a backseat by choice or whatever.  So I guess I just kinda am not that sort of person.

WC:  Didn’t even think of it.

MJ:  No.  No.  It was just a natural progression for me.  Then I was worried I might be the last one.  But there, as you can look around and see, there are women here but a lot of them are not in the publisher roles or they take second fiddle to their husbands.  But there’s still women who are active and in leadership positions in newspapers.

WC:  Has being a woman posed any challenge for you in your leadership of your newspaper in Port Aransas?

MJ:  Never. Never. I have always been absolutely accepted and it might be that I am a strong-willed individual and I just, I don’t let anything get in the way.

About the only time I can remember any discrimination was when I was in Refugio and we got a new police chief and he came in to introduce himself to me and we discussed how we would work together and he proceeded to tell me that if he had anything that was a little rough that he would talk to Murray. And I told him that that would be fine, but then he would have to talk to me because Murray does not write the stories. And we got along just fine.

WC:  What about running a newspaper, being the voice for the community and writing the stories that aren’t always pleasant, aren’t always a positive reflection of the community and then having to show up at church or at the Little League game or at the grocery store next to the subject of that unpleasant report?

MJ:  Well, that sometimes is very challenging but I always, when there is a subject like that, I’m always very direct and it’s the elephant in the room and I look the elephant in the eye and they know I’m being professional and for the most part they have responded in the same way.

WC:  Can you think of any story, any coverage that has cost you an allegiance, a friend, an advertiser?

MJ: When we went to Refugio I was 23 years old and the City Council fired the good ole boy police chief.  And it was a pretty nasty situation to the point that if the police chief, ex-police chief’s wife’s car was parked in front of the pharmacy which was the coffee shop, people would not even walk on that side of the street.  That was a very divisive situation.  I didn’t lose any personal friendships over it but it was, I grew up real fast on that one because it was, I had to write very tough things about the guy they fired.  They were justified in the firing.  The way they did it was probably not the right way, but that was tough especially at 23.

WC:  Let’s talk a little bit about ethical dilemmas.  Is there anything that stands out?

MJ:  You know, in a resort town I guess we have, there’s a lot of business and development going on and Murray will want me to do a story on some development and he and I have to really work it out.  I’m going are we doing this because they’re potential advertisers or does this meet the criteria?  And so he and I have to work that out.  He’s as ethical as I am, he’s not gonna ask me to do something that isn’t, but there’s been a project here recently that I just, I’m making it really go through the paces to be sure it fits the news criteria because I don’t want to have people coming back at me saying well you did this for somebody else for that person and not for me.  Because we operate on what we do for one we do for all.  So that, in our present situation, that’s probably the most difficult.

WC: What are you proudest of?

MJ: This sounds kinda silly and I could get a little teary, but I really think we serve our community and we have a fabulous community park.  The community park came about largely because we had this, we had this little swimming pool where all the kids were taught to swim and it had to be closed down several times a week because the chemicals couldn’t keep up with the demands put on it.

And here we live on the Gulf of Mexico, people have swimming pools in their backyard, they have canals in their backyard.  I felt that it was a safety issue as well as a recreational need for the community.  And so I approached the City Council about creating a recreational facilities task force which they immediately made me chairman of.  And so we met and the long story short the city ended up reinstating its Parks and Recreation Department and it took some time, but as a result of that we got a matching funds grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife.  And not only do we have an absolutely fabulous, functional, well programmed swimming pool, with it is a community park with a skate park, ball field, jogging trails, the whole nine yards.

I personally worked on it and the newspaper, I wrote editorials supporting the city’s procuring that grant and then when it came time to determine what the scope of the swimming pool would be I was very emphatic especially after the research that I had done for that facilities task force, that the pool be done right or not be done at all.  And the community just backed it, I mean we had a sales tax increase that’s for recreational sales tax and it won by a landslide, the election to instate that tax, so I’m very proud of that.  I think that we really pushed that and helped make it a reality.

WC:  How do you balance that with critics who say newspapers, newspapers publishers should remain aloof from civic involvement and who say they should just objectively cover what’s going on and not actively be involved?

MJ:  I’m one of the people who feels that way. In this particular case this was a special committee of the, just appointed by the City Council.  We had no power. All we did was research and recommend. And so I don’t feel that that was a conflict and then I think, and I think publishers or editors have an obligation to promote things that are good for the community.  So once I finished with the facilities task force it was a couple of years before all of this came into fruition.  So I did one job and then from then on my role was to encourage the city to do a project that was very necessary.

WC:  Do you see that as the role of community newspapers?

MJ:  Absolutely; yes.

WC:  How did you come to that philosophy?

MJ:  I guess I’m just such a, I’m a community person.  I believe in my community, I love my community, I am, you know, from my perspective I’m doing things, I try to do things that will ensure the quality of life in Port Aransas, the economic viability of Port Aransas, the health and safety of Port Aransas, that’s what I think we should do.

The influences on me professionally, if I have to select a professional individual, Red Gibson truly impacted me. Before he died, I would always, I was able to identify certain things that I knew came from Red.  When he was dying, I went through his book, the second book that he wrote The Writer’s Friend, and I started realizing, oh, that came from Red too, that came from Red, that came from Red.  So professionally he probably is my strongest influence.

But another very strong influence has been the young people that have worked for us.  I’ve had a couple of interns and a couple of young people pursuing a degree in journalism and those kids have kept me sharper.  I love working with young people.  They make me remember what Red taught me and try to be true to that so that’s they’ve been a great influence.

WC:  So reflect on the time in journalism when you were starting out and today.  Give us a comparison and contrast.

MJ:  Vastly different.  Journalists of today are very spoiled.  They have resources at their fingertips that are instant.  That, you know, we had to thumb through a big dictionary, go to a library, go to an encyclopedia and now you strike a key and you can find out information or things like the List Server at Texas Press.  It’s instant.  It was very labor intensive from the Royal typewriter on.  That’s just technologically newspapers how they’re produced has changed more in the last 20 years than it had the previous 200.  It’s been phenomenal.  My parents could not walk in the newsroom and know what to do.  It’s amazing.

WC:  What about the content?

MJ:  Oh, I think that in order to compete with television and the Internet I think our content might have suffered some because I think we try to do a little bit more fluff and flamboyant to compete with that.  That’s—

WC:  Is that a worry for you?

MJ:  Not really because I think what Martha Jean told us today is really true we are the best news gatherers there are and I think people still really do want the good information.  How we deliver it to them may change but I think that we are the supreme news gatherers, supreme may not be a good word.  We’re the best qualified news gatherers.

WC:  You mentioned the Internet.  Has that been a challenge, a concern or an opportunity?

MJ:  I think it’s probably an opportunity and if we don’t look at it that way we’re gonna be in trouble.  We cannot ignore it.  We’re trying to make it a companion to our print edition.  It is a, ours is a duplication of our print edition and was the HTL format and PDF format.  And we don’t focus on adding breaking news to it the way we should but I think there’s probably, there’s probably gonna be more of a change not so much between a print newspaper and the Internet but between weekly newspapers and daily newspapers.  Weeklies are gonna become more daily as we update Internet editions.  So weekly newspaper people need to learn to think on a daily basis.

WC:  So, go a little bit further with that and talk about your vision for where news distribution is headed.

MJ: I think it’s probably headed for the Internet, but I think the Internet has a lot of complications that are coming up and that’s in terms of regulation because with freedom of the press comes responsibility.  The Internet is almost completely unregulated.  I cannot see that continuing.  I have no idea how it would be regulated because it’s so, it’s so accessible to people who want to post things.  I’m not technologically skilled enough to know how that could change, but I think that that’s where we’re going.  Because people age 30 and younger mostly get their news off the Internet.  And they may be reading newspapers on the Internet, but that’s where they’re going.

WC:  You talked about enjoying contact and work with the interns and the young journalists.  Are journalism schools doing the right thing by these aspiring journalists?

MJ:  I am not sure.  I think that the way changes are happening in daily newspapers journalism schools are gonna have to broaden what they teach journalism students.  Right now they teach print journalism students to be reporters.  Well, they’re gonna need to be able to shoot pictures, shoot video, be able to lay out pages, it’s gonna be more of a weekly environment.  You’re gonna have to have the skills someone needs to work on a weekly newspaper.

WC:  What words of wisdom would you pass along?

MJ:  I don’t know.  I think no matter how easy technology may make this job, the stories and the dramas that occur in life are gonna be just as dramatic however the news is delivered so I think this is definitely a profession that you have to love.  It is a calling, as Martha Jean said.  Don’t get into it for a paycheck.

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