Author’s note: Parts of this story first appeared in the Redoubt Reporter in August 2008.
In April 1923, barely three years after the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteed women the right to vote, 20-year-old aspiring journalist and recently married Mable Whitlock Smith published an opinion piece for page four of her college newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily.
In the article, she declared that women were “outstripping the men as they crush to earth the conventional standards of the much famed ‘stronger sex.’”
Especially in her own field, she wrote, women were showing themselves the equals of and, in some cases, superior to men.
Although Smith would soon withdraw from school and spend much of the next three decades as a wife and homemaker, she never lost her determination to contribute to the newspaper business and to social change.
She would begin her journalism career in earnest in Oklahoma in 1950, and, after she moved to the Soldotna-Kenai area in 1961, she would become one of the first important newspaper reporters that the central Kenai Peninsula had ever had.
For Mable Smith, then 58 years old, 1961 was a year of a fortuitous intersection—when her ambition (to become a full-time journalist covering hard news) crossed paths with a fledgling business opportunity (a still wet-behind-the-ears newspaper called The Kenai Peninsula Cheechako News).
It was also the beginning of a time that Smith’s daughter-in-law, Betty Smith of Soldotna, would later call “arguably the best of (Mable’s) life.”
On the Kenai, wrote Betty in 2008, Mable “came into her own as an individual. She was no longer identified as (just) someone’s daughter, wife or mother. She embraced this freedom with enthusiasm, energy, dedication and a selflessness that endeared (her) to many and benefitted us all.”
Tough Times and a Big Move
Early 1950 had been rough on Mable. On Feb. 7, 1950, in Hominy, Oklahoma—three days before her 47th birthday—her husband, John Sterling Smith, a heavy-equipment operator, had been crushed to death when the running bulldozer he was repairing had slipped into gear, causing the machine to roll forward onto him.
John’s death left Mable in financial straits and required her, a sudden widow and the mother of three grown children, to begin earning a living on her own for the first time. Fortunately, she was up to the task.
Before the former Mable Ruth Whitlock had married John Smith in January 1923, she had spent more than two years training in journalism at the University of Oklahoma, including courses in news writing, editing, editorial writing, journalism history and the principles of advertising.
After John’s death, she entered the business world in search of familiar territory. And, after a brief stint as a clerk in a Hominy bakery, she found it. She was hired by a weekly newspaper called The Hominy News-Republican, with a starting salary of $18 per week.
Mable worked at the Hominy paper until 1955, holding several job titles over the years: society editor, bookkeeper, circulation and subscription clerk, and city editor. She still wasn’t covering the politics and other hard news she sought, but she was making a difference.
She left Oklahoma for a few months in 1955-56 to join the Eddy County News in Carlsbad, New Mexico. There—near where her daughter Jackie and her family lived—Mable earned $65 a week to report and edit the news, work as society editor and copy editor, and lay out pages for printing.
By late June 1956, she was back in Oklahoma, working as society editor and city editor for the Daily Journal-Capital in Pawhuska. Just over a year later, she moved to Pawnee to become the office manager, bookkeeper and general news reporter for The Pawnee Chief.
But Mable was frustrated, according to daughter-in-law Betty. She disliked “being stuck with society or ‘light’ news.” Mable knew she could do better than that, Betty said. She wanted to cover what she perceived as real news—government, politics, controversy—on a regular basis. Perhaps partly for this reason, her tenure at the Pawnee Chief was short lived.
There were also extenuating circumstances. Mable’s younger son, John Jr., and his family were living in Alaska at this time, and they enticed her to join them there.
On March 13, 1958, four days after a surprise farewell dinner at Belden’s Café in Pawnee, Mable was heading north, a passenger with her son and his family on the network of highways leading from the State of Oklahoma to the Territory of Alaska—and, she hoped, greater opportunity.
Although John Jr.—nicknamed “Poon” because he’d mispronounced “junior” as a young child—had homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula, Mable planned to make her first Alaska home in Anchorage.
She worked for six weeks as a bookkeeper for the Foodland grocery on C Street, followed by 14 months as a clerk for First National Bank. Then she landed a job at the Z.J. Loussac Library and used her employment record to help her establish residency for her next move: homesteading near Soldotna.
On Nov. 11, 1960, at the Land Office in Anchorage, Mable Smith applied for a homestead patent on 160 acres located on what is now West Poppy Lane, off Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Also in preparation for her move out of Anchorage, she sat down for an interview with Cheechako News owner and editor, Loren Stewart. Despite her brief tenure at the Pawnee Chief, she was able to show Stewart a glowing letter of recommendation from the Chief’s publisher.
The recommendation, beneath a bright red letterhead, ended this way: “Mrs. Smith is very conscientious in all that she does and takes a sincere interest not only in her work but the people she works with and the company she works for.”
After the interview, Stewart offered her the kind of job she’d been seeking for years—the chance to write and edit general news stories.
There was only one catch: Mable had never learned to drive. She would have to learn in order to drive back and forth between her homestead and the newspaper office in Ridgeway.
“She took driving lessons in Anchorage,” Betty said. “But she was never a very comfortable driver. I don’t think she ever got out of second gear. I think the only person slower was Mae Ciechanski.” It was said that both Mable and Mae could drive down a dry gravel road and never raise dust.
Still, Mable proved fast enough to pursue the news.
She moved into a log cabin on her homestead officially on July 14, 1961, to begin the process of proving up on the land to earn her patent. Exactly one week later, she started her job at the Cheechako.