by Jeremy Lipschultz, Ph.D.
Everywhere Mary Williamson journeyed – on the ground and in the air – she pioneered paths for young women and encouraged them to follow. Her death Dec. 3 at age 88 silenced an important Omaha voice.
Born in Kansas City, Williamson was a trailblazer in military service by learning to fly airplanes in Sweetwater, Texas and training to be a pilot with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in 1944. She delighted in telling about this, showing her photograph and encouraging the eventual dedication in 2010 of a monument in Lincoln, Neb. to honor these brave women. Diane Bartels wrote that she presented Mary Williamson with the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest civilian award given by Congress.
Williamson received a M.A. in Journalism from Columbia University and joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) faculty in 1969, as the campus was adjusting to its new place in the NU system. Williamson mentored and launched hundreds of careers.
KETV News Director (ND) Rose Ann Shannon, one of the first women NDs, said Williamson was a pioneer in broadcasting and advertising. “She encouraged young women to follow in her footsteps,” Shannon said. “She told me I could do anything I set out to do and I believed her… I don't think I would be a news director today if Mary had not touched my life.”
When Shannon was named ND in 1993, one of the first congratulations came in the form of a telephone call from Williamson. “I could feel her beaming. I could hear the pride in her voice,” she says. “I was so happy to make her proud.”
Likewise, former KETV News Anchor Carol Shrader remembers Williamson teaching most of the few non-news courses at UNO speaking frequently about the "possibilities" of radio and television.
“She was an incredible advocate of diversity in the media, long before the FCC push to get stations to expand their narrow gender and race hirings,” she says. “But more than that, she was always available to and honest with her students."
Along the way, Williamson wrote her dissertation at Missouri, “An Inquiry into Excellence in Commercial Broadcasting,” in 1973. When I arrived at UNO in 1989, she turned over to me her Commercial Broadcasting course, as well as one titled Broadcast Regulation. She mentored me, provided key course materials, and even gave me a copy of her dissertation to read. It was so ahead of its time that it continues to be a valuable resource for anyone wishing for higher media standards.
Williamson continued to identify promising students – particularly women – and urged them to pursue a doctoral degree. One was Jan Slater who was working in advertising in Omaha in the early 1990s.
“Mary was the reason I started teaching and actually gave me my first adjunct assignment at UNO,” she says.
Slater taught at UNO, received her doctorate at Syracuse and now is dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Three years ago, Slater served as president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), which promotes much needed diversity.
Mary Williamson’s colleagues elected her president of the UNO Faculty Senate. She was executive assistant to Chancellor Del Weber. Williamson also served as dean of the College of Fine Arts. She offered the vision that Communication should join the college, but Williamson was again decades ahead of her contemporaries.
She delighted in 2005 when UNO created a College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media as new home for the School of Communication. Williamson was even more excited when UNO hired Dean Gail F. Baker, an accomplished African American woman who also happened to have the Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism.
Retirement from the Communication department seemed to liberate Williamson to further important work off campus. She consulted small businesses through work with the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC). Williamson also volunteered at Ambassador Rehabilitation Center, SCORE, Volunteers Assisting Seniors, and Hearts United for Animals. She had extraordinary skills as an ombudsperson and counselor. She loved people and animals.
Mary never forgot people. She frequently called to make me aware of information useful in my role as director of the School of Communication. Earlier this year, I called her to talk about Cox changes to Omaha’s cable system. Mary had been a member of an Omaha group that lost the local franchise to Cox in 1980. She provided details to me, but then she quickly offered the telephone number of an out-of-town friend and industry expert.
Williamson enjoyed making friends in her neighborhood, and she often opened her home to guests, including former students and others she mentored. As one of them recently observed in a tribute to Williamson: “She was no-nonsense, compassionate, and above all, one of the most intelligent people I've ever known.”
Assertive women, such as Mary Williamson, advocated many of the social gains we take for granted. I’ll think of her when I see a telephone because Williamson was frequently the energetic voice on the other end of the line. Fortunately, as Rose Ann Shannon observes about Mary, “her legacy continues through the hundreds of people she trained."
Jeremy Lipschultz is director of the School of Communication at UNO. In addition to his role as director, Lipschultz is a blogger, social media afficinado and media law expert. You can read his weekly School of Communication blog at http://tuesdaymorningupdate.blogspot.com.
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