LA VALLEUR COMMUNICATES: Musings By Barbara La Valleur — My First Blog As An ‘InForumer’

“Write a bio to put up on the site,” Jeff Tiedeman texted.

Geez, you want me to write who I am, a photojournalist of more than 50 years, in one paragraph? Sure. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t immediately have the thought that it’s like writing my own obit. I’ve written a few hundred of those starting at The Forum in Fargo-Moorhead in the early 1960s.

So that makes me a “inFORUMer” as Nanc calls it. Nancy Edmonds Hanson and I were roomies and best friends in college. She was the quiet one, the introvert. I was the loud one, the extrovert.

We shared our goals and dreams. I remember she — at the time still a teenager — proclaimed she was going to buy her first house by the time she was 21 and publish her first book by the time she was 30. She did both. I wanted to live in Europe. I did, too, for 20 years.

My “claim to fame” at Moorhead State is that I was in the first Mass Communications class in the early ’60s. There was one other person, Mary, an English major. Howard (“Right Here in River City”) Binford was the instructor.

We met in Comstock Memorial Union. There wasn’t even a Mass Comm Department back then. I like to say I helped create it and eventually taught Beginning News Writing, for which I received credit and, of course, no money.

I have fond memories of those days. Al Carter was our photography instructor. The late Marv Bossart of WDAY fame was my adviser. The late, great Dr. Roland Dille was MS president.

A 1963 graduate of Battle Lake (Minn.) High School, I worked my way through college, so I wouldn’t end up with a huge debt when I finished and thus was my nine-year college career.

It was great.

We went to Cheryl’s Coffee Nook and discussed solving the world’s problems. We dissed dorm life and sororities and soon cried when President Kennedy was assassinated. Sometimes, I worked part-time at The Forum and went to school part-time. Sometimes, I worked full-time and went to school full-time.

At The Forum, I wrote headlines and obits on the night shift for years and the occasional feature — Zip to Zap and the Bachelors of Herman, N.D., come to mind.

My all-time favorite interview was with Hubert Humphrey, who had just retired as vice president. The Forum flew me to Minneapolis. It was incredibly exciting. My interview with the vice president was in the back of his limousine between classes at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota, where he was teaching.

I also wrote a movie review column that launched my lifelong love of going to movies and eating buttered popcorn. That was very cool. I could go to any movie in F-M for free and choose one to review for my weekly column.

My first gig out of college was editor of Carib Magazine, a tabloid-size newspaper published in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. I sold myself over the phone to the owner, a native senator, after reading an advertisement in a media magazine about the opening for an editor.

When we spoke by phone, I told him he needed to pay for my plane tickets to New York and the Virgin Islands because I didn’t have the money. It was incredibly bold on my part, but it was the truth. He sent the money.

I met him at a hotel restaurant in New York City. It was exciting. Then, he propositioned me and I said in my toughest Midwest tone, “I don’t need to sleep with anyone to get where I’m going,” and started to get up and leave the restaurant. But he immediately backed down.

I believe he was a genuinely good man. Still, I always wondered if he was just testing me to see how I’d do on the islands. I’ll never know. He’s dead now. Anyway, he handed me the keys to the office and said someone would meet me at the airport.

In my most sincere and quite naive voice I asked, “How will she know who I am?” He responded with a reassuring smile, “Don’t worry, she’ll find you.” When I got on the plane at La Guardia Airport, it was apparent. I was the only white person on board. It was carnival week. What an experience.

I quickly learned I was not only the editor, but also the only photographer, the only reporter, the layout editor, chief headline writer and in fact, only staffer with the exception of a typist, Ruth Smith, who generously took me in her family’s home for a few months while I got used to island living.

I did learn a great deal about being a journalist in that first job, surviving with no family nor friends close by in my just under one year tenure there. Those experiences supported me years later when I went to live in Europe for 20 years. More on that in another blog.

While in the Virgin Islands, I never once went to the beach. Worked 12-hour days seven days a week. Eventually, Sen. Earl Ottley requested I move to the island of St. Croix to give the larger less-known island more coverage. The office, phone and typewriter — yes, it was before computers! — was on Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

In Christiansted, I had no office, no phone, no car, no post office box and virtually no means of communication other than to literally walk the streets and talk to people. So, that’s what I did. I was a street walker.

Every Sunday, I took the airboat, owned by Rita Hayworth, a Hollywood actress, from St. Croix to St. Thomas. Ruth would drive me down to the office on Monday, I’d write my stories, check my facts and contact all the news from stringers I had on the Caribbean islands that we covered. On Tuesday, I wrote the headlines and laid out the paper. On Wednesday morning, I’d take the airboat back to St. Croix and start all over again.

My biggest disappointment in that experience wasn’t that I never once went to the beach. It was that I couldn’t develop and enlarge my own film and photos. That was done in the publishing office on the lower level of the building. They certainly didn’t have the high dark room standards that Mr. Carter taught us at MS. So, I was often disappointed in the quality of my photos.

Back on St. Croix, I remember one particular experience when I went by taxi to Frederiksted on the other end of the island to the high school to interview students about their summer plans. It was the first time in my life that I was really frightened.

I went outside on the campus during a break to interview students and was immediately surrounded by about 35 tall, black kids who seemed much taller than me. They were not smiling. They encircled me to an uncomfortable closeness and started pelting me with questions. Who was I? What I did I want? Who sent me? What was I doing there?

I did my best to act calmly and not scared. I nearly peed my pants. I told them who I was, what I was looking for and started my interview with an overly confident, calm voice. They backed up and I started breathing easier.

What I walked away with was an overwhelming sense that the system was failing each and every one of those students. The school, the local government and community organizations that could have made a profound difference for them and didn’t.

There were absolutely no summer programs for them to spend their time productively. There was no summer school. They had no prospects for summer jobs. There were simply no plans. It was a recipe for trouble.

I noticed a huge dichotomy between the wealthy, mostly white people who lived on the islands and native Carib islanders. Thus, it was my first insight into why I eventually left that job because I was aware of the potential for violence on the island.

On my next trip to St. Thomas, I asked to meet with the senator, who by the way rarely contacted me, only twice asking me to write on a specific subject. He gave me full freedom to write about whatever I thought pertinent. Now THAT was a positive experience.

I shared my concerns with him for potential trouble, violence and my own safety and said I was considering buying a gun to protect myself — God forbid! — even though I’d taken gun safety training in grade school.

After giving it considerable thought — I was making very good money — I chose to leave my dream job and head back to the relative safety of Minnesota.

After sleeping literally for the better part of a week, I awoke to the headlines, “Mass murder in St. Croix” about a shootout on a predominantly white golf course by an islander that left several men dead. Although I felt justified for having left, a part of me was very sad to be right.

I seems my bio “paragraph” turned into my first blog. Now on to that one-paragraph bio.

Next Blog: On to The Daily News of Wahpeton-Breckenridge.

One thought on “LA VALLEUR COMMUNICATES: Musings By Barbara La Valleur — My First Blog As An ‘InForumer’”

  • Katherine March 9, 2015 at 10:09 pm

    Welcome to my reading list


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