Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 25, 2022
A first-time meeting with a teacher, soon-to-be colleague or boss always involves some anxiety as you wonder how it will go.
But that usually fades quickly as a relationship develops.
But that didn't happen with Dr. O. She was my editing class professor at Kansas State University and I found her a bit intimidating. I was startled when she said we could be better at our jobs if we had a dirty mind. Her reasoning was sound. She said we had to look at every sentence, headline, ad or photo caption for some double meaning because if one existed, we could be certain some reader would find it.
But I warmed to her. My problem was not that she was mean or domineering, but so genuinely frank in a way most people aren't that it was a bit unsettling. She was smart, direct, yet unusually compassionate. Her no-frills style was embodied in a compliment given a colleague. Dr. O. told her she could "copy-edit circles around Jesus Christ."
After working in Latin America for four years, spending a few months working on Kansas newspapers and getting my master's degree in business, I took a job supervising the university's newspaper advertising staff and teaching courses in the journalism department. A new job naturally meant some anxiety, and a bit of that was because Dr. O. was then a colleague. I wondered how would I measure up.
But I needn't have been concerned. While she didn't suffer fools easily, as her son Mike said, she had the "capacity to accept people ... as they were." So while we initially called her Dr. O. as a sort of unique title of respect, it slowly shifted to being used as a sign of affection.
Dr. O. was Carol Oukrop and we also called her Carol. Her initials amused us when she became the department head. Her middle name of Emma meant CEO had become the CEO - Chief Executive Officer - of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
Over my 30-plus years with the department, we had a number of department heads - some good and some not so much. But among my colleagues, there was no disagreement that her 11-year tenure was marked by highly effective leadership. She had a strong backbone which she used to advocate for the department, combined with a compassionate empathy for people. Her "Monday Memo" - a weekly newsletter that included our professional achievements and personal milestones - was an effective way to address the often complained about "failure to communicate."
Colleague Linda recalled her job interview at K-State.
... I was in awe and a little intimidated by her reputation. ... But it was the empathetic Dr. O who greeted me. Warm, welcoming and supportive, her down-to-earth, let's-have-a conversation attitude quickly won me over. I had respected her reputation but her positive, human side is the Dr. O I came to love. ... Her ready smile and easy laugh put folks at ease and helped put life and professional crises in perspective. ...
I always appreciated the understanding she showed me after my first husband Jerome died in 1986 while I was pregnant with
daughter Mariya. She was supportive again when I was hospitalized in 1997 with an autoimmune disease. She helped nudge me back
Her matter-of-fact way came through in a story friend Deb shared. At a meeting, one person remarked she didn't know how to do something that needed to be done. Carol's response was, "Well I don't know either, but we can learn together."
Friend Kay said, " ... Carol embraced service with her life's time and talents. She must have started a great many sentences with 'How can I help?'"
Carol became friends with Mom when my folks moved to Manhattan. She attended Mom�s 80th and 90th birthday parties, drove her to church and meetings, and spoke at her funeral.
When the department hosted a retirement party for Deb, colleague Lou and me last May, I wasn't surprised to see Dr. O. there. But it pleased me when Mike mentioned she made him delay the trip to visit him in Texas so she could attend our party.
Carol's dry sense of humor served her well, particularly when she was the department head. In faculty meetings, someone would occasionally say something unhelpful or off-topic. Her slightly-pursed lips, small grin and raised eyebrow were far more effective than any verbal, "What�s the matter with you?" would have been. Raised on a cattle ranch in western North Dakota, she often poked fun at her home state. A friend remembers her saying, "If a kid there ran away from home, his parents could watch him for two days."
Husband Art saw her at the post office after she retired. "Hey, there's an opening for the director of the Miller School. You could have it back," he said, jokingly.
In her typical no-nonsense way, she just laughed and replied, "No, I had enough of that!"
Carol was 87 when she died earlier this month. Many people have shared stories about her. Deb said she thought of herself as being a pretty good writer, but Dr. O. showed her how to get to the point of a story more quickly. Carol's former secretary Stephanie said she never had a more appreciative and even-tempered boss, joking she had to "train" Carol to accept her because Carol was accustomed to doing everything herself. Lou said, "Carol was a gem and such a kind, genuine friend and colleague. ..."
Perhaps Linda captured Carol's essence best: "The life lessons learned from her will always remind me she continues to be the CEO of all things positive and good."
Left: Carol at my mother's 90th birthday party; bottom-right: at Carol's retirement party in 2002, each person's name tag contained boxes that could be checked to indicate how the wearer related to her. This was the one I wore. top-right: Carol, far right, and I, far left, chat with friend and newspaper publisher Vivien Sadowski at CEO's retirement party. The tags can be seen on many of those who attended.