One Mom’s Tribute to Cokie Roberts

I never knew Cokie Roberts personally. But I felt like I did. As a young mother back when National Public Radio was just a fledgling network, Cokie’s reporting fed my mind, which in those days was usually preoccupied with diapers, keeping track of a preschooler, and getting meals on the table. The pioneer broadcaster died on Sept. 16 at age 75.

With a steady, rational voice – which is more than I often had – she brought me news of events that I had no idea were happening in this country. After becoming a mother, I pledged allegiance to fuzzy blankets, digger trucks, afternoon naps, and Tommee Tippee cups of apple juice.

I first heard Cokie’s voice in the 1970s, while living in an old adobe house in the wilds of New Mexico. I would tune our G.E. table radio to KUNM, our NPR affiliate, and the world came tumbling in. News of Washington – light years from the tiny hamlet where we chose to live, combined with the smell of piñon logs crackling in the wood stove. I was in heaven.

Cokie and her NPR colleagues lit up the connections in my mommy brain. The country was just getting over the war in Vietnam and President Nixon’s resignation. Then came Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. We all needed hope. “All Things Considered” gave us an in-depth look at reality. Not hyperbole. But calmly presented news. More importantly, the reporting made me feel less isolated. It was news as I’d never heard it before. And I was hungry for it.

Across my entire writing career, which was at times sporadic and other times intense, I raised four children, often homeschooling some or all of them, and later on, became a remedial reading teacher. As a features writer, I pumped out weekly stories for newspapers, parenting publications, and occasionally lifestyle magazines. Not hard news. But that suited me just fine.  (Well, there was the time my editor wanted me cover a suspected chicken killer. It turned out the neighborhood fox had been falsely accused.) My real job, as I saw it, was talking to every-day people, reporting the interesting and sometimes ordinary things they did in their lives.

But before that, while I was still in high school, I tried dabbling in political writing. That career exploration project, however lasted about an hour. It was Oct. 1969. The war in Vietnam had become unpopular, especially among college students and left-leaning politicians. In spite of his campaign promises, Richard Nixon had yet to bring the troops home. Protest songs by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez spread the anti-war message over the air waves.

But ours was a conservative home. My father was a builder, belonged to the Republican Club and worked the polls on election day. My mother belonged to the PTA, sold Avon, and voted Democratic. We did not discuss the war.

An aspiring writer from the age of eight, I eventually began covering stories for my high-school newspaper. I even had some published in the “Teen Times” section of our city paper. They paid forty-cents per column inch. Then one day in November, I stuck my head out the front door and found a story heading straight down US Route 1.

A stream of travelers trekked along the sidewalk, heading south, past the Presbyterian church and Al’s garage. Some walked in groups of twos or threes. Others hoofed it alone.

I needed the facts.

I may have run back to the house for a pencil and pad. I don’t remember. But I do remember approaching a tall young man who let me tag along. They were heading to Washington, D.C., he said. To protest the war in Vietnam.

As we reached a major intersection, about half-a-mile from my block, and were just about to cross, a flash of green rounded the corner. Every car or truck my parents ever owned was green, and behind the wheel of that green car was my father.

He pulled over to the curb. “Get in!”he yelled through the passenger window

I have since blocked out the mountain of humiliation I’m sure I felt at that moment. But oddly enough, what stood out in my mind was the fact that my father was driving the family car, and not his work truck.

My story on the Oct. 1969 March on Washington was dead in the water. Killed by my own father. Not that the school principal would have allowed it to go to press, now that I think about it. Anti-war sentiment had not progressed that far. But I had wanted to write about it. My father’s propensity for wrath had long since warned me off new and exciting ideas. Like rock music and racial justice. In our house, there was no such thing as a difference of opinion. And so, abandoning my interest in the protest march, I went back to writing about foreign exchange students and school plays.

At college the following year, differences flourished. In the dorm and classroom, in the coffee house, everywhere I turned, my world was exploding. Students strummed peace anthems on guitars, singing about “answers blowin’ in the wind,” and how “we shall overcome someday.”

I listened to what they were saying, but didn’t feel like I belonged to the movement. I was not yet “woke,” as they say.

Probably because my mother’s kitchen radio had been stuck on a station that played only tunes from the 1940s and ’50s. Living in my house was kind of like being in a Doris Day movie. Never discuss anything deep. Whenever your upset, just sing “Que Sera, Sera.”

And then, after moving out west, I discovered NPR. The stories I heard, often from Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Linda Werthheimer, and Susan Stamberg, made an impact. All pioneers of radio broadcasting, these women were living my dream, stepping out and getting the story. Over the years, NPR has been a constant in my life, and I am still in awe of these women. Especially Cokie. They brought me the world. And for that, I say thank you.  FFG

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