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Dorothy Powers, beloved S-R journalist, dies at 93

This photograph of Dorothy Powers was taken July 27, 2012 at Riverside Memorial Terrace. She had gathered with the Friends of the Davenport to visit the gravestone of Louis Davenport, founder of the Davenport Hotel.
This photograph of Dorothy Powers was taken July 27, 2012 at Riverside Memorial Terrace. She had gathered with the Friends of the Davenport to visit the gravestone of Louis Davenport, founder of the Davenport Hotel.

Dorothy Rochon Powers, perhaps the most famous journalist to write for The Spokesman-Review, has died. She was 93.

She was born Oct. 9, 1921 in Alberta, Canada, where her parents, both of whom worked as educators, lived briefly. The family moved back to Anaconda, Montana, when Powers was two. Her mother, who gave up a principal position to raise her children, read the classics to Powers and her older brother, Ned. Both parents loved the written word. They were insistent on good grammar, Powers said in a 1988 interview.

Powers’ mother died when Powers was just 7. Some townspeople hinted that the children should be placed into an orphanage, but Powers’ father wouldn’t hear of it. He devoted his life to his children.

This early, crushing loss gave Powers increased sensitivity to the suffering and vulnerability of others, a sensitivity that defined her writing style throughout her four decades at The Spokesman-Review. But it also made her tough.

“It made me self-sufficient,” she said in 1988. “I learned to compete and think in a male-dominated world.”

When Powers attended the University of Montana in the early 1940s, she was told to switch majors because “girls” shouldn’t be journalists. Instead, she became news editor for the college newspaper and in her senior year applied to three newspapers.

The Spokesman-Review sent her a telegram: “Come at once.” World War II was on. She arrived June 10, 1943.

Soon Powers was featured in a newspaper ad in which she said: “In this new job of mine I am inspired by the fact that in our publishing plant 70 newspaper men have joined the armed forces.”

She took on the beats the men left behind – city hall, the police, the courts, the stockyards. She averaged about 13 stories a day – most without bylines.

Powers and the other newsroom women were popular with soldiers stationed in Spokane-area bases. They lined up outside The Spokesman-Review building most evenings to take the newspaper women dancing after deadline. Friends introduced her to a pilot, Elwood Powers of Tennessee, and they married after he returned from fighting in the war.

Unlike other women who left their good jobs after the war ended, Powers stayed at The Spokesman-Review and thrived. She experienced her stories, rather than report them from her desk. She checked herself into Eastern State Hospital, undercover, to write about the mentally ill. She hung out in hobo camps to understand the life of men who hopped on and off trains. In 1958, she flew in a KC-135 out of Fairchild Air Force Base, the first woman allowed to fly on a Strategic Air Command jet.

Powers quickly became Spokane’s best-known and beloved journalist.

By 1960, she was ready for a change. She ran for Congress as a Republican but lost in the primary. She tried again in 1966, won the primary, but lost in the general election to Tom Foley, who went on to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Powers took a leave of absence from the paper during both political bids, but she felt “frozen out” by one editor when she returned. Her column was taken away. She was relegated to editing letters to the editor.

“I learned to hang on when you are really discouraged,” she later said of that time.

Powers outlasted the editor who shunned her. She regained her column, and her fame, and in 1977 was named editorial page editor, the first woman in the paper’s history to hold that prestigious spot. Under her pen, the Christmas Bureau became an institution, dispensing toys, food vouchers and holiday hope to thousands of Inland Northwest people each year. Powers also won many prestigious journalism prizes.

Still, she sometimes bristled when readers mistook her for Dorothy Dean, the pseudonym for the women who wrote recipe stories for The Spokesman-Review in the 1950s and ’60s.

“Remember me as Dorothy Powers, the reporter, and not Dorothy Dean, the cook,” she once told Paula Davis, a Spokane funeral director and friend.

Though she and Elwood chose not to have children, Powers was godmother to many and always opened her door when young people knocked for advice and encouragement.

When she retired in January 1988, she vowed to close the newspaper chapter and move on. She did. She wrote two books – a column compilation “Powers to the People” and a history of famous people buried in Spokane cemeteries, commissioned by the Fairmount Memorial Association.

In the early years of her retirement, she and Elwood traveled, socialized with friends and with the people they rented apartments to in their historic Browne’s Addition home. Powers also skied and spent time at their Hayden Lake place. She supported the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, donating money for a classroom in honor of her father.

In her late 80s, Powers life narrowed. Elwood’s health deteriorated, as did her own. She battled back problems that stemmed, in part, from decades of curving her back toward typewriters and computers.

Elwood’s death, in July 2011, shattered her. She lost her lifelong companion, and she withdrew even more. Powers, however, always ventured out in late July when the Friends of the Davenport gathered at Riverside Cemetery to pay tribute to the memory of Louis Davenport of hotel fame.

At the end of her 1988 retirement interview, Powers said something that likely resonates today with readers who still remember the newspaper legacy of Dorothy Rochon Powers.

“Endings are always sad,” she said. “If you end something without feeling sad, it hasn’t meant much to you.”

Rebecca Nappi, former staff writer for The Spokesman-Review, contributed to this report.