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Thank you, Therese
The words that I’ve heard used to describe Therese Mills over the last week have not been surprising. Grande Dame. Iron Lady.
They are descriptions that seek to wrap the achievements of a strong-willed and determined woman in the armour of a fighter and crusader. That’s one way of seeing Therese Mills, who came to the end of a remarkable and unprecedented career as a shibboleth-shattering journalist 13 hours into her 69th year in the business.
She was all of those things, but she was something more. Beneath the flint and steel, she remained very much a woman and a mother. Despite clearly stated beliefs and opinions which were not always modern, there was a deep caring for the people who depended on her judgment.
On her watch, the description “woman journalist” moved from being an aberration to being the majority of the workforce in today’s newsrooms.
It’s no small achievement and much of it was done by example, not a campaign of equal opportunity.
Much will be said about this remarkable woman and journalist. Today I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned from her.
Prove yourself first.
On my first day at the Trinidad Guardian as an employee in 1990, Therese Mills knew there was some departmental hostility toward me as the first Picture Editor of the paper.
So she sent me out to cover a long, harrowing assignment about a chicken magnate’s kidnapped daughter that kept me out for the whole day. No food. No drink. I had the front-page photo the next day with an image of the girl on her return home.
It was a perfectly horrible experience for which I was utterly unprepared. And a necessary one. The paper publishes news.
This goes back to the first weeks in the early 1980s when I first met Therese Mills and before she became a champion of my work for the paper.
I’d done a really good portrait of Gail Bindley-Taylor, then a hot property as a journalist and brought a big print to her office at the Sunday Guardian to pitch it as an image for her magazine.
“It’s nice,” she said, “but what’s the story?”
I’d never bring another photo to her after that without a news peg to hang it on. It was the most important lesson I ever learned about the business.
The job is often hard and cruel. Once I was required to fire a photographer at the Guardian who also happened to be a good friend. At the end of a meeting during which we reviewed the situation, it became clear that it was untenable and the photographer would have to go.
It must have showed on my face, because for a brief moment, Mrs Mills looked at me kindly and a little ruefully before saying, “I’ll do it if you want.”
“No,” I responded, “it’s the job; it’s my responsibility.”
She nodded, with the hint of a smile twitching the corners of her mouth. When I returned an hour later with the photographer’s press pass and placed it on her desk, she looked at me, looked at it and turned back to her work with a nod.
The newsroom is a sanctuary.
On the evening of July 27, 1990, I had a long and difficult talk with Mrs Mills about the presence at the Guardian of Camini Maharaj and Alva Viarruel, Express reporters who had sought refuge in our building after trying to reach the Red House.
Mrs Mills wanted them out of the building. I pointed out that we were being shot at and the army was on the roof returning fire.
Eventually, we agreed that at the first safe opportunity they would return to their paper.
More than a decade later I met Therese Mills, and she sternly pointed out that I’d never come to visit her office at Newsday.
“But Mrs Mills, I’m at the Express now and I know how you feel about your newsroom,” I countered hopefully.
She cocked her head at me a bit and peered intently at me before conceding the point with a smile.
I would never see her again after that, but I’ve never forgotten her in all the years since.
Read an expanded version of this column online here: (http://ow.ly/adAll).