Robert Thomas - Opinion

From time to time I get asked "who are some of the most memorable people you have met reporting?"

Sure, throughout my career, I met quite a few people who were famous. Politicians like Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, Brian Mulroney and even music diva Diana Ross. But despite meeting some very famous people, one of the persons who stands out has to be Mrs Bidwell, former chairman of the then Moose Jaw Public School Board Number One. And yes, I did just write two highly politically incorrect terms in referring to her just now, but it is exactly how she would want it.

I remember attending my first school board meeting and I diligently wrote up my first stories, which I thought were works of art even Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa would smile about.
But the next meeting I found out I had really blown the stories. Was it because I had forgotten some pertinent detail, or worse yet, misunderstood the subject matter entirely?
No, not at all. It was how I had described Mrs Bidwell's position on the board.

I had called her the chair.

I still remember Mrs Bidwell calling the meeting to order and then immediately stating her position on the board was chairman and not chair - as was acceptable terminology according to the CP or Canadian Press style guide. "I want people to know I am the chairman and not the chair of the Moose Jaw Public School Division," I distinctly remember her saying, adding "a chair is an inanimate object. I'm a person."

A bewildered look overcame me and a lump in my throat developed.

Following the meeting Mrs Bidwell took me aside, where she started to explain why she was to be called chairman in the newspaper.  I offered to call her the chairperson or chairwoman instead of chair but she would have none of that. I tried to explain to her it was all because of CP style and I had to follow the rules. Then, she pointed up at all of the photos adorning the walls of the board office - photos of men who all had at one time being school board chairman. She then began telling me her philosophy on life and how, just by the choice of a word, I was lessening the hard work and her accomplishments over the years to become the board's chairman. That because she was a woman she could not share the same title, she was a lesser chairman of the board.

For Mrs Bidwell, it was simple, my using gender neutral language was, in fact, lessening her accomplishments. Her hard work discounted by political correctness. Mrs Bidwell told me that calling her chairperson or chairwoman may be what some were saying but chairman had historical significance and by not granting her the same status as her male chairmen counterparts I had cheapened her accomplishments.

I thought about it and knew those lectures I had paid for in journalism school, that taught me to never, ever deviate from CP Style, were actually worthless. Then I asked Mrs Bidwell what her first name was, as CP Style also said to use people's first names and not their marital status in any story. At which point, she again told me it was not right for me to address her as such, whether verbally or in writing. She was married to Mr. Bidwell, and as a person younger than her - I was 26 at the time - convention said I had to refer to her as Mrs Bidwell; any less showed a lack of respect. Plus it was unprofessional.

So I had to agree with her, and in my stories from then on, she was simply Board Chairman Mrs Bidwell.  The next school board meeting, once again Mrs Bidwell raised a point of order and thanked my news outlet for correcting how she was addressed in the newspaper, and we got down to business.

So here I am, over a quarter of a century later, writing about some school board (division) meeting stories. Remembering that some of the biggest lessons I've learned didn't come out of a textbook. True wisdom is about how you apply what you learn in real life.

moose jaw