Editor’s note: Ziva Branstetter, The Frontier’s former editor-in-chief, nominated award-winning investigative journalist Mary Hargrove for a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Branstetter recently interviewed Hargrove about her career and about journalism today.
When Mary Hargrove was about 4 years old, she told her family she wanted to be a reporter.
“They laughed at me,” she said.
More than six decades later, the only people laughing at Hargrove are those who are lucky enough to hear one of her famous anecdotes about stories she has covered, stories that include sheep, frogs and kangaroos.
Hargrove, who spent nearly two decades at The Tulsa Tribune and now lives in Tulsa, is receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Oklahoma Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists Saturday.
Hargrove, 66, is from Ohio and was briefly a reporter for the Newark (Ohio) Advocate before joining the staff of The Tulsa Tribune in 1974. During nearly 20 years at the newspaper, Hargrove was a reporter, Washington correspondent, investigations team leader and managing editor over projects.
She has won numerous state and national honors, including the Grand Prize RFK Memorial Journalism Award; the Heywood Broun Award; the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism (first place), and The Press Club of Dallas Katie Award for Investigative Reporting (first place).
She was also named a Tulsa Press Club Media Icon in 2008 and won a lifetime achievement award from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s School of Journalism.
As an investigative editor, she helped her team of Tulsa reporters win a national award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
She also received awards from the Arc, The National Association of Royalty Owners, The Children’s Express of New York City and The National Association of Social Workers.
In 1982, she led the nation’s coverage of the failed Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City. Hargrove was the only reporter to have sources early on inside the bank and its failure threatened to collapse the national banking system.
In 1986, Mary produced a series investigating the finances of Oral Roberts University. He claimed to have little money but Hargrove’s reporting revealed he had hidden assets with his son-in-law and had homes in other names in Beverly Hills, CA. and Palm Springs, Ca.
Her investigation revealed Roberts had nearly bankrupted his thriving university in an attempt to keep his City of Faith Hospital open.
She was elected to the national Investigative Reporters & Editors’ board of directors where she served as treasurer, vice president, president and chair from 1983-1991.
Hargrove was featured on the cover of Washington Journalism Review as “The Best In the West” in 1987. That same year, she was the commencement speaker for the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
When The Tribune closed in 1992, Hargrove was hired as an investigative editor in the Broward Bureau of the Miami Herald. She left the Herald in 1994 for a job as associate editor at the The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
At the Democrat-Gazette, Hargrove continued breaking national news with a series that exposed the corrupt financial dealings of popular Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who was indicted and convicted.
Her 1998 series “Welcome to Hell” took a year and a half to write and exposed physical and emotional abuse and a murder in state-run juvenile facilities for children. It earned her the
Robert F. Kennedy Award — including being selected as the best entry among all media that year — and more than 15 national awards.
Hargrove’s work at the Democrat-Gazette was especially challenging because she learned she suffered from a rare neurological condition that nearly took her life six times between 1994 and 1997.
Her last series as a reporter, “Duty And Deliverance,” resulted in a deceased WWII POW receiving a long-delayed medal, the Legion of Merit Award.
Hargrove retired in 2005 and moved to Tulsa, where her son and grandchildren live.
‘They laughed at me’
Ziva Branstetter, The Frontier’s former editor-in-chief, nominated Hargrove for SPJ’s Lifetime Achievement award and worked at The Tribune while Hargrove was an editor from 1988 until 1992.
Branstetter recently interviewed Hargrove about her career and about journalism today. Here are excerpts of their discussion:
Since you left Arkansas, you’ve moved back here to be with family, you’ve gotten into art. Do you miss journalism?
I always will. I knew when I was 4 or 5 that I wanted to be a reporter and I told everybody and they laughed at me and I kept it up. … I read something and I think, why didn’t they do it that way or this way or that would have been interesting to try to do but you also have to have a life and I think that gets lost sometimes. When you get into investigative reporting I think that becomes your only purpose. My grandkids are wonderful and I love my painting; it’s another way to tell stories. I play my guitar, went to Australia, I’ve been to Ireland, been to Alaska. You know and each time I do I meet some very interesting people and hear their stories too.
The changes that you’ve seen in journalism, in investigative reporting, overall do you think they’ve been positive or do you think it’s a mixed bag? These days so many publications are focused on clickbait. The quality of journalism that you did doesn’t seem to be around anymore.
I definitely think it’s different. It’s better in that, particularly newspapers but everybody, you can go to their websites and click on documents that we might have just referred a paragraph to before. You can see the whole document and that kind of thing is great. … I think what you miss is going back two or three times, getting to know people, their personal stories to really know them and not just get a quote, not just get a little quick wrap up. To get to the heart of people … I think that your readers miss that. Somebody that you can identify with.
Because people are in a hurry …
Yeah. I think it kills your ability to have empathy when you don’t do that as much. I think even when you look at all the divides right now, I think that’s even a bit of us.
Not seeing each other as people?
Yes not seeing each other as people because everybody’s quick and everybody’s in a hurry and that kind of information has not been provided by reporters. … I understand the deadlines and the frustration but I do think you can commit people to doing that and to do it well so that your readers go this is not only something I can identify with this is something that I can use. For example, every time we did a series, on the last day I had an entire page of “if you are frustrated by what’s happening in the veterans’ clinics this is how you can help. You can bring them food, you can volunteer your time, clothes. This is who you report to if you know a problem.” So that people don’t just pick up the paper and go, “Man, I just feel bad now that I read that investigation.”
This seems like such a basic question but what made you decide that you wanted to be an investigative reporter and did you always know that you wanted to specialize as an investigative reporter?
Well, originally I wanted to be a TV and movie critic. I had a master’s degree in movie and TV criticism but that wasn’t going to happen. They have very few TV writers these days but I literally graduated, I got my bachelor’s in 72 and my masters in 73 in the middle of the Watergate controversy …
And that inspired you …
That was going on at the time and you know I went into the newsroom and as a woman they told me I had to wear a skirt. [perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]They said, “Even if it snows 10 feet, you are not wearing pants.” And so the first time it snowed 10 feet I wore pants and they said, “You can’t do that” and I said “then send me home. Not going to happen. I’m the only reporter that showed up today.”[/perfectpullquote]
So there was always this give her features, give her brites type thing and you know I would insist and in the case at The Tribune I actually went out on my own at night and on weekends and turned it in because I couldn’t get them to stop giving me the brites and the features.
And that was the series on child abuse?
No that was the series on deaf education and they were fighting about lip reading and signing and it was hurting the kids. There was no pattern. … So I called it the world of no barking dogs. I thought that would catch people’s attention and it was before computers so I put it in his little basket and it was a three-part series. And after two or three days I went up and he hadn’t read it yet and I said then I’m taking it back. If you don’t care enough then I’m taking it back and so I went back to my desk and pouted and he came up and said I want to read it … and you know they started it the next week.
What would you say are your proudest accomplishments. You’ve had so many. The juvenile series in Arkansas?
Yeah the juvenile detention center in Arkansas but the last series that I did was on World War II POWs and they were all Air Force.
Tell me about that.
They were in Stalag Luft III in Poland. They’d been shot down under terrible conditions. There was a man there named Ewell McCright the Germans said if you keep any records we will kill you . no discussion. Because people were disappearing, starved, shot, he started keeping a journal on little pieces of paper of every airman that came in there and their date of birth, where they were from, everything that happened to them and those who died. And just as World War II and the camp was about to be liberated … and they marched them to another camp in the winter and instead of taking food he took his journals and so he kept those. He lived in Benton, Arkansas for years… when he retired he came back like everybody else and he became a lawyer and he also became a drunk and so he was the town laugh. There was another man in town who worked for the city of Benton. He liked to write stories and collect stories about World War II men. When Ewell McCright died, his sister donated these little pieces of paper to Arnold, who at that point, spent several years on his own transcribing all those into a journal, and published it on his own, cost a lot of money, sent it out to different POWs and connected families and kids saw their stories they’d never seean. Meanwhile, his family wanted to get Ewell McCright a medal for what he’d done and it had been turned down over and over again. We did a story about what Ewell McCright did and he got his medal. … At that point I left Arkansas and that was the last thing I published and I had no money and they wanted me to speak at their 60th at their reunion. And they invited me to be their keynote and I said yes and I didn’t really have any money. I was eating lunch with somebody and I said I was worried about paying for my dog to be boarded … These guys in their 80s, all retired, privately collected money and gave me a couple hundred bucks. Coolest thing ever.
That’s a really nice way to end your career although you know, it hasn’t ended. You’ve written a book. … You care enough about The Frontier even that I’m leaving to keep in touch with them and give them encouragement. It’s good that you’re sharing your wisdom. It’s important. …. And so the recognition … you’ve had a lot of awards and a lot of recognition. Was it something that surprised you?
Oh very surprising. I mean I haven’t worked for 12 years. When I left Arkansas, I Googled myself on the last day and there were eight pages full of results of either stories I’d written, stories about me, awards I’d received, that kind of thing. Then I Googled myself about four months ago and it was a half page and four of them were obits for other Mary Hargroves. And it didn’t even make me feel bad. I just said, “OK, people have moved on,” and it’s too bad people don’t see some of this stuff but there’s news to break all the time.
Well I think you’ve left a legacy and I think I told you, you certainly inspired me and I know you inspired a lot of other journalists. Talk to me a little bit about your method because I was a cop reporter at The Tribune and I came in and I saw your method and I saw, your team all had these recorders and they had these foot pedals and they were highlighting and things so tell me about your system. It was pretty rigorous.
Most of the reporters I was dealing with were used to doing dailies … and so I would make them transcribe their interviews right away and I would find what I considered the holes in the story and make them go back immediately. One of the tricks of interviewing is that if I interview you about a topic, the first thing you do is go, “Damn I wish I’d told her that.” … I’d ask them once a week, “If you had to print today what would you say?” I also had them highlight the quotes that they liked the most because if you do, in an investigation that goes 3, 5, 6 months, a year, you forget sometimes about the most important stuff because you’ve got the newest stuff. I’d have them do that so that they’d remember it. … It was arduous, I remember when I was doing the Oral Roberts series, two of them came in and said, “If you make us do another interview, I’m going to cry,” and they were men.
That’s some hands-on editing. You don’t get that anymore. You have a lot of funny stories that you tell about various funny things that have happened to you. What’s your favorite anecdote about being a reporter?
One of the stories that just always I like to make people laugh it was part of the deal and that was why they didn’t want me doing investigations because it so hard to write funny. … Gary Kruse was the night person …
Oh yeah, I remember. I came to him every morning and we would watch all the police stuff that he had taped from TV news …
He came in this one morning and he said I heard the funniest story last night and I’m not going to check it out. It’s just too stupid to be true … There were these two cops … and they went to Claybrook’s Restaurant in north Tulsa and this drunk comes in and he’s very upset and he said, “I just ran over a kangaroo,” and everybody in the restaurant is laughing because he’s a drunk and the Tulsa Zoo doesn’t have kangaroos. … He goes, “OK, just come outside.” The waitress and the cops go outside and there’s a dead kangaroo in the back of the man’s pickup truck. After that he drove to a bar down the street, dragged the kangaroo in, put it up on the bar seat, put his arm around him and said, “Bring two, for me and my buddy,” and they said, “Get that dead rat out of here.” .. Early in the morning I called Claybrooks. … This waitress says, “I will never not believe a drunk again.” I think the key to what I did was just ask that one extra question and I said, “How did he hit the kangaroo?” and she said, “I think he hit the kangaroo when he swerved to miss the little one.”