116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Phyllis Fleming spent 45 years working in The Gazette's newsroom, most of that in leadership positions, before retiring in 2002. It's been 10 years since she died, and she seems a good person to write about during Women's History Month.
Fleming was born in Stuart in west-central Iowa in 1935. She was an honor student at the high school in Garner, where her father taught vocational agriculture, graduating in 1952.
She enrolled at the University of Iowa to major in journalism and spent the summer after her freshman year working for the Garner Leader and Signal newspaper. In her sophomore year, she joined the photo staff of the UI student yearbook, the Hawkeye. She was news editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Iowan - a plum, competitive post - before graduating with honors in 1956.
Her first job was at the Billings, Mont., Gazette for $65 a week. She was the first hire at the paper in a long time and the only woman working outside the society department.
It didn't take long for Fleming to recognize she wanted something different.
She was offered a job at the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette but also interviewed for a Cedar Rapids Gazette job that offered a mix of editing and news reporting. That combination persuaded her, and she chose The Gazette, starting in September 1957.
She was on the job for a week when her boss left on vacation, and Fleming was on her own. She not only had to edit stories but also design pages, something she'd never done.
She was a quick study.
In addition to editing duties, she wrote more than 700 bylined stories before 1969, when she became the newspaper's Sunday editor. Among her first stories was one on 'cadet teachers” (student teachers) and one about the new University of Iowa Medical Research Center, for which she took five photos.
Writing and travel
Three years later, Fleming spent two months traveling in Europe with the University of Iowa Scottish Highlanders, an all-female bagpipe and drum marching unit. She sent back pictures and stories from the tour and counted the experience as one of the highlights of her career.
Fleming thought she would move on from Cedar Rapids after a few years, but she was still at the paper 12 years later when she became the Sunday editor.
She had less time for writing in her new job, though she managed stories on the Chicago Board of Trade, a mystery convention in Omaha and her trips to Budapest, Vienna and Prague, a testament to her love of travel.
One of her more memorable stories was a Student Power Symposium at the University of Iowa Memorial Union in February 1969 - at the height of Vietnam War protests - when someone set off a tear-gas canister as a crowd of about 800 was waiting for the program to begin.
One of the night's speakers was anti-war activist Tom Hayden. People evacuated to an upstairs ballroom where the session continued without further interruption.
Fleming had filled other newsroom positions, including city editor and assistant managing editor, when she won the Iowa Newspaper Association's Distinguished Service Award in 1992.
One of her last major projects was coordinating the 25-part 'Home Front: World War II in Iowa” series in 2001, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Though Fleming retired in 2002, she continued to help with special projects, including the four-week 'Outlook” project on technology in 2003 and the 'Cedar Rapids: Our People, Our Story” book in 2004. She wrote a history of The Gazette in 2005.
She also served on advisory boards of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and of the Daily Iowan for more than 20 years.
The nature of news is that it's constantly new, but what doesn't change is the nature of reporting. It is based on truth and facts, Fleming would say in her commanding voice. The reader comes first.
Ever conscious of even the appearance of a conflict of interest, Fleming didn't join community organizations while she worked in the newsroom. She made one exception for Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
After Fleming retired, she became a docent for the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and a trustee on the Cedar Rapids Public Library board. A big fan of performances at the UI's Hancher Auditorium, she helped bring the famed Joffrey Ballet to Iowa City.
In January 2011, when Fleming was dying of duodenal cancer, she was inducted into the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication's Hall of Fame. Most of the newsroom attended the presentation at the care facility where she was staying.
David Perlmutter, the school's director, said the Hall of Fame honor is bestowed 'on people who had a lifetime of contribution to the advancement of journalism and mass communication and people who upheld the highest ethical principles for themselves and their craft.”
A few weeks later, Fleming died on Feb. 18, 2011, at age 75.