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‘Never miss a deadline’ and other lessons from Martha Woodroof

Martha Woodroof (Photo from her Facebook page)

Editor’s note: Author and journalist Martha Woodroof died early Sunday, as her daughter Lizzie confirmed on Facebook. She was 74. She had been battling a rare cancer her in salivary glands and lungs. Woodroof retired from WMRA in 2016, where she had created the interview program “The Spark.” She wrote two books, the novel “Small Blessings” in 2014 and a self-help book “How to Stop Screwing Up” in 2007. She also contributed to The Citizen in multiple ways, and co-founders Ryan Alessi and Andrew Jenner published tributes to what she did for journalism, storytelling and the Valley.

By Andrew Jenner, publisher

When I was reporting regularly for WMRA, where Martha worked for many years, she and I would occasionally meet for lunch and talk shop. During one of these times, I confessed that I was supposed to have filed a story that morning but still wasn’t quite done. I hadn’t thought it was a terribly big deal until she cut me down to size.

 “Never miss a deadline!” she exclaimed, giving me a fierce look over her glasses.

Although some years have passed and my professional circumstances have changed, I still return to that moment at times – Martha as a life coach, calling me out on some sloppy fundamentals. She was the kind of person who improved me like that, who left an outsized mark relative to the small amount of time we spent together. 

Martha was a prolific and eager giver of advice (a pursuit she applied here at The Citizen in her Elderly Aunt column). With her trademark gentle severity, she once explained that my earliest attempts at a radio voice sucked. Then, with her trademark generosity of spirit, she spent an hour with me in the studio working on breathing, emphasis and pitch, pumping her fist from the control room when she perceived some progress. Afterwards, my radio voice was perhaps slightly better but my confidence was miles ahead. It was a wonderful gift.

Sometimes her advice was too Martha for Andrew to pull off. There was an editor I’d been pitching solid ideas but wasn’t responding. Martha encouraged me to cold-call and demand an answer, then launched into a story (her advice was often packaged with a colorful supporting personal anecdote) about how she’d gotten breaks in the business by being so bold. I never quite found the courage. But I also never sold a story to that editor, either.

The most significant lesson Martha taught me comes from the way she exemplified independence and resolve. She marched to her own beat, and in doing so for decades, became the quintessential advice columnist. Some of the accumulated wisdom she shared with me rang perfectly true; some of it, as I said, was too Martha. In these cases, though, I think Martha’s bigger legacy stands perfectly in as superseding advice: figure out what you would do instead, and do it.

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