Gloria Russell never set out to break any glass ceilings; she simply wanted to tell people’s stories while supporting her two young children. “I saw an ad in The Westerly Sun for a reporter... I knew nothing about being a reporter, so naturally, when I applied for the job, they gave it to me,” Russell says with sarcastic sass.
What she lacked in reporting experience she made up for in people skills. She had been working for the local radio station both in advertising and as an on-air personality. “Party Line with Gloria Russell” was a program that invited women to call in and share recipes with the audience. With Gloria’s help the station even produced a cookbook rounding up some favorite dishes. But when a managerial shakeup worried Gloria that her jobs at the station were less than secure, she started looking for something new right away.
The Pawcatuck-born, Westerly-raised Gloria was no stranger to paving her own path. “My mother didn’t know what the hell to do with me when I graduated high school, so I worked in Boston and then in New York as a model for a clothing company,” the sprightly 88-year-old explains.
But when she walked into the newsroom for the first time in 1966, she knew she was where she belonged. Gloria describes a stirring scene: typewriters clacking, ticker tapes frenetically tapping, stories coming over the wire, editors and writers shouting over it all – there was a frenzied, seductive energy that was simply undeniable. Suffice to say the Sun’s editor-in-chief wasn’t as convinced about Gloria as she was about the Sun. “The poor guy just put his head in his hands. But you know what? I learned. He wanted me out on the street and I learned,” she says.
It didn’t take long for her to catch the news bug. “As soon as I would hear the fire whistle... I would run out that back door and up the street and hop on the fire truck,” she says, laughing. She was friendly with the fire chief and amazingly, he let her hitch a ride time after time. “You’d never be able to do that today.”
As the first female reporter on staff, Gloria was undaunted, but her male counterparts took some getting used to the notion. “They were okay with me but they weren’t crazy about the idea of having a woman there,” she admits, adding that there were never any overt prejudices nor was she ever treated poorly. “I don’t think I ever felt I had to prove myself. I was more concerned about having a job and making a living – I had kids to support!”
It turned out, however, that one reporter at the Sun did in fact change her life forever. “One day, the sports editor walked in and he had a golf pro with him. He introduced me to him, and I married him,” Gloria says of Harold C. Russell. “We’ll be married 49 years in October.”
Later she returned to radio as the news director at WERI, then returned to newspapers including the Norwich Bulletin and the now-defunct Groton News. “I was the bureau chief in Mystic,” she says. But Gloria’s favorite opportunity was when she worked at The Providence Journal for one summer. “I worked in the Sunday Department and I also worked in the Westerly office. I did everything,” she says, including fashion features, theater reviews, cooking and dining, even government affairs. “I loved that job so much. I wanted to stay there but they told me at that point, they had the cream of the crop. I was only a high school graduate; I didn’t go to college. I learned on the street. I went to court. I went to school committee meetings and the council worked sometimes til two in the morning. I’d go home and my family was asleep so I couldn’t use the typewriter and I’d have to write it by hand and be back in the office for 8am.”
Through the years, Gloria bore witness to the evolution of technology and the fast paced information age. “It is just like going from one millennium to the next. That’s why I think living is so exciting,” she says with unabashed delight. “The electronic age is wonderful. I don’t know a lot about computers but I know how to get my story in.”
Her dedication to news and storytelling earned Gloria entry into the Rhode Island Press Association Journalism Hall of Fame in 2003. “Then in 2006 my husband and I went to Washington and I was Rhode Island’s Oldest Working Citizen, then in 2009 I won the Chamber of Commerce Athena Award,” she tells. (Technically she represented the Ocean State as its “Oldest Outstanding Worker.”) Over the decades, she’s interviewed celebrities, musicians and newsmakers including former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and Rhode Island’s own Senator Claiborne Pell, but she says the best part has been doing it all with her husband and two children always by her side.
Today, Gloria is technically retired, but don’t tell her or her editor at The Westerly Sun that – lest he receive her weekly column of personal reflections. It’s not the same as hopping on the back of a fire truck en route to a burning building, but writing still gives her a thrill. “I’m just as excited, even though I’m not writing hard news,” she concedes. “Believe me, there are many times I form leads in my head.”