News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Liz Ciancone

September 13, 2011

LIZ CIANCONE: 2 women’s strength of character unforgettable

Remember the old “Readers’ Digest” feature: “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met?” I’ve met a lot of memorable folks, but tend to remember most women who were strong and independent at a time women were supposed to be soft and compliant.

There was Mom. Mom’s parents came to Iowa from Germany. Mom was the youngest of four surviving children and her Mom died when my Mom was 3 years old. Grandpa Koehler never remarried. He hired a housekeeper to raise Mom and three boys.

Uncle Jack, Uncle Bob and Uncle George had gone to high school and Grandpa promised Mom she could go, too. But when she finished eighth grade, he decided she was old enough to take over the house so he could dismiss the housekeeper.

Mom ran away from home, hired herself as an au pair to an attorney’s family in Iowa City, and finished two years of high school to become eligible for entry into nurse’s training. She finished with flying colors and invited Grandpa to her graduation only to learn that he had died while she had disappeared from home. She went on to become superintendent of nurses at a large hospital.

More recently I met Frances Hughes, women’s page editor of the Terre Haute Star for 42 years.

Frances was an only child and raised with money. Following her graduation from the “King Classical School” here in Terre Haute, she opted out of college. “I was having too much fun to leave town,” she said.

But the family fortunes evaporated after 1929 and for most of her 42 years in the newspaper office, she was the sole support of both parents. She never married. One suitor was unwilling to include her mother in their marriage and she refused to abandon her sole remaining parent.

In the years before the “women’s liberation” movement, a newspaper office was a man’s world and Frances, “Tankie,” fought for herself. She was a leading force in establishing the local chapter of the Newspaper Guild and served in both local and national offices for the union.

I remember so many of her guidelines. My first assignment was as a temp on the women’s page. Tankie hit the roof when I referred to the “bride and groom” in a wedding story. “The word is ‘bridegroom’,” she raged. “A groom works with horses!”

Tankie retired on her 65th birthday and lived for more than 25 more years. I still miss her — as much as I miss Mom.

Liz Ciancone is a retired Tribune-Star reporter. Send e-mail to

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