Talk Story: Sharon West

During her career as a journalist, Kauai resident Sharon West experienced many hardships and much prejudice, but wouldn’t change her path for anything in the world.

“I was born in Detroit, Michigan, many many years ago. Some people will understand when I say I went to junior high school with Lily Tomlin and Smokey Robinson,” said West. “I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, back in the days when the city was still thriving, when it was a good place to be, when there were actually green trees and good education.”

After marrying her high school sweetheart and having their first child, West attended Trinity University to continue her schooling. After graduation, she taught in San Antonio, Texas. Unfortunately, West and her husband divorced after 11 years, leaving her to take care of her two children.

“When we separated, I decided I wanted to go back to school and study theater,” said West. “So I quit teaching after eight years and went to Dallas, Texas, and started doing theater.”

She also worked a job doing weekend news at a rock station called KNUS in Dallas. Knowing she needed to provide for her two daughters, West decided to become a full-time journalist. She first worked for KRLD, a prominent radio station in Dallas in 1975.

“Eventually I got a few calls to do some television, to do some specials,” said West. “I eventually got a job at the public television station in Dallas.”

Through another station in Dallas, West also hosted and co-produced a TV show known as “Challenged,” which focused on interviews with celebrities from 1974 until 1978. West covered a variety of subjects such as art, entertainment, education and politics.

“I really liked reporting and I really liked gathering news and delivering news but I didn’t like sitting at a desk anchoring the news, that was boring to me,” she said.

West later worked for RKO Radio Network and reported in Washington for 18 months before moving to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1983 with her two daughters, where she worked as a choir teacher and director. She moved to Kauai in 2010.

The Garden Island: Why did you become a journalist?

Sharon West: I didn’t really decide to, which is strange. I really was believing that performance was my thing and I did do some big plays in Dallas and got recognition for my theater work and for my singing, but I needed a job. I was a divorced woman with two girls and I needed a job and they needed a token female. I was fortunate that I worked my way up. I continued with doing journalism because I’ve got a tremendous curiosity. So when I go anyplace, I can’t help but ask questions. I like doing the feature things. I like doing interviews, like we’re doing now, because you get to know people and you get to find out so many interesting things. I like finding out how writers write, what inspires actors, what inspires artists.

TGI: Who have you interviewed?

SW: I did a lot of celebrity interviews in Dallas. I interviewed, oh my goodness, Ella Fitzgerald, I’ve interviewed Tina Turner. A lot of the people now are older because that was back in the ‘70s that I was doing that work. I’ve met a lot of celebrities. In fact, I still have a lot of my interviews on tape. I’ve interviewed Red Skelton. My mind is blank right now trying to list some of the performers, but some of them were nice, some of them were not so nice. I interviewed Shirley MacLaine. There was a Hispanic actress, Rita Moreno, I interviewed her and just a lot of dancers and singers who would come to Dallas.

TGI: What stories did you cover?

SW: I would cover the shows at the art museum in Atlanta and in Dallas and the ballet, then I would do shows at night, I would go to night clubs … and cover Diahann Carroll. I reviewed all the movies that came out from 1973 until 1978 and then from 1982 to 1986 so I have all the press material from “Star Wars” and “Superman,” the original stuff.

TGI: What was it like. interviewing celebrities?

SW: Each were very different. Some of them were very nice people. Quincy Jones — he’s a musician who was also one of the people behind getting the energy for “The Color Purple” made into a movie — he was one of the most interesting people. He was genuine; when he talked to you he talked only to you. Red Skelton was a comedian who was legendary, and he also is an artist that drew clowns and so while he was being interviewed he drew a clown for me and I have that clown and the press material for the show he was doing when he came to Dallas.

TGI: What was your hardest assignment as a journalist?

SW: Covering Washington was very difficult because as a reporter you have something called a buyout contract which means that whenever they need you, you have to be ready to go no matter where you are or what you’re doing. One assignment that was very difficult was when the air traffic controllers went on strike. These were government employees and they were, as far as Reagan was concerned, threatening the safety of the people. President Reagan decided in the end, he broke their union. It was called PATCO; he broke the PATCO strike. Meanwhile to cover that story they had all of these negotiations going on in what they called the mediation center. Reporters from everywhere, there were hundreds of reporters standing outside the mediation center, sleeping on the sidewalk, and that was probably the hardest assignment I ever had because you had to go there and you had to plan to stay there until the whole thing ended. There’s a picture of me in The Washington Post holding up my microphone after they finally came out with a decision on that strike.

The hard part was that there were no cell phones in those days, some stations and some networks had all those things. RKO was a new network so you had to get the information and you had to run and compete with all the other reporters to find a pay phone to call your story in, and if you didn’t get your story in first or at least with along with the rest of the networks your assignment editor in New York would want to know why. So that was probably the hardest one with the idea of sitting on the sidewalk in front of the mediation center with no bathrooms. You’d be glad to have water.

TGI: What was one of your most memorable moments as a journalist?

SW: The significance in my being in Washington was that I got there just after Reagan, who had just been elected, after he was shot. After I got there he had just gotten out of the hospital and he was recovering from the shooting and so my first assignment was to sit in the press gallery of the House of Representatives and observe his first State of the Union address. So that was historic. It was very powerful because when I was sitting there looking down at all of the members of the House and the Senate and the president, I said “This is history. I’m really, really a part of history in this.” I was also nervous because I had not covered national news before and my political news reporting had been some what limited.

TGI: Did you experience any prejudice in your career?

SW: Yes. It’s interesting. I didn’t experience it so much for being African- American as I did for being female. I felt more discriminated against in the industry for being female than for being black. I covered the very first gathering of the National Organization of Women which was in 1973. It was in Houston, Texas. You wouldn’t be aware of how there was a push to organize women. That very first gathering of all those women who came together to say “We’re going to organize, our voices are going to be heard.” I was working in Dallas but I went to Houston to that first conference and that was a powerful, powerful experience. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how significant it was. I was just a mother trying to have a job and keep my kids going. When I came into the industry in the early ‘70s there weren’t a lot of women in key positions in media. One of the things the guys who were working in the industry told me was that women don’t like to hear other women on the air. That was one of the things they used to try to break your confidence. I also experienced racial prejudice when I was reporting in Atlanta because when I moved to Atlanta that was in the early ‘80s. There were lynchings and things still going on — lynchings! And so Oprah went down there and did her show from there and if you ever watch any of those shows she recorded there you’ll see a lot of those people were very nasty, hateful racists and when they gave me an assignment to go out to those smaller cities in North Georgia, I was not greeted with the kind of respect anybody would expect and it wasn’t comfortable.

TGI: How did you feel being discriminated against for being African-American and a woman?

SW: Furious. Most of the time I got angry because I know that I’m intelligent. I know that I’m a good person. I know that I’m a kind person and it just never made sense to me that anyone would make up their mind about me before they knew who I was. I had one guy interview me once when I was still in school and he said “You know, with a little cosmetology you could pass for white,” and I said to him “And that’s what makes the whole thing stupid!” But I’ll tell you, this is where it really came to hit me: when I was in college, there were three of us of color on the campus. This is at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, that’s where I graduated. In those days the schools were segregated. My last year I was supposed to do practice teaching and so they said “What school do you want to do your practice teaching?” I knew that there was a teacher in Alamo Heights, which was a very high rent kind of neighborhood, and this woman, her name was Sue Flood, I’ll never forget her name, she was an excellent director and my area was choral directing and I wanted to practice teach with her, and I was told, “You won’t be allowed to do practice teaching there because you are black.” And I said to them, “You mean I have to struggle and pay my tuition and go through all of this and you’re going to tell me that I don’t get to choose the school where I get to do my practice teaching and all the other women in the class? That’s wrong!”

TGI: How do you feel about the culture here living in Hawaii?

SW: In the long run, being here has been an absolute gift from God and I know that I’m supposed to be here. It’s so interesting because the culture is so different and there are many cultures here. I feel embraced by it, very much embraced by it and loved by it and, as I said, there’s so many different groups here that you get to learn a lot.

TGI: Have you ever wished to go back to your life as a journalist?

SW: I’ve considered doing an interview show, maybe if there was an opportunity, because I find that I grow so much, I learn so much, when I tend to talk to people and ask questions.

TGI: Would you trade your hardships as a journalist and as an African-American woman for an easier life?

SW: No, I wouldn’t. I believe that everything I’ve been challenged with has been a gift to me even, when it hurt real bad, even when it felt like I was being disrespected, even when it felt like I wasn’t being loved the way I should be loved, even when I felt hurt in any kind of way I realize that somewhere in this experience there’s a gift and it’s up for me to find that gift.

•••

Averie Soto, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or asoto@thegardenisland.com.

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