Mary Tyler Moore will undoubtedly be remembered for her past on television, but that had more impact than just entertainment.
“Alright, sweetie,” the man in the broadcast booth with me said, as we both took our headsets off. “I know you have an ear for good bands and music. Can you explain to me again why you don’t want to get into management?”
I smiled a little, “well, I am only 14. It’s not like I can start work tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I guess not,” he laughed. “But, here you are, sitting in a radio station. Just got off the air, running things all by yourself.”
“Yes, but that was your fault for being late!”
He started collecting up the records we had been listening to in a broadcast studio that had long since been disconnected from everything but a small set of speakers hanging on the wall. The real booth was across from us, and he pointed at it as he spoke again. “You’re telling me that you don’t want to end up behind a mic either?”
I stopped helping him collect up the stack, and looked over at the DJ in the booth who was currently on-air. “I won’t say that. At least I’ve always known it’s an option.”
“Yes,” he said as he packed the stack of records away into his briefcase. “I think you definitely will end up there.” He smiled, and tapped my nose. “And you know I’m right, because I know about these things!”
The man I talked to that summer day in 1985 was Joe Rock, the man who discovered Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners – and gave the world the song “Since I Don’t Have You.” It was in a dingy community radio station building, and it was the first time my voice ever hit any airwaves live. He’s been dead now for several years, but I still remember him fondly. When we had that conversation about my future aspirations, he was fishing for an apprentice and I was thinking of Mary Tyler Moore. Drop a less-than-impressionable teenage girl into a radio station, put her behind the mic, and let her see what she could do, and maybe she’ll just think broadcasting in general while drifting off to something at least a little more cerebral. By that age, I’d already been branded a “future writer” by most teachers, including one who never gave that title out easily. In the end, it turned out that Joe Rock and Sr. Mary Giles were both right – I’d be behind that mic, and writing.
As for Mary Tyler Moore, without her shows in re-run on my ancient Zenith television during the 1970’s, it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t have filled in “Journalism” on my class schedules multiple times during high school and in college. She was my early antidote to the notion that women in media could rarely be more than just ornamentation on the screen, or “brains” in the background. Since I spent a fair amount of my early years in the house, due to health problems and an overly protective mother, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was often in my list of shows to switch the channel to when doting mother left the room. (I was “too young” to be interested in that show, or so my mother thought.)
Today, when I saw the headline that the woman who kept me company so often was gone, my mind went back to that time immediately. She taught me what my own mother didn’t (because my mother was too busy trying to protect me from everything) – that being a woman was not a reason to accept the word “no.” That lead me to that radio studio, and my time on air – it’s still unknown if I was the youngest DJ live on an FM station without an adult assisting. Years later, it lead to my becoming the first active female firefighter in our town. Mary Tyler Moore was the definition of feminism for me during the majority of my life, simply by going from being cast as the ad-man’s wife to being the one sane string holding a television newsroom together. True, that’s just casting, but it was a meaningful leap shown on the small screen in front of all American women back then. It screamed better than any activists or marches could, “See! You can do this!” And I watched stay-at-home moms in my neighborhood make that same leap I saw Mary Tyler Moore did on the screen. There’s no way to minimize that – the fact that I was able to see real people do exactly what I saw one woman do on TV.
And that is part of Mary Tyler Moore’s legacy. It’s not just about her time in front of the camera. It is all about the effect it had on so many women during a time when it was very easy to just give in to peer and societal pressures, and not reach for higher goals.
Thank you, Mary. You will be missed, more than you could ever know. Or, maybe you did know all along.