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Beck, Joan, 1923-1998

 Person

Dates

  • Existence: 1923 - 1998

Joan Wagner Beck (September 5, 1923-December 11, 1998) was a columnist and trailblazer at the Chicago Tribune, where she was the first woman with a regular column in the editorial or op-ed pages, the first woman in charge of a daily section and the first woman to serve on the paper’s editorial board.

Beck was born in Clinton, Iowa to parents Roscoe Charles and Mildred (Noel) Wagner. She spent the summer before her senior year of high school at Northwestern’s National High School Institute in the journalism “cherubs” program. While there, she met Ruth Moss Buck, who would be her roommate during her freshman year at Northwestern.

She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism, graduating cum laude from Northwestern in 1945. She followed it up with a master’s degree from Medill in 1947. She worked at the Daily Northwestern during her undergraduate career, rising to the top managing editor role in the fall of 1944. That quarter, The Daily debuted its first all-female editorial board, spurred in part by the drafting of many male upperclassmen into World War II. She continued to serve as managing editor during the winter of 1945, but passed the job on to Buck in the spring after finishing her degree requirements a quarter early. The two remained friends throughout Beck’s life, both working at the Chicago Tribune.

In September 1945, the fall after her graduation, Beck married Ernest William Beck. The couple had a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Melinda.

After graduation, Beck worked at the Office of War Information, Voice of America as a radio script writer from 1945 to 1946 and at Marshall Field and Company as a copywriter from 1947 to 1950. She joined the staff of the Chicago Tribune in 1950.

She was one of few women in the Tribune’s newsroom when she joined, and quickly moved away from the topics more traditionally relegated to women journalists at the time—fashion, cooking and beauty—and into social issues like adoption and foster care, education, working women and medical research. She wrote a syndicated weekly feature called “What Makes Our Teens Tick.”

In 1961, she took over the twice-weekly, nationally syndicated “You and Your Child” column and wrote a Q&A column about children for the Sunday paper. Readers responded overwhelmingly to her work, and she received on average more than 1,000 letters from readers per week. She was an early advocate for the importance of early education in developing young children’s brains, and a longtime crusader against smoking.

In 1965, she received Northwestern’s Alumni Merit Award. Beck wrote four books on parenting and children, including “How to Raise a Brighter Child," which was published in 1967 and has since been translated into eight languages and reprinted more than a dozen times.

In 1977, the Northwestern Alumnae awarded her their annual Alumnae Award, which recognizes an outstanding alumna who has made significant contributions in her field and attained national recognition.

She was promoted to daily features editor for the paper in 1972. She left features a few years later, becoming the first woman to serve on the Tribune’s editorial board in 1975, when she also began writing a commentary column. She extensively researched columns on scientific and medical issues, and relied heavily on scientific evidence, rather than social judgments, to make her points. She maintained her post on the editorial board until 1992.

In 1994, Beck received the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ award for the best commentary writing, and was also inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame that same year.

Despite poor health—Beck was diagnosed with ovarian cancer several years before her death—she continued writing until just before she passed away. Her last column, a commentary on the tobacco industry’s $206 billion settlement with the government, appeared in the December 6, 1998 edition of the Tribune.

Beck’s daughter, Melinda Beck Neger, followed her mother into journalism. Neger is a health columnist for the Wall Street Journal, where she writes under her maiden name, Melinda Beck.

The Medill Cherubs program offers a scholarship named after Beck and her freshman roommate and journalism companion, the Joan Wagner Beck and Ruth Moss Buck scholarship.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Joan Wagner Beck (1923-1998), 1941-1954 Papers

 Collection
Identifier: 31/6/203
Abstract Joan Wagner Beck (September 5, 1923-December 11, 1998) was a columnist and trailblazer at the Chicago Tribune, where she was the first woman with a regular column in the editorial or op-ed pages, the first woman in charge of a daily section and the first woman to serve on the paper’s editorial board.
Dates: 1941-1954