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After long career telling stories, Bulletin reporter Judy Spooner retires

Judy Spooner explains her love of local history as she receives the 2012 Cottage Grove Preservationist of the Year award during a City Council meeting early this year. (Bulletin file photo)1 / 2
Judy Spooner retired Sept. 30. She’ll continue to write an occasional column.2 / 2

Judy Spooner had just finished a Bulletin assignment taking photographs of children at a Christmas program. She walked outside, paused and teared up.

“I’m in the parking lot,” she recalled recently, “and I said, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ Just tell stories — that’s all I really wanted to do.”

That realization occurred when she returned to the Bulletin in 1988 after several years away, but she already had worked more than a decade for the newspaper, sharing south Washington County news and community events through stories, photographs and a weekly column.

“I wanted to tell people stories,” she said.

It remained her passion at the newspaper up through her retirement this week. “Judy from the Bulletin,” as she’s known around town, concluded her reporting career with the newspaper on Monday, Sept. 30.

For months she had been planning to retire at the end of September, but her final few weeks of work changed significantly when she suffered a stroke in mid-September. She avoided severe effects from the stroke and is recovering.

Judy’s been at the Bulletin for as long as many people can remember. Her first byline appeared on a story about a school district labor fight in the June 26, 1969, edition of what was then called the Washington County Bulletin.

She has jokingly admitted that she started at the Bulletin “a month before the moon landing.”

She was already married to her husband, Gary, and they had settled in Cottage Grove. He was working as an insurance salesman. Judy walked into the Bulletin office — in its early days the office was in Newport — and got a part-time job helping to put the paper together each week. Gary would join the Bulletin too, first as an ad salesman and later co-publisher and owner.

She was ‘self taught’

Over the years Judy covered just about every bit of local news: cops, city councils, parades, children’s holiday programs, the Washington County Board and the Grey Cloud Town Board, royalty coronations and high school graduations.

However, she gravitated toward feature stories — tales about everyday people in south Washington County — and coverage of local schools and the children in those classrooms.

School coverage fell into her lap early in her career. She had to report on school district news with no formal journalism training.

“I had no idea how to put together a news story,” she said. “I was self taught. It was a pretty amazing process. It really was.”

Her interest in telling readers what’s going on in local schools — and what kids have to say about it — was appreciated.

Becky Schroeder, principal at Oltman Middle School, said Judy is in the school frequently and always is interested to know what students are learning and how they are being taught.

Her daughter Margie Williams said Judy is genuinely curious about what children think, but she also enjoys being around them because she does not have grandchildren of her own.

Judy got to talk to kids for work, and each holiday season for nearly 40 years she has portrayed Mrs. Claus while Gary, in his distinct white beard, has played Santa at community events. It was another way to interact with youth.

“They’re really, really everybody’s grandparents,” Williams said of her mother and father. “She can have a bunch of grandchildren and then she can come home.”

For much of her career, Judy’s home was her office. That arrangement started when she returned after one of two hiatuses from the Bulletin to discover there wasn’t a desk for her.

“It worked out wonderfully,” she said of writing from home. “I could put in pot roast, pet the cat and go right to police news.”

‘The history detective’

Judy and Gary raised two daughters — Margie and her sister, Laura Booth — and the girls spent a lot of time with Judy while she worked. Both are mentioned frequently in her columns to this day.

Often Judy’s Bulletin work intersected with one of her interests — local history.

“She dragged us into the (Cottage Grove) cemetery,” Margie said, recalling an episode many years ago. “(The weeds) were over our heads. It was creepy gravestones everywhere. She’s like, ‘Isn’t this cool?’ And we’re like, ‘No.’”

Judy might have picked up the history bug from Old Cottage Grove resident and local historian Bev Gross. The two have trudged through cemeteries together and poked around in old school buildings.

“It seems like the more we dove into it, the more interest she took,” Gross said.

Judy has been a member of the Cottage Grove Advisory Commission on Historic Preservation. She jokes that she sought out the role because it was  the best way to serve on a volunteer commission but stay out of the news.

That worked, until she was named the 2012 Cottage Grove Preservationist of the Year and received a plaque during a city meeting earlier this year. She had been nominated by Gross.

“She was so excited about that,” Gross said.

John Burbank, Cottage Grove’s senior planner and historic preservation officer, called Judy “quite the history detective.” Burbank said she takes time to research old stories, landmarks and artifacts to piece together local history that otherwise might go untold.

“That’s a big asset to our community,” he said.

Swept into ‘Sweepings’

As other employees came and went early in her career at the Bulletin, Judy picked up more duties and assignments. Another reporter had written a society column — “Cottage Sweepings” — that detailed the comings and goings of people in the community.

When that reporter left, Judy stepped in and continued the column. Over time it morphed from a local gossip column to a mix of small-town buzz and Judy’s own take on everything from community events to household observations.

She dropped the “Cottage Sweepings” title but continued the column throughout her career, one week telling readers about her travel discoveries while visiting relatives out of state and the next week sharing a neat story about a project by students in a local school. In retirement she’ll continue to write an occasional column for the Bulletin.

“I think I just bloomed where I was planted,” she said of the different skills and jobs she learned over the years.

Judy returned to the Bulletin in 1988 after about a five-year separation from the paper. She had a similar stint away from the paper in the 1970s. The return in 1988 would be the start of a 25-year run that ended this week.

In the fall of 1996, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She took a leave for treatment and then returned. Her cancer experience provided context when she would later report on others — adults and children alike — who were fighting the disease. It also was the source of column topics over the years.

While Judy remained at the paper, its ownership changed. Gary Spooner and a business partner sold the newspaper to Red Wing Publishing Co., in 1994. Gary spun off the Bulletin License Center as a separate business. The Bulletin newspaper was part of a group of regional newspapers that was purchased in 2001 by Forum Communications Co., which still owns the Bulletin.

Judy said she wanted to stay in the same job at the Bulletin over the years because the assignments were always different. She recalled memorable stories she worked on — from the quirky to the emotional. Among the most difficult, she said, was the October 2007 story of Katherine Ann Olson, a Park High School graduate who was murdered after answering a nanny ad on Craigslist. The family lives near Judy, and after initially thinking it would be too emotional for her, she said she decided that was the reason she should write the story. She wanted readers to understand the family’s grief.

Judy also recalled battling city governments over meeting and public record issues, and she laughed when remembering some of the unusual animal stories that somehow found her. There was a woman whose attic was full of pigeons, and a cow whose birthing of a calf became public interest because of its close proximity to a highway. And then there were the phone calls from people who found strangely shaped produce in their gardens and thought it should be in the Bulletin.

Judy said she could find a story in anything.

“Every now and then,” she said, “something would happen and you’d say, ‘This was so fun.’”

Bulletin to host Oct. 10 reception for Judy Spooner

Got a story to share with Judy Spooner?

The South Washington County Bulletin is hosting an open house for Judy in honor of her retirement from full-time reporting for the newspaper. The reception will be from 3-6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, at the Bulletin office, 7584 80th St., Cottage Grove. There will be light refreshments. Anyone is invited to stop by to visit with Judy, wish her well in retirement or pass along a tip she can explore in a future column.

Email with questions.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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