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Sandy Poulson

Photo of Sandy Poulson
1940
Biography

Sandy Poulson has been the co-editor and co-publisher, with her husband Thad Poulson, of the Daily Sitka Sentinel since 1969. Over the past 50 years, Poulson’s tireless work as manager and editor has built and sustained this remarkable community institution. Her work meets the highest standards of journalism, and in her personal and professional life, she has contributed immeasurably to civic life and society with her warm approach and steadfast adherence to the values of kindness and justice. 

Poulson was born on February 21, 1940 at home, a “little shotgun house,” in Seminole, Texas. She was christened Amabel Frances Gay Montgomery, but nicknamed Sandy as a baby. She was the fourth of seven children in a family who moved frequently all over the Southwest. Fortunately, she loved to move and loved going to a new school. Her first move was at the age of 6 months, to Hobbs, New Mexico. She graduated high school in Nowata, Oklahoma; the list of towns they lived between those places is part of the Montgomery mythology, reading like a road song: Blanding Utah, Coffeyville Kansas, Artesia New Mexico (twice), Cortez Colorado, Truth or Consequences New Mexico, Lenapah Oklahoma and Farmington New Mexico (this is not the entire list), as her father worked in oil and farming, and at one point owned a filling station. 

Poulson’s inspiration is her mother. Grace Whelan Montgomery did not always have electricity or running water, or even a well at one house, but would do all the family’s laundry, even ironing her husband’s underwear with sad irons, heated on top of the stove. “Mom set the standards.” It is hard to imagine the labor of washing all those clothes, diapers, and menstrual rags, even without having to haul water – by truck or wagon – and build the fire, using a wash board and hanging it all on a line, much less in August in New Mexico.

A memory Poulson has is of one of those moves, in her spot on the Pontiac’s floorboards behind her mother’s seat, driving through the night, listening to the border radio play ”Deep in the Heart of Texas,” seeing just the lighted tips of her parents’ cigarettes as they talked. 

Poulson’s mother was “a good strong mom. Home was always a safe place. Even if we didn’t have a bathroom.” “We always felt we were better than everybody else. And my momma was the smartest.” Her mother inspired all her children with the love of education and literacy. At every new town they moved to, Poulson’s mother would first get a library card and a subscription to the local newspaper. All seven went to college.

Poulson won a scholarship to the University of Tulsa by winning the “T.U. Going to College Quiz” contest. She majored in journalism, and was editor of the college newspaper, the Collegian, her junior and senior years. In 1962, her senior year, the Collegian was named Oklahoma’s Outstanding Newspaper by the Oklahoma Collegiate Press Association. 

Poulson interned at the Oklahoma City Times between her junior and senior years, which is where she started reading while walking, on the two miles to work. She then went to work as a reporter there when she graduated in 1962. She met Thad Poulson, an editor at the Daily Oklahoman, the morning paper published in the same office. In 1964 they married, and moved to Salt Lake City when Thad signed with the Associated Press. Sandy worked at the Salt Lake Tribune.

When Poulson left the Tribune at the birth of her first child, she began a humor column, “Hearth Throbs,” for the Tribune, which she wrote until 1981. The family moved to New York City when Thad was transferred there by the Associated Press, and child number three was born.

In 1968 Poulson and Thad came to Juneau as a team as reporters for the Associated Press; just a year later, in January 1969, they had the opportunity to come to Sitka to run the Sentinel. The newspaper had been purchased by Lew Williams Sr., publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News, who persuaded the young couple to manage and eventually buy the paper. Both were there full time, working long days, in the beginning doing nearly all the work themselves, from writing copy to running the printing press: they had a young woman come after school to help typeset. The enormous amount of work in the early years did not diminish, with more employees, with always new challenges of small-town Alaska. 

The first year in Sitka the Poulson kids had a babysitter, then when child number four was born in 1970, the Sentinel became their daycare and they grew up playing with paper computer tape and film opaquing pens, stuffing papers with grocery ads, and selling and delivering newspapers. Child number five, then grandchildren, also spent their early years at the Sentinel office.

This dedicated, reliable and humble woman has been the spine of a daily newspaper that connects community members to each other, the state, the nation and the world. For the last five decades, Poulson has worked seven days a week, rising before dawn and  leaving after dark every weekday, working behind the scenes to edit national and state stories, write headlines, manage the staff and circulation, make assignments, lay out pages, ensure public announcements and legal notices are printed, cover the courts and police and write obituaries, and even deliver a route.  The daily is put out five days a week, 51 (of 52) weeks a year. When you multiply that by 51 years (January 1969 through January 2020), that’s 13,005 issues of the Sentinel, and counting.  

While it is one of the smallest circulation dailies in the nation, the Sentinel maintains the very highest standards for journalism with comprehensive, even-handed, accurate coverage of local government, issues and events by two full-time reporters plus coverage by other staff. This comes from Poulson’s and Thad’s commitment to the ideal of journalism as essential to an informed public, fundamental to a functioning democracy. As a journalism professional who came of age before the Watergate scandal, Poulson’s idea of the press is not a glamorous or dramatic profession, but a vital service that depends on diligent effort. 

The Sentinel with its emphasis on informative, and truthful, local news coverage has allowed the citizens of Sitka to participate more fully in their government, make informed policy decisions and build a stronger and healthier society. The Sentinel is the newspaper of record, a responsibility Sandy and Thad take seriously. The Sitka Sentinel publishes divorces, marriages, new businesses, estate settlements, court settlements, death notices, and public meeting notifications. This approach and steady commitment to accuracy is ever more rare, as news coverage is increasingly sensational or partisan, and local coverage disappears. 

Sitka, the state of Alaska, and the nation are stronger today because of the Sentinel’s work to inform the public. From time to time an event of national significance happens in Sitka, and the presence of this trusted institution is critical in bringing regional and national attention to an issue, helping citizens make meaningful change. These events are often tragic; the Sentinel’s compassionate and accurate coverage makes a difference, promoting resilience and recovery. As a recent example, Sitka experienced a deadly landslide in 2015 in which two young carpenters and the City Building Inspector were killed. There was tremendous loss of property, fear, grief and uncertainty. The Daily Sitka Sentinel reported on the tragedy and its aftermath with sensitivity and thoroughness. The Sentinel’s coverage of the tragedy, of community meetings and visiting experts, catalyzed new state efforts to conduct hazard and risk-mapping in the mountainous towns up and down Alaska’s coastline. Community organizations went on to secure federal dollars to conduct landslide research and develop a local warning system, which could be a model for the rest of the country. 

Building trust and maintaining high journalistic standards has been in addition to the complicated work it takes to publish and distribute a newspaper in rural Alaska, every day, dealing with power outages, printing equipment failures 800 miles from the nearest technician, communications that go down, and the increasing social and economic challenges of operating a small business in rural Alaska.

Poulson works tirelessly without wanting recognition and without ego. While the Sentinel has won many Alaska Press Club awards for its journalism, Poulson’s greatest achievements may be the kind that don’t have award categories, like working with families to write warm and wonderful obituaries; training  and empowering new generations of journalists; making all the staff feel part of the family at the Sentinel, especially the paper boys and girls; buying the paintings no one else wants at a nonprofit art auction, so no one’s feelings are hurt. When employees have personal challenges, Poulson will do everything she can to support them, from time off to babysitting. 

It is hard to describe the influence of Poulson’s compassion, knowledge, intelligence and ideals at the Sentinel – as a journalist, business owner and mother – on the community of Sitka. Poulson insists on a policy of not charging a fee or setting a word limit for obituaries — in a true democracy everyone’s story is important and newsworthy. 

Poulson’s motivation behind the hard work and long hours: “I really love working there. I just enjoy it. I love the news, my co-workers are just the best – they are good friends, and family.” She finds it interesting to be part of the community, but “believe it or not, I’m a shy person.” Sandy considers herself the “luckiest woman in the land.” For fun, she says she goes to the office. She also does crosswords, and always has a “walkabout book,” a paperback, usually a whodunnit, that she reads as she takes papers on her route or walks to the police station to pick up the blotter. She reads history and biography, but now reads mostly magazines and newspapers. 

Her main challenge? “Time.” Her main frustration is “being slow” and feeling inefficient, even when there aren’t diapers to change. In earlier days, when stories came over the wire and were coded onto computer tape, new leads would come in over the day that would have to be spliced into the story. Now that everything is done visually, and electronically, that work and the work of physically pasting up the newspaper copy isn’t needed, but the small staff at the Sentinel, especially in the early days, means one person being sick puts a strain on the operation. Another new problem is having kids not show up to do their routes as life gets ever more complicated.

As editor of the Tulsa University student newspaper, Poulson once wrote an editorial “against motherhood” as exemplified in a white mother smugly barring the school door against a black child. UPI (United Press International) picked up the story about her editorial. All her life, Poulson has been passionate about justice and fairness; the middle child of a large family, she is a natural mediator, never taking sides, offering compassion and non-judgmental ear to employees, grandchildren, and disgruntled citizen alike. This is perhaps her most remarkable and outstanding attribute. 

No matter the news subject, no one has ever heard her say “I don’t care.” Poulson has a lack of cynicism (but not skepticism), an immense compassion and an incredible ability to take whatever time necessary to hear out, calm down and reason with even the most irate reader. Poulson has been a role model as a professional woman, and as a steady, dependable, caring human being. A granddaughter is now in college pursuing journalism, and many other grandchildren and former employees and members of the community have been inspired by her kindness and professionalism and dedication to fairness.

Her advice to people coming up in journalism? “Choose your parents very well.” Her other advice: “Do work hard. Be kind. And always proofread.”

Her passion for justice, fairness and responsibility to our neighbors is reflected in her service on the Salvation Army community advisory board and other boards, and membership in the Soroptimists then the Sitka Women’s Club. Sandy is notorious for buying the unwanted items at charity auctions, so no-one’s feelings are hurt. Her family teases her about this but are genuinely proud of her boundless compassion. Thad and Poulson are known for supporting community organizations, especially arts and culture. The Sentinel has won awards for community service as well as for journalism and photography. 

Poulson has dedicated her life to the betterment of her community, the state and the nation through quality journalism and the hard work to publish a newspaper and build a workplace that reflect her values of truth and fairness.

The quality and approach of the Sentinel builds faith in our democracy and in our society. Poulson has helped to build a better, more caring, more democratic and connected community. She has done this not only professionally but through her relationships with employees, family, peers and community members. She is a role model in her gentle way of not drawing a hard line between work, community and family. Through her example, of hard work, high standards, and of listening and caring, she teaches those around her how to be a better human being.  

Notes

Sandy Poulson has been the co-editor and co-publisher, with her husband Thad Poulson, of the Daily Sitka Sentinel since 1969. Poulson’s professional and personal high standards, work ethic and empathy have contributed immeasurably to Sitka’s civic and cultural life.

The middle child of a large family, Poulson is a gifted mediator, never taking sides, offering compassion and a non-judgmental ear to employees, grandchildren, and disgruntled citizen alike. 

Poulson grew up all over the Southwest. Her mother inspired all her children with the love of education and literacy, and all seven went to college.

Poulson majored in journalism at the University of Tulsa and edited the Collegian her junior and senior years. Her senior year the Collegian was named Oklahoma’s Outstanding Newspaper by the Oklahoma Collegiate Press Association. 

Poulson was a reporter at the Oklahoma City Times when she met Thad Poulson, an editor at the Daily Oklahoman. They married in 1964, and moved to Salt Lake City, where Thad worked for the Associated Press and Poulson worked at the Salt Lake Tribune. The AP transferred Thad and family to New York City in 1965. 

Poulson and Thad came to Juneau in 1968 as a team for the Associated Press, then in 1969 to Sitka to run and eventually buy the Sentinel. Their five children, then grandchildren, spent their early years at the Sentinel office.

For the last five decades, Poulson has worked seven days a week, rising before dawn and  leaving after dark every weekday, editing, writing, laying out pages, managing staff, and even delivering routes, for more than 13,000 issues of the Sentinel, consistently meeting the highest standards of community journalism.

Through her hard work, high standards, and compassion, she has built democracy, and inspired those around her to be kinder human beings.