The founder of UAA’s Journalism and Public Communications (JPC) program, Sylvia Broady, may have raised some eyebrows when she rolled into Fairbanks in her white Buick Skylark back in the summer of ’63. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I must have made—for Fairbanks at that time—quite a statement. I was blond, unmarried, with a Ph.D.,” she says.
Tackling the Alaska Highway by herself that summer was just one more thing to check off the list on her way to becoming a true Alaskan. After all, Sylvia had already spent her first winter in Fairbanks, flying from her home in Dearborn, Mich., in January to take up her post as the University of Alaska’s new director of University Relations and professor of journalism. Her trip up for the interview the previous fall had sealed the deal. University of Alaska President William Wood had told her to plan for her initial visit “no later than October.” To emphasize just how mild Alaska’s climate was, President Wood met her outside the airport without any overcoat. But she was already hooked. “It was the flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks. That’s wilderness. There were snow-covered mountains. You didn’t see manicured lawns. You didn’t see cities. But something made me say ‘yes, I would go.’” She was ready for the pioneering endeavor as both a new Alaskan and an academic game-changer. “[The University of Alaska] was a developing place. It had 1,185 students,” she recalls. And all operations happened in Fairbanks. It would take a few more years for the Anchorage campus to become part of the statewide university system, but in 1980—after spending time in Point Barrow and abroad in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia with Tom Broady, whom she met and married in Alaska—Sylvia accepted a position as the University of Alaska Anchorage’s first full-time professor of journalism.
Securing Sylvia at UAA and laying the foundation for a new academic program in journalism took some behind-the-scenes maneuvering. In 1979, Robert Atwood, editor of The Anchorage Times, and his wife Evangeline, recognized that UAA could better meet the needs of a growing community by educating journalists in Alaska. And at the urging of Saradell Ard—art professor, chair of UAA’s humanities division and one-time dean of the College of Arts and Sciences—the Atwoods pledged their support of a visiting professorship in journalism with the stipulation that UAA fund a full-time professor of journalism position to work alongside the visiting talent.
Saradell, who had also developed some of the early curriculum for JPC and done the leg-work to get it approved by the regents, urged Sylvia to apply for the new faculty position. “Once I came on board,” Sylvia says, “she gave me all these students who had applied to be JPC majors. And that was it.” Together with UAA’s first Atwood Chair of Journalism, Cleve Mathews, a respected journalist for the New York Times and National Public Radio and professor from Syracuse University, they carved out an enduring place for JPC at UAA. They had 42 students their first year and launched UAA’s first student newspaper, which would eventually be dubbed The Northern Light by its student editors. (Fun fact: one of those first editors, Mike Dinneen, went on to become a photographer for UAA and took this portrait of Sylvia.)
Sylvia continued as professor of journalism with UAA for more than 15 years, working closely with nine different Atwood Chairs to further develop the program. Even in retirement, she remains an advocate for journalism education and strengthens the legacy of Alaska journalism and Alaska academia as a donor to UAA. During her second marriage to John Strohmeyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the sixth Atwood Chair of Journalism, she became a member of UAA’s College of Fellows, which recognizes philanthropic leadership at UAA. And just why does she continue to support the university each year?
“I believe in the institution. I feel it has arrived. My time there was a good experience and I wanted to say thank you. And, let’s face it, you see all these students and recognize that they need support.” Through gifts from donors like Sylvia and significant support from the Atwood Foundation, the university is close to securing full endowment for the Atwood Chair of Journalism. Attracting top-quality professors is part of the equation for creating a first-choice university. Affordability is another element. Sylvia says, “If we didn’t have a university that our students could afford to go to, we wouldn’t have this vibrant business community.”
Sylvia’s work as founding professor for JPC and all the changes effected by her dynamic partnership with Inaugural Atwood Chair of Journalism Cleve Mathews 30-plus years ago may have been set in motion by a teenage Sylvia. “About ten years ago, I was going through papers and I came across a ninth grade essay that I had to write—’Pick a place in America that you would like to live’—I picked Anchorage, Alaska,” she says. “I said because the temperature was moderate. Big lie.” It wasn’t until roughly 22 years later that she boarded the plane for that deciding flight between Anchorage and Fairbanks. In spite of any climate fallacies touted by her teenage self, “I’ve never regretted it,” she says. “I’m glad I’m here.” Now there’s a sentiment that can be echoed by the generations of Alaska students, particularly the JPC grads to come out of UAA.
Special thanks to Shana Sheehy—radio journalist, UAA alum and adjunct professor for JPC—who recorded a living history interview with Sylvia Broady in March 2012. For access to the full interview, please contact JPC Department Chair Paola Banchero.