New York Deadline Club member Betsy Ashton, above, is not known for being quiet. However, she appeared to be at a loss for words during the 2007 SPJ convention when Immediate Past President Christine Tatum announced she was the recipient of the 2007
Wells Memorial Key.
“This is very special,” Ashton said after taking the stage to a standing ovation at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. “This is very, very special.”
The Wells Key, first presented in 1913, is given yearly to an SPJ member for outstanding service to the Society. It is named after Chester B. Wells, Sigma Delta Chi’s second national president, who died in office in 1913 at age 26.
When introducing Ashton, Tatum said many would be surprised to learn Ashton had not already been awarded the Wells Key.
“There are just some people that you assume already have it. Maybe the reason she didn’t get it was because they were afraid of her acceptance speech,” Tatum joked.
Ashton is a well-known figure in the Society, having co-chaired the 2004 convention in New York City. From 1995 to 2007, she also served on the board of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, where she served on multiple committees.
“She is a tireless, dedicated volunteer. When she’s passionate about a cause or organization, she puts her body, energy and sweat into the cause,” said Steve Geimann, SDX Foundation president and a producer and anchor at Bloomberg News.
For several years, Geimann and Ashton taunted, teased and out-bid each other during the annual Legal Defense Fund Auction. The competition between the two started about seven years ago when both wanted the same item. Geimann said he can’t remember what they were bidding on.
“The next several years we did it somewhat for show. I don’t know if Betsy really wanted the items, but it was part of the event,” he said.
The battles between Geimann and Ashton became a staple of the LDF Auction, with Geimann running around ballrooms to escape Ashton, who was often armed with Scotch. Once she dumped Scotch in Geimann’s face, while other times she put him in a headlock.
“He was a great sport to be put in a headlock and have Scotch poured on him,” she said.
Fierce competition between the two erupted at the 2004 LDF Auction, when Ashton tried to pin Geimann’s arms down so he could not outbid her on a director’s chair autographed by convention speakers Brian Williams and Walter Cronkite.
“Maybe we did go a little far, but it was fun and did show our passion for the organization and journalism,” he said.
And Ashton is known for her passion for journalism and her outspokenness.
“She has never been afraid to tell the Society what she thinks,” Tatum said.
Ashton joined the Society in 1975, just after women were allowed admittance.
“It was men only. It was finally opened to women, and I wanted to be where the boys were,” she said during her acceptance speech.
At the time she was an on-air reporter for the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., where many considered her a “blond bimbo.” Ashton said she wanted to challenge that stereotype.
“Wait a minute boys, and I’ll show you women who should be taken seriously,” she said.
Ashton became the consumer reporter for WCBS-TV in 1982; three months later, she was named the consumer reporter for “CBS Morning News.” She retired from daily journalism in the late 1980s and dedicated much of her time to philanthropy and fundraising.
She also helped launch SPJ’s annual yearbook, The Journalist.
A native of New Jersey, Ashton now lives in New York City and has taken up an old love: painting. She is taking art classes on a merit scholarship at the National Academy School of Fine Arts and has just rented her first studio. She recently had a self-portrait show at the Katzen Art Center at American University.
Her art business is blossoming, and she has enough portraits to paint to keep her busy for almost a year. Working on her own schedule is a refreshing change, she said.
“Unlike the news business, I do the pictures I want to do, and the deadline is when I’m done,” she said.
Though she has joined the Portrait Society of America, Ashton said she plans to remain an active part of SPJ. Not only has she made wonderful friends in the organization, but she believes steadfastly in the work SPJ does, a point she emphasized during her acceptance speech.
“I did talk about what the organization means to me, because it does matter,” she said. “We must fight the good fight. It’s more important now than ever.”
Rebecca Neal, a reporter at The Indianapolis Star, covered the 2007 SPJ Convention & National Journalism Conference for Quill. She can be reached at (317) 444-2710.