You can always find something to write about. Just ask Elizabeth Widel. At age 93, she's been writing her column, "Exploring the Okanogan," for the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle every week since May 9, 1957.
OMAK — You can always find something to write about.
Just ask Elizabeth Widel. At age 93, she’s been writing her column, “Exploring the Okanogan,” for the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle every week since May 9, 1957.
She turned in a column and photograph the week her husband, Glen, died in 1961.
And when she had a hip replacement a few years ago, she wrote her column out longhand and handed it to Dee Camp, her editor, when she came to visit Widel at an Okanogan nursing home during her recovery.
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“When I started it, my publisher then said, ‘Well, let’s try a dozen issues and see how it goes,’ ” she recalled. Five editors and nearly 2,700 columns later, she’s still at it.
In November, Widel retired as copy editor and proofreader for the Chronicle.
But she has no plans to give up the column, which is just a small part of what she’s done in more than half a century of working for the Omak newspaper.
She started there as a receptionist in 1954, after moving west from the Chicago area to marry Glen Widel, who was the Chronicle’s pressman. When the paper lost its linotype operator, she jumped in to learn the trade, and during her many years as a typesetter, she went from the 650-degree, hot-press method of setting type through two forms of cold-press typesetting, and finally to computers. Over the years, she also wrote music and theater reviews, and for a time was bookkeeper in accounts payable.
“At a small-town paper, you turn your hand to whatever is needed at the time,” she said.
That attitude earned her the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association’s first Dixie Lee Bradley Award in 1997, which recognizes important people in the newsroom who are sometimes unseen, said the association’s executive director, Bill Will.
The city of Omak designated Feb. 9 as Elizabeth Widel Day. The proclamation came not only for her work as a columnist and photographer but also as a promoter of local theater and entertainment, a leader of local recycling efforts, and for her work to preserve area history.
She is also active in the Omak United Methodist Church, where she led the choir for 32 years, and was also treasurer.
“Even though she has pretty much retired from the paper, she is still very active, and very mentally acute, so she continues to have a full life,” said Mary Koch, who with her late husband, John Andrist, published the Chronicle from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s.
Koch said Widel was part-owner of the paper when she and Andrist were co-publishers. When Andrist had a stroke in 1993, they needed all of the stock in order to sell the paper, she said. “I think it was really difficult for her,” Koch said, but she agreed.
Koch said Widel was so fast setting type that the machines couldn’t keep up with her. “She just got ahead, and then she would just sit back and wait for the equipment to catch up with her,” she recalled.
Koch is now compiling a book of some of the best of Widel’s columns and photographs. “Her writing is so exquisite. It’s kind of in the voice of her era of schooling — of that beautiful language of the 1920s and ’30s, so it’s a bit formal,” she said. “But her flow is so delightful, and the turns of phrases are just wonderful.”
Koch said it was the paper’s previous publisher, Bruce Wilson, who knew Glen and Elizabeth Widel were amateur geologists, and who asked them to write about their adventures exploring Okanogan County and researching its geographic formations.
Widel said in the early years, her husband took the photographs and she wrote the columns. Then, after he died, she started doing both. “I used to say, ‘I take the camera with me everywhere except to church and to bed.’ But over the years, I’ve had to run home from church to get my camera several times, so now I say, ‘I take the camera with me everywhere except to bed.’ “
Over all these years as a columnist, Widel said she has missed two columns because she was out of town. She said she never writes them up ahead of time so she can take a week off.
But not yet published is one column that she wrote a couple of years ago.
“If I were to drop dead in 15 minutes, Dee would have my last column in hand,” she said.