By Harriet P. Gross
My very favorite professional organizations are the small-but-mighty National Federation of Press Women and its local affiliate, Press Women of Texas. Founded way back on May 10, 1893, the latter is the Lone Star’s second-oldest women’s organization; Daughers of the Republic of Texas beat us — by one month! (Both national and state groups started welcoming male members in recent years, but without changing their names.)
In our Texas group, we take special pride in the late Rosella Werlin, a long-time Houston member who died in the mid-’80s, because her important impact on so many writers continues to live on long after her passing.
Neither this national nor state organization has many Jewish members, since the concentration of both has always been service to journalists and other writers in the hinterlands of our profession. The members do not include women working at major metro dailies, but those of us who labor in small towns or suburbs for specialty or niche publications.
I’ve been affiliated for almost 46 years, and have become both the national and state headquarters’ go-to person for assuring that conference and meeting dates don’t conflict with major Jewish holidays. Rosella was one of PWT’s few Jews; ironically, it was this that put her on track toward making a major contribution to the writing game.
Fans who resonated with Rosella’s easy-reading feature story style nudged her for many years to send some of her pieces to the Reader’s Digest. So, when she ran into what she considered just the right subject, she submitted a proposal.
She would write the tale of a Down Syndrome boy’s bar mitzvah in Houston. This might not seem so unusual in today’s more inclusive Jewish communities, but was virtually unheard of in the late 1970s. And the kicker: The child’s father was the rabbi who prepared him!
Neither yea nor nay, Rosella never received any response at all to her submission. So imagine her dismay when a year or so later she saw her own story in RD, published under someone else’s byline. The magazine hadn’t trusted a Texas freelancer, but instead passed her material on to a writer of its own choosing.
Obviously, RD did not know Rosella Werlin. She promptly sued, providing evidence of her many published writings to dispel any question about her ability and experience. Her 1982 victory in this David and Goliath battle over “unjust enrichment” was enduring good news for freelancers everywhere.
Later, in her memory, the Werlin children endowed a yearly workshop to be offered by PWT at its annual state conference, free for all who write or are interested in writing. Workshop presenters are chosen because they have something valuable to share about their own writing experiences; the terms that provide an attractive honorarium make only one stipulation: no speaker may ever have been enriched by any payment from the Reader’s Digest.
It was my privilege and pleasure to chair PWT’s annual Werlin Workshop last weekend and find a challenging presenter wherever we meet. In Bryan-College Station: the director of Texas A&M Press; in Georgetown: a writing professor from Southwestern University; in Tyler: the executive editor of the city’s daily paper.
When we met locally last weekend, we heard from Dallas’ Wendy Harpham, M.D., who’s triumphed in an exciting second career after non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma forced her to give up her internal medicine practice more than two decades ago.
She’s since written six books from her unique dual physician/patient perspective, heartening thousands with life-threatening illnesses and educating the doctors who care for them. Rosella Werlin is surely smiling at Wendy, another Jewish woman writer who has overcome adversity to have a positive impact on so many.