Shelby Gilje (BA, 1958): Writer, editor, columnist at The Seattle Times

Shelby GiljeBy Amanda Weber –

“I think that for the time I entered the field of journalism, I was lucky,” Shelby Gilje (BA, 1958) said, reflecting on her career as an editor, writer and columnist for The Seattle Times for more than 30 years. During her time at the Times, Gilje reported on a variety of topics, including abortion reform, and federal and county courts. She served as the paper’s “troubleshooter” in her consumer columns. Now retired, Gilje has been named one of the newest inductees into the Department of Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.

“I worked hard, and I do feel some satisfaction that maybe I helped pave the way for the next group of women who were interested in writing,” she said. Gilje has had her share of challenges throughout her career. Having graduated during an era when women were just beginning to become more of a norm in the workplace, Gilje dealt with bigotry, from sources in and outside of the newsroom.

She recalls an instance when she was working as the assistant editor on the Times city desk when a deadline couldn’t be met because of heavy traffic on the 520 floating bridge. “The main editor in the newsroom turned to me and said, ‘We didn’t have these troubles before we had token women.’” To the man who insisted on being called “Captain,” Gilje replied, “Well, Captain, if you have the balls to get me a sweatshirt that says “Token Woman,” I’ve got the balls to wear it in the newsroom every day.” Gilje didn’t have a problem with “Captain” from that point onward.

She also remembers getting calls as she worked nights at the city desk from men who wanted to speak to the “man in charge.” “I said, ‘Well, I’m the person in charge tonight. How can I help you?’ He grumbled and mumbled and decided that perhaps I could help him even though I was a mere woman,” she said. Gilje handled those situations a bit more gracefully than her coworkers. A colleague would often transfer calls like those to the night watchman.

However, dealing with intolerance in those years was just a side item to the hard work Gilje was doing day in and day out at The Seattle Times. “In those days, you took the pictures, you wrote the stories, you wrote the headlines, you went out and interviewed people. You did everything because it was a one-person news job,” she said.

One of the most controversial topics she’s covered was the abortion reform act in the early 1970s. “At one point, both the proponents and the opponents of the change assumed I was on their side,” Gilje said. “They would measure the length of the stories, and if I didn’t have a story of the same length for each group they then would assume I was on the other side.”

During this time, she was the recipient of some threatening phone calls. Having a listed phone number and address, and being the mother of two small children, Gilje said, “It was a little scary. Eventually I think the folks on all sides of that issue figured out I was quite willing to talk with them, even on my own time. That was a very challenging assignment.”

Gilje is also proud of her work as the Times’ consumer columnist. She and her researchers did price surveys on everything from pet kennels to roses on Valentine’s Day to funerals. The price survey on funerals was the most popular, and was brought back for a second go-around. Gilje said, “People are afraid to ask questions, and they’re not in the mood to do price shopping when they have a death of people close to them.”

Holidays were more personal for Gilje as a columnist. She found that on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day people weren’t interested in reading about her usual topics. Instead, she shared stories on her own family to bring a little warmth and cheer to the pages. “It was hard to do something (during the holidays) that resonated with readers, so sometimes I would write about my family,” she said. “That was always fun, although I usually had to tell my children ahead of time: ‘Fair warning, I’m going to write about you.’”

Family has always played a big role throughout Gilje’s life, encouraging her to chase her dreams, and supporting her as she pursued them. Her late husband, Svein, also a Times reporter, was her rock. “My husband was very supportive of my career, which may have been very unusual in that time period. Not all husbands were,” she said. “He could diaper babies, cook and clean, and I could too. We had a great life together.”

Gilje’s father also had much influence in her life. “Some people said, ‘Why don’t you be a home economics teacher,’ or, ‘Why aren’t you satisfied just being married?’ My father had tried to go to university during the depression but, of course, didn’t have the money. He always said, ‘Get an education, because you’ll be smarter, and so will your family.’”

Looking back on her education at the former UW School of Communications, Gilje remembers professors Bill Ames, Alex Edelstein, Merritt Benson and Vernon McKenzie as people who inspired her to become a journalist. “Vernon wanted us to be curious about things on a wider scale rather than just our own community,” she said. “Merritt Benson taught a law class, and that opened our eyes a great deal. He also encouraged us to think in terms of there could always be more than just one or two sides to a story.”

Gilje deserves her place in the Alumni Hall of Fame, though she was skeptical when she first received the news. “I was in disbelief. I think I had so many classmates that would’ve been very much entitled that I thought maybe it’s a mistake,” she said.

Despite the ups and downs, Gilje has always loved her career. “I’ve just always thought being in communications was the most fun anybody should have and still get paid. You get to learn something, you get to meet people. I just thought it was the greatest way to spend your working life.”