By Steve Weinberg
One of the most important individuals to IRE’s history never published an investigative project. Nor was she a newsroom editor, or a big-money donor.
Jan Colbert died Nov. 5, 2016, after struggling for two decades with cancer.
From 1983-1990, Jan served as IRE’s associate director, then briefly as executive director before shifting over to the magazine faculty at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Here is the (truncated) saga of how Jan became so vital to IRE:
I attended the initial IRE conference in 1976, while employed as an investigative reporter at the Des Moines Register. As IRE grew and in 1978 became located at the University of Missouri School of Journalism (my alma mater), I became increasingly involved as a volunteer. During 1983, I departed my life in Washington, D.C., to relocate to Columbia, Missouri. John Ullmann, who had never planned to serve as IRE’s first executive director, was moving on. I agreed to replace him.
During Ullmann’s tenure — while simultaneously trying to earn a Ph.D. in journalism — he had planned an IRE conference about investigating agriculture. Ullmann had received assistance from the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, where Jan Colbert was employed. Jan had earned journalism degrees from MU, had labored on a small daily newspaper, then had settled into a public relations job at MU’s agriculture college. She had enjoyed collaborating with the brainy, charismatic Ullmann on the agriculture conference.
As I undertook the task of directing IRE day to day, I received help from volunteer members around the U.S., but had no professional staff, and often little clue how to accomplish some of the tasks before me. So imagine my pleasure when Jan, who I had never met, ambled over to the IRE office, introduced herself, and asked if I needed assistance. She proposed taking a year’s leave from the agriculture college to work at IRE; she wanted a change of pace, a change of scenery.
We liked each other immediately. Naturally, I accepted Jan’s offer.
When her leave of absence expired, she never returned to the agriculture college.
What a break for me — and for thousands of IRE members. In a generation preceding the Internet and even affordable fax machines, I spent much of my time every day answering phone calls from IRE members wanting advice on their projects, lining up content for The IRE Journal, inviting speakers to appear at IRE conferences, and often traveling to distant newsrooms to conduct workshops.
Jan, on the other hand, undertook tasks that covered my glaring shortcomings — handling the production details for The IRE Journal and all other print publications, dealing with the regulations of the journalism school, training staff when we finally accumulated enough money in the budget to hire help, dealing with distant hotel personnel as we planned conferences in various cities, and so much more.
Jan and I sometimes disagreed about details, but we never fought. She was easy to like — love — with countless “best” friends inside and outside of IRE. Perhaps I should not single out anyone, but I will here: Jan’s friendship with IRE founder Myrta Pulliam qualified as truly special (and might have helped keep the exacting Myrta at bay when I would screw up). Jan and I developed a friendship transcending the workplace — I swear we sometimes finished each other’s sentences. When she decided to switch from renter to homeowner, she purchased a house about 100 yards away from where I resided with my wife and children. I could walk page proofs of The IRE Journal to her front door on weekends, and she could deliver work materials to me at home just as conveniently.
Those of you who knew Jan through IRE could surely sense her innate goodness. The eldest of five children in a close-knit Catholic family, Jan was a “mother hen” in all the positive ways. She cared about everone sincerely — not just talk, but plenty of actions. Color her selfless. Outside of IRE, Jan served as a foster parent for the state’s child-welfare agency, accepting emergency placements, sometimes at midnight. One of those emergency placements, an infant girl, eventually became Jan’s adopted daughter Emily. Jan, who never married and never gave birth, became a caring mother.
Self-effacing to a fault, Jan rarely accepted credit for her accomplishments at IRE or in the broader world. Maybe she will accept praise posthumously.
Steve Weinberg served as IRE executive director from 1983-1990. Now he writes books, magazine articles and newspaper features as a full-time freelancer.