|ALUMNI FEATURES Summer 2001|
Fueled by a desire to contribute to world affairs, Ruth May Markus (formerly Sackmannstage name "Kay Morton") became a radio broadcaster in 1939. Over a three-decade career, she met and interviewed the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Duke Ellington, and Bob Hope. Now at 84, she uses her zeal, raising funds for the Lebanon (Illinois) Woman's Club and teaching others to read.
When pioneering broadcaster Ruth May Sackmann took to the airwaves after graduating from Washington University in 1939, her intention was straightforward. "I wanted to throw open the kitchen window onto the world," she says.
Hitler was menacing Europe; the Depression lingered around the globe; and in the United States, a woman's role was still chiefly in the home, raising children and taking care of the house.
But for Sackmann, being a homemaker did not preclude a broader role. And in her broadcasts, she sought to "see how we can work as women to contribute to world affairs."
The list of luminaries she interviewed in a career spanning more than three decades reaches widely across cultural and political history. Prime ministers and first ladies, authors, inventors, politicians and diplomats, composers, actors, and many others made their way to her microphone to share their wisdom, views, and experiences.
Eleanor Roosevelt. Carlos P. Romulo. Panamanian President Ricardo Alfaro. The Honorable C. V. Hambro, exiled president of Norway. Sen. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.), the father of Social Security. The great magician Blackstone. Countess Alexandra Tolstoy. Duke Ellington. Arthur Fiedler. Satchmo Armstrong. Ronald Reagan, then president of the Screen Actors Guild. Bob Hope, Forrest Tucker, and Charlton Heston, who became close personal friends. Karl Wallenda, patriarch of tightrope walkers, who wanted to take her up on the high wire (she declined).
This remarkable career began simply enough, when Sackmann took a speech class as a student at St. Louis' Cleveland High School. She went on to win the Missouri Oratorical Contest, held in Graham Chapel on the Washington University campus. After high school, she enrolled at the University to study journalism with Professor James "Pop" McClure, an old-school Kansas newspaperman who constituted the entire program.
She also became features editor of Student Life. "It was our internship," she explains. One assignment was a story on actor Francis Lederer. "I went down to the Ambassador Theater to interview him, went backstage, and he said, 'Do you mind coming into my dressing room?' Then he started to take off his shirt and just cleaned up. He was a perfect gentleman, but, you know, to a 19-, 20-year-old girl ... Then about 10 years later, I interviewed him on radio. We chuckled about it. Of course, he didn't remember, but I did!"
She graduated with a B.S. in journalism in 1938, and in January 1939, she took a job with WTMV Radio, in East St. Louis. Her pay to conduct a daily half-hour commentary show was 25 cents a day (just enough for the bridge toll).
Her longtime interest in radio quickly became hard work, as she scrambled to fill her airtime. "I did all my own writing," she explains. "It was up to me to gather my material and bring in my own interviews." Her guests included local politicians, visiting celebrities, lecturers visiting the University. She also sold her own advertising and began to make more than just the bridge toll for her work.
In 1941, she moved to WIL Radio, taking the stage name "Kay Morton." Then in 1943, she joined KXOK. By now her show featured a 10-piece orchestra and guests of steadily increasing prominence.
In 1941, Sackmann had met and married Jim Castle, who became Paramount Pictures' Midwest publicity and advertising director. His many contacts expanded her show-business links. However, she also pursued her other interests. For example, on May 5, 1946, she was the only woman radio broadcaster to do a live "feed" (ABC-Blue Network) at Westminster College when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his famous "Iron Curtain" speech (coining an immortal phrase).
"You know," she recalls, "that Iron Curtain reference was not in the original speech that he distributed beforehand to the press; he added that page on the train coming here."
Though she readily admits she was trailblazing as a woman in radio, she says women did not have to prove themselves more than men. The work was highly competitive, however; she was the youngest of four women hosting similar shows. "We all were competing for the top interviews," she recalls. She had more than her share of scoops: among others, she was the only radio journalist in town to host Alexander P. deSeversky, who invented the helicopter gyroscope, and she also brought to her show renowned ice skater Sonja Henie, who had never before agreed to a live radio interview.
She says she was never censored or told what to broadcast. "That took a lot of trust on their part," she says of the station managers. "I guess we all had a different sense of decency. You wouldn't do anything that was hurtful or obscene or untrue."
World War II shaped many of her shows. One memorable interview was with Col. Charles Drew, the African-American physician who developed a means of storing and shipping blood plasma. "He saved thousands of lives in the war," she says, "and his discovery revolutionized medicine."
Perhaps her most cherished memories from the war years were the times that KXOK arranged special hookups between families and their relatives in the military. "It was just a joy to be able to bring parents and service people together," she recalls.
But the war was changing radio. "Before, there had been more interest in the cultural side," she observes. "Everything began to speed up a little. Everything was news and music." She left KXOK in 1947 and went into public relations work, soon balancing it with motherhood: with son Jim born in 1948. She represented the St. Louis Millinery Association (25 manufacturers in a local industry ranking second only to New York) and the Mississippi Valley Cosmetology Association. She also represented two New York agencies, Ruder & Finn and Fred Rosen Associates. For the latter, she worked with the International Tea Council, to its great benefitin typically imaginative style, she opened up a vast new market for iced tea by introducing it at summertime college football clinics.
In 1951, she was back on the air with a KSD Television show titled Open House. She continued her wide-ranging interviews there and on the show Let's Visit Kay Morton!on Channel 36, now Channel 2, in 1954. And she did free-lance interviews for KMOX until 1970.
Jim Castle died unexpectedly in 1966. The same year, she became a real estate broker and worked for her father at Sackmann Realty. Her schedule was flexible, and she continued her public relations work. In 1977 she married Jim Markus, a research chemist who became a real estate developer. The couple found some beautiful acreage near Lebanon, Illinois, in 1987, built a home, and settled there. "I love Lebanon," she says. "It's such a caring community." She and Markus were married for 18 years, until his death in 1995.
At 84, Ruth May Markus still impresses one as very much a dynamo. She's president of the Lebanon Woman's Club this year; the group puts on special events to support the town's visitor's center, the local students' soccer clubs, the food bank, scholarship funds, and other causes. She's also a literacy tutor and has met weekly with a Spanish woman and a 62-year-old man to help them learn to read English.
So while she has rich memories of a fascinating career and a treasure trove of priceless mementos, she's clearly not stopping now: in 2001, just as in 1939, she's still throwing open windows on the world.
"I did all my own writing. It was up to me to gather my material and bring in my own interviews."