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Deborah Oakley '77 is describing an ascent up a precipitous Utah butte. She and her husband, Hobie Iselin, were in Zion National Park on one of the off-the-beaten-track adventures they fly off to two or three times a year. They had spent the morning inching their way up the red rocks of a two-thousand-foot peak called Angel's Landing. Not crazy about heights, to say the least, Oakley felt jubilant relief at reaching the top. She posed victorious, arms outstretched, for the picture Hobie snapped.
'''Okay, we've done it,''' she remembers telling her husband. '''We can go down now.'" But Hobie gestured to a thin spindle stabbing straight up into the desert sky and said, "No, Deb, that's the top."
"He pointed, I mean, straight up. There was no way I was going to climb that. Hobie went up, pulling himself up on these chains they've drilled into the face, while I'm waiting for him below. When he came down we started to head back. But then I turned to him and said, 'I couldn't live with myself if I knew I got this close and didn't do it.' '' So she put her pack down, kept her eyes glued to the pinnacle above, and pushed herself to the real top of Angel's Landing.
As I stood among the rapt cluster of writers and editors gathered around Deb Oakley in the newsroom of Northampton's Daily Hampshire Gazette we'd accosted her as if she'd been away ten months instead of ten days, she'd made it only halfway to her desk I realized that everything about the story summed her up. The long ascent to the false peak,the terrified reaction to scaling the real one, the ultimate urge to ''do it'' all summed up the person we know as ''Oak.'' Daunted, four years ago, when she was unexpectedly offered the job as the sports editor of the Gazette, she took it anyway because to stay in the more comfortable role of copy editor was too small. Though she had been a passionate basketball player since childhood as well as an English major at UMass, she ''had no ambition to be a sports editor; I was never even a sportswriter.'' Unwittingly, she became one of only about twenty female newspaper sports editors in the country, a job she continually redefines as her notion of sports, and serving the community, evolves. ''This small position at the Daily Hampshire Gazette carries great responsibility,'' she says. ''I was not aware of the power of my position until I had it.''
I had watched Deb Oakley on the sly, over the top of my computer at the features desk, for years before I dared say a word to her. There was something about the kinetic southpaw and sole female on the sports desk that kept drawing my eye and ear.
Talk of rebounds and RBIs mingled with musings on the meaning of life, and on more than one occasion lines of Dylan Thomas and Shakespeare came drifting across to my desk. With her writers, with readers who dropped in or called with kudos and complaints, she was so gracious yet so direct, so wry, and above all so intense. She does nothing without this trademark laser quality, whether encouraging the coltish first efforts of an intern, praising the deft efforts of a veteran reporter, or shuffling through the papers on her rather full desk. At forty-five, the first gray is salting her brown-gold hair, but her body is as tough as her botanic surname and her complexion is browned and freckled by daily runs and the all-outdoors vacations she spends months planning. Personally, I have never seen her in anything resembling a dress; she tends toward sleeveless safari shirts in muted colors or gymwear for the aerobics classes she breaks up her days at the Gazette to teach. The impression is of a life of constant movement, and it is impossible to picture her in a state of repose.
Oakley does have this little quirk an endearing and even helpful one if you're in a receptive frame of mind, but a quirk nonetheless. She has this idea that everyone should exercise more or less as much as she does. She is the Jiminy Cricket perched on the shoulder of every sluggish soul in the newsroom. Apparently her zeal is legendary beyond the newsroom as well. It is not uncommon to meet some nice person who, upon hearing that I write for the Gazette, exclaims happily, "Oh, you must know Deb Oakley." This person will go on to tell me how lucky I am to work with her, but then confess that they are currently dodging her because they haven't taken her up on those weight-bearing exercises yet.
When I finally made the ten-foot expedition from features to sports, it was to propose a story on a monster truck rally. Now, there are many sports editors who would consider these ear-splitting displays of horsepower and hoi polloi unworthy of their pages. But ever since she titled her first column as editor ''What Is A Sport?'' Oakley has been pondering the question in an open-ended way. Thus, stories that elsewhere might make the business, education or "living" sections active vacations for women over forty, golf eccentrics, local youth chess playoffs share space with football/baseball/basketball, the typical triumvirate of the sports pages.
She assigned the monster truck story and played it big. ''I can say that something I did from the start was broaden our general notion of what sports is,'' says Oakley. ''I bridge the traditional sports and the stuff laypeople like to read about.'' If that sounds a bit like what's happened to the Olympics human interest vignettes spliced together with athletic performances well, there's something to that, she says. People enjoy reading about people, as People, the number one magazine in the country, attests. And that's why a story on a Smith College athlete's battle with cancer, or an octogenarian golfer who ''may not be the best, but she's interesting as a person,'' will make their way onto an Oakley-edited page.
Oakley will not take credit for being the driving force behind coverage of women's sports the Gazette. ''My goal is to be sure women are getting their fair share of coverage, but it was not a point I had to belabor at all with these men they were already doing it,'' she says. Despite her modesty, her colleagues agree that she has expanded that coverage, with stories on a short-lived rugby team, an Olympics-bound crew champion, female marathoners.
She rises every weekday at 3:45 a.m., feeding a dozen adopted cats and strays, a retriever and two tortoises and fighting the urge to fall back into bed. (The early hours are the bane of working for an afternoon paper, she acknowledges.) She arrives at the Gazette before sunup to do everything from culling the wire for West Coast scores to line-editing and designing pages for a 9 o'clock deadline.
This life was not among the original ambitions of the Cape Cod native and UMass alumna. Her English degree in 1975 led to a brief and not very satisfying stint as a prep-school teacher. It was the court, not the classroom, that was beckoning Oakley. She'd been madly in love with basketball since age twelve, when her father took her to a Celtics game at Boston Garden. She'd played hookey at the town playground the next day, trying to imitate a bank-shot she'd seen Sam Jones finesse. She still gets anxious when she remembers how she ducked into the bushes every time her mother drove by.
Surprisingly, Oakley hadn't played competitively while at UMass. But leaving teaching in her early twenties, she undertook vigorous training in the hope of joining the now-defunct New England Women's Basketball League. To support herself while she trained, she did grounds maintenance at Mount Holyoke College.
Both the groundskeeping job and the ballplaying dream were put an end by a back injury. Typically, Oakley rebounded, and in a way that set her on an unanticipated course, as a writer. She sold her first column, which poked fun at the goofy banter of TV sports commentators, to Milt Cole, the Gazette's sports editor at the time. The young writer's ear for nuance, and her ability to see a story where others saw a brief, caught the attention of editor-in-chief James Foudy. He hired her at the copy desk, and when Cole stepped down in 1993, asked her to take over sports.
Marty Dobrow, who until this year covered UMass basketball for the Gazette, praises the ''forceful editing" and ''artistic eye" that have characterized Oakley's tenure. She herself thinks members of the local sports community had a tough adjustment to make when they asked to be put through to sports and a woman's voice came on the line. She has survived being called ''honey'' and "darling" and the question ''Can I talk to someone who knows something about baseball?'' And she is continually refining the balancing act of writing for a heterogenous population. Gazette reporters, like those on other community newspapers, write for the sixth-grade-level reader. Doing that while satisfying the interests and enthusiasms of both the Easthampton soccer mom and the Amherst baseball don is no minor feat.
I came to a new appreciation of Oakley's diplomatic skills this summer, when the Gazette needed a new reporter for the UMass basketball beat. For five years, the shoes of that big job had been amply filled by Dobrow, whose involvement with the team culminated in his book, Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball, which chronicled the team's ascent from a ranking of 259th among Division I teams. When Marty left sports to become a writer for Hampshire Life, the Gazette's Friday evening magazine, Deb began the daunting process of filling what had become a very visible and desireable job.
The applications poured in. The phone rang continually. From my desk in features, I listened as Oakley patiently heard out callers pleading for a chance, vowing to relocate and work for nothing, describing how their love of the team would translate into great writing. By the end of a month she'd heard from every kind: "those who didn't have enough experience to cover a high school football game, and those who were so good I'd have to pay them $50,000 a year." She wanted, of course, the talents of the latter and the affordability of the former, as well as a writer "familiar with the recent dramas but not so close they would lose their objectivity."
When she had her applicant pool down to about fifteen, she began the interviews, and some days I would pass the room where she was conducting them. Earnest, crew-cut young men in tweed and ties tilted forward across the table, trying to impress the editor who sat opposite, nodding intently. Her face was always kind, those eyes always gleaming, but by now I knew her well enough to see at a glance whether or not she was talking to a contender.
Oakley's toughest calls were made last year, when the Gazette, as the leading local paper, followed every move of the Minuteman basketball team. From the blinding sunlight of the Final Four to the shadows of having that honor stripped after Marcus Camby admitted accepting gifts from agents, the Gazette had to walk every step of the way into the twilight with the team. No one was more disappointed than Oakley, who describes feeling ''like I had a wrecking ball hitting me throughout the series of revelations. Like many people, I took it personally, and I felt betrayed. I can say that next time I think we'd be more wary of sharing in the love affair of the team.''
There will always be more calls to make. Oakley staunchly defends, for instance, her decision to minimize the accomplishments of very young athletes on her pages; it is her small counterweight to the national cult of sports celebrity, which has children banking on becoming basketball millionaires, and to the competitiveness she has seen replace fun in every sport from Little League to Pop Warner football. The moment of truth came for Oakley when she watched two young boys huddle over a paper on the sidewalk, bickering over who did and didn't get his name in print. Sadly, she must constantly explain her position to parents, some of whom resent her refusal to feature their children in her ''Worth Watching'' column. ''If you just wait till they're a freshman in high school," she tells ambitious parents, "we'll be all over them.''