Jean Otto, longtime SPJ member and the Society’s first female president, died Thursday, Sept. 15 at age 86. She was a reporter and editor in Wisconsin and Colorado for nearly 50 years, founder of the First Amendment Congress and a staunch defender of free speech for all people.
Otto did not begin reporting until age 35, but her career and volunteerism had a significant effect on journalism and free speech. Her passion for writing stemmed from a desire to write about ordinary people in her small city of Appleton, Wis., “drawing word pictures of ordinary events,” as she explained in her autobiography, “First Love: Memoirs of a First Amendment Freedom Fighter.” From that position, she became the women’s page editor and eventually moved on to the women’s section of the Milwaukee Journal in 1966, where she later became an editorial writer.
Born Aug. 27, 1925 in Kenosha, Wis., Jean (Hammond) Otto spent her high school years competing on the forensics team and writing poetry, essays and short stories. As a teenager she held jobs to support herself and her family, ultimately dropping out of Ripon College to help support her family financially. When she married John Otto and began to have children, she stopped working. In 1960, soon after their divorce, Jean Otto decided to try her hand at journalism, first approaching the Appleton Post-Crescent with a bi-weekly column.
Otto’s male colleagues were active in SPJ, and after members voted to allow women to join in 1969 she registered for membership in 1970. She explains in “First Love” that joining SPJ discussions introduced her to a host of journalism questions she had never really considered, including ethics, information access, truth and individual privacy.
As her career grew, so did her role in SPJ. She moved from local chapter leadership to the position of national treasurer. During her 1979-80 presidency, Otto oversaw a massive reform of the organization, from financial and budgetary operations to national administrative changes.
A passion for the media’s role in First Amendment rights led Otto and her colleagues to found the First Amendment Congress, a coalition of journalism organizations that came together to discuss public attitudes toward the media and set goals for developing better understanding between members of the public and the media.
Otto moved with her second husband, Lee Baker, to Denver in 1983, where she was editorial and opinion page editor at the Rocky Mountain Post. The couple moved back to Milwaukee upon retirement.
Read Jean Otto’s obituary at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.