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The University of Iowa Libraries

Guide to the Mary Jane Odell papers

Collection Overview

Date Span: 1936-2002
Creator: Odell, Mary Jane (1923-)
Extent: 2.00 linear feet.
Collection Number: IWA0056
Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Summary: Television journalist and politician who served as Iowa Secretary of State from 1980 to 1986.

Alternate Extent Statement: Photographs in boxes 1 and 5. 2 videocassettes: V348-V349.

Access: The papers are open for research.

Use: Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to The University of Iowa.

Acquisition: The papers (donor no. 110) were donated by Mary Jane Odell in 1992 and 2003.

Preferred Citation: Mary Jane Odell papers, Iowa Women's Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City.

Repository: Iowa Women's Archives
Address: 100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City, IA 52242
Phone: 319-335-5068
Curator: Kären Mason
Email: lib-women@uiowa.edu
Website: http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/iwa

Television journalist and politician Mary Jane Neville Chinn Odell, the daughter of Eugene and Madge (Lewis) Neville, was born in Algona, Iowa, on July 28, 1923. She graduated from Algona High School in 1941 where she was class valedictorian. During the following year she attended Emmetsburg Junior College and then enrolled in The University of Iowa from which she graduated in 1945 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and radio. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and served as president of her senior class. In 1946 she married Gerald Chinn, a lawyer, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she worked for KOY radio. Because of her husband's poor health and the desire to be near their family, the couple returned to Des Moines in late 1946. In June 1948 their son, Brad, was born, and in December 1949, a daughter, Chris, was born.

Beginning in 1955 Mary Jane Chinn hosted a variety of radio and television shows for KRNT, known today as KCCI Channel 8, in Des Moines. Among the "Mary Jane Chinn Show" formats were a weekly morning television show and a Friday night talk show for which she traveled extensively to interview guests. In 1966 Gerald Chinn died and Mary Jane Chinn resigned from KRNT-TV the following year.

After marrying John Odell, a marketing consultant, in 1967, she moved to Chicago. Two years later she joined the staff of WSNS-TV as a newscaster. From 1969 until 1975 Mary Jane Odell was a prominent public affairs interviewer and commentator. "The Big Story" on channel 44 (WSNS) was an hour-long nightly program. On Channel 32 Odell hosted a half-hour weekly program, "Point of View," and on WTTW she hosted public affairs specials for "Prime Time Chicago." Odell was honored for her achievements with two Chicago Emmy awards, one for her interview with a welfare mother on her program "The Big Story" in 1972, and the other in 1975 for her interview with Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski. She also taught classes in communications at Roosevelt University in Chicago during this time.

In 1975 Odell and her husband moved to Des Moines where she joined the staff of IPBN with a nightly half-hour interview show and "Assignment Iowa," weekly documentaries filmed on location throughout the state. She resigned in 1979 after IPBN eliminated the nightly show in favor of a weekly program.

During her television career Odell interviewed prominent political figures, actors, authors, musicians, and television personalities, including seven United States presidents, Eleanor Roosevelt, Johnny Carson, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, Pearl Buck, and Louis Armstrong.

In November 1980 Governor Robert Ray appointed Odell to fill a vacancy as Iowa's Secretary of State, making her only the second woman in Iowa's history to serve on the Executive Council. A year later she announced that she would seek the party's nomination for a regular term. She defeated her Republican opponent in the primary, and was elected in November 1982 to a four-year term. Two highly publicized issues with which she dealt were former governor Harold Hughes' eligibility to run as a Democratic nominee for governor (Hughes did not meet the residency requirement, having lived out of Iowa for several years); and a proposal to move the offices of the Secretary of State, Auditor, and Treasurer out of the State Capitol Building. Odell did not seek re-election, retiring on January 1, 1987. Her husband, John Odell, had died in 1984. She was married to Ralph Siegler from November 1987 through 2001.

Odell has been widely recognized for her contributions to broadcasting, television, politics, and the community. In 1973 she received the Communicator of the Year Award from the University of Oklahoma, in 1976 the Hancher-Finkbine Leadership Award from The University of Iowa, and in 1978 the George Washington Carver Meritorious Service Award for Community Race Relations from Simpson College, from which she also received an honorary doctorate in 1982. In 1979 Odell was elected to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1988 she received the H.R. Gross Award for Lifetime Contributions to Broadcasting and Public Service. She was president of the Iowa chapter, and national vice-president, of American Women in Radio and Television (AWRT) and also served on the executive board of the Iowa Peace Institute.

The Mary Jane Odell papers date from 1936 to 2002 and measure 2 linear feet. They are organized in six series: Personal, Television, Secretary of State, Newspaper clippings, Speeches, and Photographs. Much of the collection documents Odell's professional work from the 1960s through the 1980s.

The Personal series includes biographical information, high school and college scrapbooks, and descriptions of awards Odell received in recognition of her professional achievements. The biographical folders include research on Odell's family roots going back five generations. The correspondence folder includes mail from fans of Odell's television programs as well as notes from Republican political leaders including Nelson Rockefeller, George H.W. Bush, and Charles Percy. In John Odell's folder are several poems he wrote for her. The volunteer folder documents Odell's work for the Easter Seal Society of Iowa and LAGBRAI (Libraries' Annual Great Book Read Across Iowa).

The Television series holds memos, scripts, and publicity from the three major networks Odell worked for-KRNT Des Moines, WSNS Chicago, and IPBN Des Moines. This series documents Odell's controversial resignation from IPBN in 1979 including her letter of resignation, the response from the station, letters of support she received from viewers, and editorial comments from Iowa newspapers. The series includes articles from both scholarly and popular sources discussing issues such as violence on television and the impact of television on shaping gender roles. Also included is Odell's 1975 Emmy awarding winning interview with Leon Jaworski and a 2005 Living in Iowa interview with Odell.

The Secretary of State series documents two major controversies that occurred during Odell's tenure: questions over Harold Hughes' elibigility to run for governor in 1982, and the battle between the state legislature and state officers (Secretary of State, Treasurer, and Auditor) over office space in the Capitol. Odell's records include the legal papers from the Hughes eligibility question, and historical research on a past dispute over office space in the Capitol building. The series also includes the testimony Odell prepared to deliver at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, whom she opposed. Odell was cut from the list, however, and her testimony was never delivered. A law journal article written by Bork is also in the file. A file of miscellaneous documents includes press releases, correspondence, programs from conferences Odell attended or spoke at, and a letter Odell wrote to a friend describing a visit she had from her former boss at IPBN in which he was seeking her support.

The Newspaper clippings date from Odell's years as radio and television host (1953-1979) and from her tenure as Iowa Secretary of State (1980-1987). These articles offer an in-depth look into Odell's career and accomplishments.

The Speeches series contains the texts of many of the speeches Odell gave throughout her career both in television and as secretary of state. Odell's interest in politics is evident in speeches she gave prior to becoming secretary of state because they address topics such as the First Amendment and the war in Vietnam. As secretary of state, Odell addressed a wide range of groups including the Iowa Women's Political Caucus, various chambers of commerce, the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, and the Buxton Cultural and Recognition Banquet. Also included are the roasts Odell gave to both Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul and Iowa governor Robert Ray.

The Photographs series consists primarily of four folders of photos with Odell and many of the individuals she interviewed throughout her career, including many well-known political figures, entertainment personalities, authors, and artists from the 1950s through 1970s, including an autographed photo of her 1975 interview with President Ford. Most of the people in these photos are identified. There is a folder from Odell's tenure as Secretary State with photos of her at various state functions with political figures of the time. Also included is an album of snapshots of family and friends taken in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Roxanne Barton Conlin papers (IWA): Interview with Conlin on Mary Jane Odell Weekly [AC299, side 1].

Browse by Series:
Series 1: PERSONAL
Series 2: TELEVISION
Series 3: SECRETARY OF STATE
Series 4: NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS
Series 5: SPEECHES
Series 6: PHOTOGRAPHS

  • Series 1: PERSONAL
  • Box 1:
  • Biographical information, undated (folder 1)
  • Biographical information, undated (folder 2)
  • Odell, John, undated
  • Algona High School - 1939-1941
  • Algona High School: Yearbooks - 1939-1941
  • University of Iowa - 1944-1946
  • Correspondence - 1961-2002
  • Awards: Chicago Emmys - 1972, 1975
  • Awards: Iowa Women's Hall of Fame - 1979
  • Awards: Simpson College honorary doctorate - 1982
  • Awards: National Association of Secretaries of State [artifact in Box 4] - 1986
  • Awards: Miscellaneous - 1975-1986
  • Volunteer work - 1981-1983
  • Box 5:
  • Algona High School: Scrapbook - 1941-1943
  • University of Iowa: Scrapbook - 1941-1943
  • Box 6:
  • University of Iowa: Scrapbook - 1944-1945
  • Series 2: TELEVISION
  • Box 1:
  • KRNT - 1960-1965
  • WSNS
  • "The Big Story" scripts and commentaries - 1971-1975
  • Box 2:
  • Press releases - 1971-1972
  • IPBN: Guest and topic lineup - 1976-1979
  • IPBN: Memos - 1975-1979
  • IPBN: Resignation - 1979
  • Complete interview list, undated
  • Articles critiquing television - 1975-1977
  • Odell interview with Leon Jaworski [V348] - 1975
  • Living in Iowa interview with Odell [V349] - 2005
  • Series 3: SECRETARY OF STATE
  • Box 2:
  • Campaign material - 1981-1982
  • Campaign material, Poster, undated [shelved in map case]
  • Harold Hughes' residency - 1981-1982
  • State Capitol office space (folder 1) - 1986
  • State Capitol office space (folder 2) - 1986
  • Robert Bork confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court - 1987
  • Miscellaneous - 1980-1986
  • Series 4: NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS
  • Box 3:
  • Television: KRNT-TV, Des Moines - 1953-1966
  • Television: WSNS, Chicago - 1970-1975
  • Television: IPBN, Iowa - 1976-1979
  • Secretary of State: Appointment - 1980
  • Secretary of State: Primary election - 1981
  • Secretary of State: General election - 1982
  • Secretary of State: State Capitol office space - 1986
  • Secretary of State: Harold Hughes' residency - 1981-1982
  • Secretary of State: Miscellaneous - 1980-1986
  • Series 5: SPEECHES
  • Box 3:
  • Speeches - 1973-1979
  • Speeches - 1980
  • Speeches - 1981
  • Box 4:
  • Speeches - 1982-1983
  • Speeches - 1986-1987
  • Series 6: PHOTOGRAPHS
  • Box 4:
  • Personal - 1936-1967
  • Personal: High school and college photo album - 1939-1943
  • Professional (folder 1) - 1955-1979
  • Professional (folder 2) - 1955-1979
  • Professional (folder 3) - 1955-1979
  • Professional (folder 4) - 1955-1979
  • Professional: Miscellaneous, undated [shelved in map case]
  • Secretary of State - 1980-1986
  • Artifact: Plaque - 1986