Fran Jaques got hired at the afternoon newspaper in Maryland’s state capital by asking the executive editor for a job at a party.

“I happened to drift by and, braced by a glass of white wine, I introduced myself in one breath and, in the next, asked about the possibility of a job on his staff,” she later wrote.

It was 1976, and Fran would turn that chance meeting into a journalism career that lasted 30 years. She wrote about hiking, parks and gardening at first, earning $15 per column. That got her a spot in the newsroom the next year, where she wrote obits — banging out 11 on a manual Underwood typewriter her first day — and eventually worked her way to a job writing hugely popular columns on homes and cooking.

Fran died the other day at 96, long after she retired from The Capital. Her fame followed even after that.

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“When we went to the funeral home — she died early Sunday morning — the funeral director said, ‘Did your mother work for the newspaper?’” said Suzanne Jaques, her daughter.

I was in New York last month for the Committee to Protect Journalists’ awards gala recognizing reporters and editors around the world who face harassment, violence and death because of their work. The Baltimore Banner sponsored a table to support the committee’s advocacy.

That wasn’t the kind of journalism Fran excelled at during her long career. But what she did was no less important — and is no less imperiled today.

Journalism is many things. It exposes corruption, cruelty and injustice. It points out what can be better, and holds those with the power to change it accountable when they fail to act.

Just as vitally, though, journalism provides a sense of community, a common identity and shared ideas about what is important. Done well, it binds a people, place and time into a shared narrative.

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Fran did that.

As local news outlets continue to shrink or fold, it’s the work of journalists like Fran that may be hardest to replace.

Journalists like her are fast vanishing, someone who walks into a newsroom — or bumps into the editor — and talks her way into a newsroom job, ultimately becoming a beloved writer.

“How do you frame Fran?” said Mary Felter, her longtime editor and friend. “Unusually smart, very witty, talented, well-balanced.”

Fran Jaques was a features columnist, staff writer and food editor in Annapolis over her 30 year career with The Capital.
Fran Jaques started as an outdoors columnist for The Evening Capital in 1976 and within months landed a job on the staff at the Annapolis daily newspaper. (Courtesy of Suzanne Jaques)

From tiny Palmyra, Pennsylvania, Fran knew early on what she wanted to do. She went to Pennsylvania State University and started working as a reporter and editor at the campus daily newspaper, The Collegian. In 1949, she graduated with a degree in journalism.

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Her first job was at the Bradford Era in Bradford, Pennsylvania, followed by a reporting stint at the Harrisburg Patriot-News. She worked on stories that the all-white, all-male editors deemed fit for women, from garden clubs to profiles of first lady Mamie Eisenhower.

“She always knew she wanted to be a reporter, and she was the first person in her family to go to college,” her daughter said. “Her first job, she was the only woman in the newsroom. She loved the newsroom and she never felt threatened by it.”

That’s where she met Milton Jaques, the Patriot-News police reporter.

“Their first date was covering a fire,” her daughter said. “They went to a diner after.”

The couple got married in 1952. In the way of that era, she put aside her ambitions to follow Milt’s. He was the one who got the job in Washington, covering politics from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. She stayed home and began raising their three children.

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Fran made time to volunteer, serving as the president of the YWCA in the 1960s, and to be active in her faith. She was the first woman elected an elder in the First Presbyterian Church. There was also her love of the outdoors.

By the mid-1970s, with her kids growing up, she realized she wanted to get back into reporting.

“I’m aching to get back in the newsroom,” she wrote in one of a series of recollections after retiring. “After three children, nearly two decades of community volunteering and a daughter heading off to college, I needed to pick up a career I happily followed for 10 years after college.”

She joined a long line of women journalists in Annapolis, starting before the American Revolution with Anne Catherine Green at The Maryland Gazette. In the early 20th century, Emma Abbot Gage became editor of The Evening Capital, known today as Capital Gazette.

From the end of World War II to the early 1950s, Dorothy Z. Bicker was the city editor. In 1970, a reporter named Inette Miller convinced her editor to sponsor her as a war correspondent in Vietnam.

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Fran was different. She and her boss, Lauraine Wagner, had journalism degrees and experience at other newspapers. But they wrote what newspapers called women’s or society news.

They made it more than an afterthought and, together, convinced the editor to drop those labels and eventually adopt the name community news.

Felter, who replaced Wagner as community news editor in 1987, said Fran set the standard for their department. And she deeply influenced generations of women who followed, often long on intelligence and with a love of writing and a deep understanding of the community, but short on journalism experience.

“She paved the path for people like me,” said Diana Love, who followed Fran as the newspaper’s food writer in 2007. “That writing, it matters. It’s important. It’s humanity.”

There were plenty of signs of the affection many had for her in the newsroom, like the satellite image of Hurricane Fran that the photo staff doctored with a cut-out picture of her head in the storm’s eye. And if some young news reporter dismissed obits and recipes as a lesser form of journalism, Fran was perfectly capable of demonstrating how wrong that was.

Maybe no example was better than in 1998 when she was the first reporter on the scene of a deadly plane crash in Edgewater. The next day, she took the top byline in the front page story.

“She didn’t fit in a box,” Felter said.

A few women who followed her may have gained greater fame, particularly Wendi Winters. She picked up home features and other stories that Fran once did, and continued them until she and four other staff members were killed in the 2018 attack on the newsroom while I was the editor.

None of them did a better job or earned more respect in the community than Fran.

Fran Jaques was a features columnist, staff writer and food editor in Annapolis over her 30 year career with The Capital.
Fran Jaques was a features columnist, staff writer and food editor in Annapolis over a 30-year career with The Capital. (Courtesy of Suzanne Jaques)

Hometown newspapers are disappearing. It’s almost not news anymore. In many of those still afloat, syndicated copy has replaced the words and photos once produced by women like Fran. They may bring a world of taste to food sections, but very little flavor.

I sometimes feel like I’ve found a place in the lifeboat at The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit news site where a lot of talented journalists are working toward a local journalism future as secure as its past.

There just won’t be anyone like Fran when we get there.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church of Annapolis, 171 Duke of Gloucester St.

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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