We make a difference. You make it possible.

I am grateful to you, our readers, for sustaining The Altamont Enterprise over the years, allowing us to seek the truth and print it.

This past Thursday, I was given a great honor I would like to share with you as it would not have been possible without you. Nor would it be possible without our small and dedicated staff. You can read their names on the masthead on the facing page. Every one of them is essential.

The Women’s Press Club of New York State named me the Media Person of the Year.

The other honorees were: Heather Knott, a Cobleskill senior who loves to write features, winner of the Betty Flood Morrow Scholarship; Tracee Ormsbee, a former Times Union editor, now publisher of the Adirondack Explorer, receiving an award for Excellence in Career Achievement; Barbara Bartoletti, longtime legislative director for the League of Women Voters, who shared the Woman in the Media award with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand; and Chris Jansing, news anchor and senior national correspondent for MSNBC, being inducted into the Hall of Honor.

Placed on the edges of the banquet hall on Thursday night were framed pictures of former honorees, including such luminaries as Barbara Walters.

I arrived at the dinner, expecting the only familiar faces would be my two ever-supportive publishing partners — my husband, Gary Spencer, and Marcello Iaia who runs the newspaper with me. Instead I also found my Guilderland High School journalism teacher, Judy Rothstein, and her husband, Arnie, and a longtime Hilltown reader Ann Flaws with her husband, Donald — a welcome surprise.

After my speech was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation, I met many other women who have read The Enterprise and a few who use it in their college teaching.

Mary Alice Molgard, who teaches at The College of Saint Rose and is an officer in the Women’s Press Club, nominated me for the award. She lives in Berne and spoke to the crowd about the importance of our paper in a rural area that might otherwise be forgotten.

We appreciate her faith in us and consider it a privilege to serve our readers, a pact we hope will last for a very long time.

So, here’s the speech, which came from my heart as well as my head.

Thank you, Women’s Press Club of New York State. Receiving this award is a great honor for a tiny newspaper, The Altamont Enterprise.

My father, a newspaperman from the old school, taught me how to write when I was a child. His Ebony copy pencil would slash through my words.

His newsroom on a big-city paper was made up almost entirely of men. My small-town newsroom is almost all women.

I’ve thought a lot lately about what it means to be a woman. Part of it, of course, is the celebration we all share in this the 100-year anniversary of New York women winning the right to vote.

It was a hard-fought battle, and a long slog to victory. Our foremothers who started the movement at Seneca Falls in 1848 were mostly dead by the time New York women finally won the right to vote.

Change takes commitment and persistence.

But this year I’ve also been thinking about what it means to be a woman in a much more personal way. In April, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. I had my uterus, my ovaries, my fallopian tubes, and sentinel lymph nodes surgically removed.

I feel lucky, very lucky, to be alive. And I’m grateful for it.

But I was fond of the womb that cradled my children, and losing my reproductive organs made me question what it means to be a woman.

I volunteered at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where I had my surgery done, to be part of several experimental studies, thinking it would be good to advance in any way I could the frontier of science that is trying to conquer cancer.

One of the studies was interested in me because my grandmother had died of breast cancer and my aunt had died of ovarian cancer. It turns out that fewer than 5 percent of cancers are linked by heredity, and researchers are looking for mutated genes.

My surgeon called weeks after my surgery to say I had a mutated gene and to schedule genetic counseling. I returned to New York City for the appointment and sat in a waiting room with a framed magazine cover of Angelina Jolie titled “The Jolie Effect.” On all of the walls were framed articles about women with mutated genes who had had their breasts or ovaries removed to avoid cancer.

I’m old. My uterus and breasts have done their job of cradling and nourishing life. But I was scared, really horrified, thinking about my daughters, young women with their lives unfolding before them.

The truth I discovered is, like so many truths, paradoxical. Breasts or a womb are not what make you a woman. But the characteristics that those organs stand for — protecting, nurturing, nourishing; in short, caring — define womanhood.

That’s not to say that men can’t have those characteristics — I believe the world would be better off if we all did.

It’s also not to say that those characteristics make us “soft” or “weak” as women. On the contrary, true caring takes great strength. Ask any woman who has given birth. Ask any journalist who has broken an unpopular story.

I have worked at The Altamont Enterprise for over 30 years. Two years ago, when the long-time owners were ready to retire, my husband, myself, and Marcello Iaia bought the newspaper because we couldn’t bear to see it disappear. At a time when so many small papers are losing readers, cutting staff, and closing, we decided to buy The Enterprise because we care about the community we serve.  

Friends told me it was time to retire and relax, to enjoy what’s left of life rather than risk losing what we’ve earned. They asked, “Why put in 80-hour work weeks for low pay?”

The answer is: It matters and we care.

This week, for example, we’re publishing, online and in print, issues-based election profiles for small-town races that no one else covers. An informed electorate matters and we care.

We print pages and pages of letters to the editor each week, providing a common meeting ground where people with various political views can exchange ideas, a rarity in these polarized times. Sharing ideas to solve problems matters and we care.

Each week, we do a podcast to give voice to people and concerns that are often overlooked — we’ve talked with a Buddhist who provided therapy for Gilda Radner and then helped set up Gilda’s Club after she died; with a Muslim woman who is trying to educate people about her religion as she feels increased hatred; with an African-American man who, as a teenager, helped ferry people north from a town in Mississippi haunted by lynchings. Varied voices matter and we care.

We’re most proud of our editorials not because they’ve won state, national, and international awards but because they have moved our readers and brought about change for the good: a girl sodomized by her father got her day in court, toxic wastes were removed from an old Army dump, skewed tax rolls were righted, a big-box plan was thwarted — all because our readers were empowered with knowledge. It matters and they care.

Our current president has called journalists enemies of the people.

On the contrary. We journalists work hard to inform the people so that they can shape their government, as they should, in a democracy. All those things that matter, all those things we care about, give the people knowledge. Knowledge gives us — we, the people — power to solve our problems and chart a good future.

If our government is, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” journalists have an essential role to play.

If we care, this government shall not perish from the earth. We care. So we will carry on.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer


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