On the preceding page, Forum columnist Jane Ahlin writes her farewell column. It won’t be a final farewell. Starting next year, Jane will write occasionally rather than weekly. Today she ends a three-decade run of providing readers with a Sunday dose of the wisdom and intellectual honesty that come only with maturity, experience and commitment to core principles. Those qualities informed Jane’s writing.
Hard to believe it’s been 30 years. I asked Jane to consider a Sunday column of commentary shortly after I was named editor of The Forum’s editorial pages in 1987. I knew she could write. She’d written letters to the editor and a few longer commentaries. I learned from editor Joe Dill that she was active in the community in causes ranging from the YWCA’s women’s shelter to public education. Dill agreed Jane would be an excellent addition to the Sunday opinion and commentary pages. He urged me to sign her on. She said she’d give it a go, never expecting her column would be a fixture on the page for 30 years. She began writing in 1988, missing a week only while on vacation to exotic places with husband, Dr. Tom Ahlin, or when family obligations prevented her from writing. Those misses were few.
Jane’s has been a consistent and unique voice on the opinion page. She is a member of what I refer to as “the sisterhood.” (My wife, who is of Jane’s vintage, also is a member.) Now mature women, they began their social activism in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s when the women’s rights movement was energized by millions of educated young women of the baby boom generation. They were beginning to crack the foundations of the patriarchy. As Jane’s columns through the years attest, she never gave up the cause.
Not that all Jane’s columns were about women’s rights and civil rights. She also wrote beautifully about journeys to foreign lands, but not necessarily about landscapes and sunsets. Rather, her focus was about the people, how they lived, how they viewed the United States. She took on the failures and foibles of public education in Fargo, often to the chagrin and irritation of school officials. She championed preservation of historic homes and districts, frequently stirring the ire of city regulators who were in developers’ pockets. She wrote passionately about women in politics; and was a thoughtful progressive in her own political persuasion. A small-town North Dakota girl, her love for her state -- even when it disappointed her politically -- came through in her writing, public service work and philanthropy.
Jane created an alter-ego in “Mary Contrary,” an earthy character who was streetwise and in-your-face with her parking lot preaching. Mary was Jane’s satirical dramatis personae, charged with pricking the egomaniacal balloons of the powerful, the arrogant, the obtuse. Gotta love Mary Contrary.
The good news is Jane will write when the spirit moves her. Infrequently, she said. She’s earned the break. Her file of work for The Forum stands as an example of the way commentary should be done: meticulously researched, well-written, thought-provoking, and having affected public policy and social discourse for the better.