KATHARINE (KAY) NORRID MERGEN
The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: September 18, 1910
Died: June 12, 1997
Maiden Name: Norrid
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Caucasian
Married: Bernard M. Mergen
Children: One son
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Wabuska (Lyon Co.), Reno (Washoe Co.)
Major Fields of Work: Author, Poet, Columnist, Feature writer, Historian and Journalist
Other Role Identities: Civic Leader, Library Supporter
Katharine (Kay) Norrid was born September 18, 1910, in Gainsville, Texas. Her parents, William Andrew (Andy) Norrid and Eunice Gregory, were both natives of that town, but lived in Nevada since 1904. Kay’s father worked as a section foreman for the Southern Pacific Railroad, moving frequently along the routes of the SP in Nevada. When it came time to enroll his daughter in school Andy Norrid took the section foreman’s job in Wabuska, the village she proudly considered her hometown the rest of her life.
What Kay Norrid enjoyed most about Wabuska was the excitement of watching the “reefers,” the refrigerated cars that carried the vegetable and fruit products of California’s Central Valley eastward through Nevada. In a brief memoir written thirty years later, she evokes the now lost time of steam engines and ice-filled freight cars:
“Autumn never came at Wabuska until the reefers arrived, yellow as the cottonwood trees around the water tank. They were switched onto the east leg of the wye in the night, by the southbound local, their summer work of hauling lettuce and other perishables eastward from California across the Nevada desert to city markets across the country. Then they traveled the hotshot schedule, pounding along faster than a passenger train, stopping only for more ice in the compartments that ran the depth of the car at each corner, filled from a trapdoor at the top of the car.
. . . The next morning, there they stood in a long row, stretching far down the tracks. If it was a school day, I left with regretful glances over my shoulder. If it was a Saturday, the first thing after breakfast was an exploratory trip along the lines of cars. Some were weatherbeaten and dull, the finish gone from the paint. Others were a brilliant, clear yellow. You didn’t climb on them immediately. You walked the length of the string and savored the far-away name chalked on the sides of some; a few still dripped from the remainder of the ice yet in the bunkers. When you got to the end of the string, you tentatively swung up on the first ladder, and climbed slowly to the top. Up there it was a new world, the sun was brighter, the desert softer. You felt a kinship with the mountains away to the north; you were as tall on the horizon as the mountains with shades of mauve and blue in the west. The narrow catwalk atop the cars was a path that could lead right to the sky. The excitement of the first few steps was almost unbearable, as you looked at the ground below, but there was the path ahead. Before you knew it you were running, running toward the end of the path. It was a game that never grew old.” ( Editor’s note: see Sources of information, Katharine Norrid Mergen, “The Wabuska Years”. . .
Shortly after she started school, Kay’s sister Margaret was born. But after Kay graduated from Yerington High School in 1928, Margaret was diagnosed with diabetes, for which there was no cure at the time. Margaret died in 1932. Her death was the second misfortune Kay experienced at this time. Strongly encouraged by her father, Kay enrolled at the University of Nevada and completed two years, but the effects of the Great Depression hit the SP and her father was laid-off. Reassigned to a lower-paying job, Andy Norrid took his family to Susanville, California, where Kay found part-time work and enrolled at Lassen Junior College (now Lassen Community College).Returning to the University of Nevada in 1934, Kay took classes in journalism, English, and Spanish, wrote for the student newspaper The Sagebrush, and worked part-time at The Reno Evening Gazette. She graduated with a B.A. in journalism and a teaching certificate. On May 25, 1936, she married journalist Bernard M. Mergen of Sparks, Nevada, in a civil ceremony in Virginia City. Future senator Alan Bible, Bernard’s friend, was one of their witnesses. She and her husband lived at various times in Carson City and Reno while he worked as a reporter and in the state government and she worked for the Nevada State Journal. Their son, Bernard M. Mergen, Jr., was born in March 1937. Failing to find suitable work, Kay’s husband left the state and they were divorced in 1940.
By that time her father had retired from the Southern Pacific and, in 1940, she moved with her parents and son to Wadsworth, where she taught in the elementary school for one year and the high school for a second year. She also coached women’s sports. In 1942 she and her family moved to Long Beach, California, where her mother’s brother helped her find employment. Andy Norrid’s death in September 1943 precipitated a move to Gainesville, where she worked for a year as a reporter for the local newspaper. In 1944, GIs were beginning to return to civilian life and enrollments at colleges and universities were increasing. Kay was contacted by her former journalism professor Alfred Higginbotham and offered a teaching position at the University in Reno.
She lived in Reno for the next 16 years, teaching journalism for four years, before rejoining the staff of the Reno Evening Gazette as “Women’s Editor” in the era when newspapers devoted several pages to weddings, births, women’s clubs, and social gatherings by prominent citizens. She interviewed well-known political figures, Eleanor Roosevelt and Pat Nixon, among others. In 1957 she became the editor of the Gazette’s first weekly special feature section, which included an entertainment supplement. In addition to her newspaper work, she was active in a number of civic organizations: Business and Professional Women, National League of American Pen Women, Nevada Press Women, the Twentieth Century Club, Reno Little Theater, and the Washoe County Democratic Women’s Club. Her close friends in these years included Peg Wheat, Maya Miller, poet Margaret Bartlett Thornton, artist and journalist Betty Bliss, U.S. Forest Service administrator Harriet Metcalf, and most of the faculty of the English Department at the university.
Kay Mergen’s career, like all journalists’, was vulnerable to rapid changes in newspaper production and management. Locally owned and managed newspapers with deep roots in a community were being replaced by corporations that owned dozens of formerly independent newspapers in large markets. Moreover, technological innovations such as the teleprinter or TTY made it possible for a reporter in another city or country to send copy instantaneously to newspaper offices throughout the world. Later this machine would be linked directly to a linotype, eliminating the jobs of local typesetters as well as reporters. Reporters’ salaries were notoriously low and women journalists were usually paid half as much as men.
Such was the situation in Reno in 1959. The Reno Evening Gazette was an independent, locally owned newspaper until 1939 when it and its rival, the Nevada State Journal, were acquired by Speidel Newspapers, whose employment practices provoked workers at the Gazette to organize under the auspices of the American Newspaper Guild (ANG). Under the leadership of Frank McCulloch, Jr., a rancher’s son from Fernley and a Marine veteran of World War II, Reno Local 208 of the ANG was chartered in 1950 with ten members, including Kay Mergen. Contract negotiations over the next few years brought some improvement, but when McCulloch left to become a reporter for Time magazine, Speidel’s president Charles “Chick” Stout saw a chance to break the union, of which Kay Mergen was now president.
For many reasons, contract negotiations broke down in May 1959, and the members of Local 208 voted 33-0 to “strike if necessary.” On June 29, Guild members began picketing the Gazette building. Using wire service stories from around the world and non-union workers, the Gazette continued to publish. Local 208 published its own paper, Reno News, to inform the public about the causes of the strike. Despite the efforts of Reno Mayor Bud Baker and Governor Grant Sawyer to mediate the dispute, Speidel Newspapers Inc. fired the striking workers and withheld all but a fraction of their retirement funds. On October 13 the pickets were withdrawn. The ANG decertified the Local, ending all legal protest.
In 1960, age 50, Kay Mergen began a second career as a writer and editor for the U.S. Forest Service. One of her early pieces, for the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, was on the role of women in forming public opinion on conservation. Citing the work of women’s club and garden club members, who have on their own initiative reforested burned-over hillsides, established soil conservation districts, published river basin studies, and provided window boxes for flowering plants in cities, Mergen concludes by urging more efforts in conservation education in elementary and secondary education. In addition to science classes, she concluded that: “conservation materials should be used in all classes—art, literature, social studies, history and geography.”
In 1966 Kay transferred to the Education Relations Section of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, where she wrote and edited various publications and represented the SCS at national meetings of garden clubs, elementary and secondary school administrators and teachers, and environmental groups. When she retired in 1980 she was Head of the Educational Relations Section. She was a member of the Soil Conservation Society of America, the Conservation Education Association, the American Newspaper Women’s Club, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While living in Washington, she kept her Nevada contacts by attending meetings of the Nevada State Society and visiting Reno as often as she could. She remained in Washington to be near her son and grandchildren. In retirement she devoted much time and effort to the League of Women Voters and several environmental protection organizations. She died of lung cancer on June 12, 1997. Her family scattered her ashes in the desert near Reno.
Kay Mergen’s legacy in Nevada is part of the as-yet-unwritten history of women journalists in Post-World War II America. Also, like many women in the 1920s and 1930s, she was the first member of her family to graduate from a university. Thirdly, and most important, her role as president of the Reno Newspaper Guild in the anti-union environment of the United States in the era of Taft-Hartley and “right-to-work” laws helped call attention to the plight of white collar workers in general and of women in particular. With the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960s, more and more workers in what were considered women’s occupations—teachers, nurses, clerical workers, restaurant workers, and domestic workers—joined or organized unions. Working women still face opposition from employers, politicians, and rival unions, as Jane McAlevey documents in her history of the Service Employees International Union, but gains are being made. Kay Mergen’s journalistic career in Nevada suggests that losing one battle may inspire future successes.
According to an interview she gave in 1957, Kay “loves Pyramid Lake, Moby Dick, scotch, science-fiction, Segovia, lasagna, cats, people and Fall.” In later years she added Dolly Sods, West Virginia, Gore Vidal, Loren Eiseley, cervelle de veau, owls, and grandchildren to her list; idiosyncratic loves that defined her.
Biographical sketch by Bernard Mergen, Jr. Posted to website May 2015.
- Daily stories in the Reno Evening Gazette (mostly unsigned), 1948-1959.
- Mergen, Katharine Norrid. “Pyramid Lake,” Nevada Magazine 3, no. 7 (1948),: 3. Reprinted in Nevada Federation of Women’s Clubs. Sage in Bloom: An Anthology of Verse. Reno: Silver State Press, 1950, 55-56.
- Mergen, Kay. “Land Developers Eye Pyramid Lake as Prospective Resort Area,” Reno Evening Gazette, May 20, 1959, 8.
- Mergen, Katharine N. “The Role of Women in Forming Public Opinion in Conservation,” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 20, no. 4 (July-August 1965): 133-134.
- Mergen, K.N. and C.H. Thomas. “Schoolyards Have Class as Outdoor Laboratories,” U.S. Department of Agriculture. Yearbook of Agriculture, 1972. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972, pp. 257-262.
- Mergen, K. “Soil Science for Four Year Olds,” Soil Conservation 42, no. 9, April 1977, 6-7.
Sources of Information:
- Katharine Norrid, Diary 1930-1935. Mergen family papers.
- “Wadsworth School Opens,” Nevada State Journal, August 17, 1941, 8.
- Katherine Norrid Mergen, “The Wabuska Years,” typescript, 6 pages, undated ca. 1950. Mergen family papers.
- “Renotables—Kay Mergen,” Reno This Week, November 3, 1957, 6. Mergen family papers.
- Reno News 1, no. 2, July 30, 1959. Mergen family papers.
- Lingenfelter, Richard E. and Karen Rix Gash. The Newspapers of Nevada: A History and Bibliography, 1854-1979.
- Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1984.
- McAlevey, Jane. Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement. New