Louise Hutchinson’s coolest adventure started at a Washington cocktail party where she asked, “When are you going to let me play with penguins?”
Asking paid off. It landed the Chicago Tribune reporter an invitation to Antarctica, where, in 1971, she became the first woman to spend the night at the South Pole, on a trip for journalists arranged by the U.S. Navy and the National Science Foundation.
Miss Hutchinson, 90, died March 29 in hospice care in Williamsburg, Virginia, where she moved in the early 1990s, said her friend Nancy Rodrigues, a Virginia state cabinet member whose title is secretary of administration. The cause was a brain tumor, she said.
“I would not be a cabinet member in the great commonwealth of Virginia if Louise hadn’t pushed me,” Rodrigues said. “She was the woman who seriously broke more glass ceilings.”
Nearly half a century ago, Miss Hutchinson traveled 13,000 miles to spend 26 hours among “Polies” — workers at the South Pole.
She got to meet her penguins — “3,000, to be exact, from a distance of four feet,” she wrote in a Tribune article.
“It is a scene of desolation,” she wrote of Antarctica, “an ice runway, six buildings breaking the bleak landscape, a small forest of radio antennae, a bright torrent of flags of nations that have signed the Antarctic Treaty, a barber pole that marks the ‘tourist pole.’ But the South Pole is more. It is nausea, dizziness, blue fingernails and lips, and a heart that now and again races frantically. I am told this is mountain sickness, or oxygen hunger.”
Bad weather and flight delays temporarily stranded the journalists, making Miss Hutchinson the first woman to spend the night at the South Pole, according to news reports at the time and Antarctic historian Bill Spindler, who runs the website www.southpolestation.com.
Early in her career, Miss Hutchinson often worked on stories then considered the province — or prison — of women reporters. In the 1950s and early 1960s, she did novelty articles about what it was like to work as a “stewardess” and about the views from a helicopter ride over Chicago.
She covered first ladies and candidates’ wives including Lady Bird Johnson, Pat Nixon and Muriel Humphrey, wife of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president. She also reported on Jane Muskie four years before her husband’s 1972 presidential bid was derailed when Edmund S. Muskie reportedly cried while denouncing attacks on his wife.
In 1967, she became the first reporter to descend to the ocean depths off Woods Hole, Massachusetts — in “Alvin,” a midget submarine. “It’s like drifting through a dream,” she wrote.
As her assignments expanded in scope and gravity, she was assigned to write about Social Security, health insurance and African-American studies. She covered political conventions, President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to Austria, the Soviet Union, Iran and Poland and the Watergate hearings.
In 1969, she helped break news stories about the party on Chappaquiddick Island that took place before Sen. Ted Kennedy’s car ran off a bridge into a pond, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker for his brother Bobby Kennedy. It tainted Ted Kennedy’s reputation and political aspirations.
Miss Hutchinson joined the Tribune in 1952. She spent approximately 22 years at the newspaper, eight of them in its Washington bureau.
She served as president of the Women’s National Press Club in 1970, the last full year before women were finally admitted to the National Press Club, a “gentlemen’s” group formed in 1908, said Jeffrey Schlosberg, an archivist with the NPC.
She leaves behind historical memorabilia including personal letters from First Ladies Pat Nixon and Lady Bird Johnson, as well as from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Rodrigues said. Still, “She would always say she was a Chicago girl,” Rodrigues said. “She still had boxes from Marshall Field’s.”
After leaving the Tribune, Miss Hutchinson worked as a public information officer with the Justice Department and as a legislative assistant to Robert McClory, the longtime Republican congressman representing Chicago’s North Shore suburbs.
A University of Iowa graduate, she started her career at radio stations WHBF in Rock Island and WRC in Washington, D.C.
Miss Hutchinson moved to Williamsburg to get a break from big cities, she said in a 1999 article about Virginia retirees in the Newport News Daily Press.
She volunteered with Virginia’s Democratic Party and enjoyed having tea with scones and finger sandwiches. An April 29 tea in Williamsburg is planned in her honor, Rodrigues said.