I practically grew up watching one or another of the Mary Jane Chinn shows on old KRNT (now KCCI) television, out of Des Moines, so her death this week is a personal loss in a distant sort of way. But it's a loss for the state, too, diminishing our supply of strong, progressive women.
Mary Jane was a native of Algona who moved to Des Moines with her first husband, Gerald Chinn, in 1946, and went to work for KRNT in 1955. A skilled journalist, she almost single-handedly paved the route for women broadcasters out of the "Kitchen Klatter" niche they already had established for themselves.
After Gerald Chinn's death in 1966, she married John Odell and they moved to Chicago where she went to work in broadcasting again, earning two Emmy awards and a variety of other honors for her work. They moved back to Des Moines in 1975 and she joined Iowa Public Television where she developed and hosted a nightly half-hour interview show as well as "Assignment Iowa," a weekly documentary filmed on location across the state. That aspect of her career ended in 1979, when IPBN decided to eliminate the daily show.
Gov. Robert D. Ray appointed Odell to fill a vacancy as secretary of state in 1980 and she won a full four-year term in that office as a Republican during 1982, serving until 1987, when she retired. John Odell died in 1984 and in 1987 she married Ralph Siegler, who also predeceased her. Her accurate ruling while secretary of state that Democratic icon Harold Hughes did not meet residency requirements for another gubernatorial run didn't exactly endear her to activists in that party, but she was widely respected by both Republicans and Democrats
She also was active in movements to ensure full equality for women in Iowa, the Iowa Peace Institute and a variety of other progressive causes. Whe was named to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1979. Memorial services will be next Wednesday at First Unitarian in Des Moines.
One of the best places to read more about Mary Jane Odell is the biography on her Iowa Women's Archives site, which is here. Her obituary will be available for a couple of weeks, too, on The Des Moines Register Web site.