By Jann Holland
Vice President, Marketing & Communications
In 1952, just three years after graduation, Betty Cole Dukert’s passion for journalism and political science led her to answer an ad seeking a secretary for a National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) executive. That move later turned into a 41-year career where she would interact with Jack Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi, among other political notables.
Dukert attended Drury College from 1946-1947 during her sophomore year and graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a Bachelor of Journalism degree in 1949. In 1956, Dukert accepted a position with an NBC station where she was named associate producer, later producer, and ultimately executive producer of the network feature “Meet the Press” (MTP). Dukert was the first female producer and the only female staff associate producer on NBC news for 13 years.
In 1997, after 41 years of service, Dukert retired from “Meet the Press,” the longest-running program in television history. Many attribute Dukert’s success to her proficiency for news and newsmakers, her in-depth knowledge of politics, her attention to detail and her gracious persuasion.
Dukert was recognized with the University of Missouri Women’s Centennial Award as one of 100 distinguished alumnae in 1967; she received a Certificate of Award by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for her role in the NBC news special, “The Supreme Court and the Pentagon Papers” in 1971; an Achievement Award of American Women in Radio and Television in 1978; the American Legion National Commander’s Public Relations Award for public service through “Meet the Press” in 1981; and she was the first recipient of the First Amendment Service Award of the National Radio & Television News Directors’ Foundation. Dukert is a member of the Washington Press Club and served from 1970-71 as third vice president and board member.
In 1975, Dukert received the Distinguished Alumnae Award from Drury College, and in 1984 she was named to the Drury Board of Trustees. Dukert was the keynote speaker at Drury’s 1995 spring commencement, during which time she urged students to be critical consumers of information and to become involved in international, national and community issues. In 2011, Dukert received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Drury.
During a recent phone conversation with Dukert, we discussed her landmark career with NBC.
In 1956 you became the first female producer for NBC News and the only female staff associate producer at NBC until 1969. As a female working and succeeding in a male-dominated news industry, you helped pave the way for women in journalism. How did this knowledge impact your career and your service to the industry?
Not at all really because I didn’t know it! I just did my job the best I could and didn’t really think about it.
What are some of your fondest memories of your time at Drury?
I remember the beautiful campus and the friends I made there, which I still have. I pledged Pi Beta Phi when at Drury and my closest friends were all Pi Phis.
You completed your freshman year at Lindenwood, sophomore year at Drury and completed your journalism education at the University of Missouri. Where did you develop your strongest friendships and networks?
I loved all of my college experiences and they were all quite different. I enjoyed all three greatly.
Share one of the major highlights of your career:
One of the most nerve-wracking experiences with the program was over the appearance of the newly-elected President of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, in 1967. It was not possible to do a live program by satellite from Saigon so we were videotaping an interview on Thursday and flying it to the U.S. for a Sunday presentation. A few hours before the scheduled taping time, the President-elect sent word that he wanted to postpone the program by a week. I jumped out of the cab and had a block to run to the television station. I had to get in before they had to close the door. I knew the only way to appeal this decision was to initiate a face-to-face meeting. I had to run past a cordon of armed guards to get inside the studio. I explained the situation to Thieu, and he agreed to do the interview the next day.
What was the toughest lesson you learned in your journalism career?
The most important lesson is to figure out the truth and always tell the truth. It was pretty instinctive, and I was always searching for it.
What was it like to work with Lawrence Spivak?
Lawrence was the first producer I worked for, and I worked for him for 20 years. He was difficult and he was particular about the details. He was very demanding and he wasn’t my style, but I learned so much from him. I learned to be very careful and exacting.
You also worked closely with Tim Russert, right?
Yes, we worked together for nine years. He, of course, was very different from Spivak. He took a much more modern approach to journalism, and his interests were very wide. And I continued to learn.
Why broadcast journalism?
I felt it was the way to reach the most people.
What particular skill or strength do you think was most valuable for you?
Curiosity about the world. I wanted to know it all. During the course of my career, I saw seven continents and 60 countries. My interest was probably inspired by movies I’d seen because I didn’t know any journalists.
What advice would you give Drury graduates who are trying to break into your field in the 21st century?
Start as early as you can in the field. I’m sure things have changed. I took the first job that was offered to me, and I did typing, shorthand and everything I could to show my drive and interest. I got moved around a lot, but that was okay because I learned something from every position I held. Always tell people what you’re aiming for.
Did you have to deal with a lot of last-minute changes to the program?
Periodically. Typically, we would have an idea by Monday, and we’d pin things down by the end of the week. Occasionally, we might have to change during the weekend. I can remember one such change during the 1983 bombing of U.S. troops in Beirut. I got called about 4 a.m., and we subsequently changed the entire program to cover this breaking news.
Who was your most difficult interview?
Senator Mike Mansfield, majority leader. He didn’t like to be on television. He would only give yes and no answers, so we came close to running out of questions.
Who would you like to interview?
Donald Trump. It would be fun to interview him! It would be a challenge and interesting.
What memories do you have of your time at Drury?
It was a delightful school. Great teachers. I thoroughly enjoyed all of my educational experiences. My favorite Drury professor was my economics teacher, Dr. Bothwell, and Miss Peck, my French teacher.