S. Karene Witcher has traveled a long way from Monroe in her life, her career carrying her halfway across the world to spend much of her life in Asia as a newspaper foreign correspondent.
“I saw a newspaper one day and a story had the dateline ‘Along the Thai-Burma Border’ and I knew then I wanted to be a foreign correspondent,” Witcher said.
Working her way up from an internship with the Wall Street Journal while a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Witcher found her dream becoming a reality as she was soon sitting at a desk in Hong Kong at the Journal’s Asian edition.
“Naivete is a wonderful thing,” Witcher said. “I didn’t know all the reasons I couldn’t do it, so I just went out and did it.”
Witcher spent 33 years with the Journal, eventually working her way up to assistant managing editor at the paper’s Hong Kong bureau, then editor of the Journal’s Weekend Journal Asia. After a brief stint with the South China Morning Post as senior editor for business coverage, she joined the New York Times as deputy Asia editor and then news editor of the International Edition of the Times in Hong Kong.
“I can’t think of anything else I could have done that possibly could have paid me to see the world,” Witcher said.
That long career of newspaper accolades recently earned her the honor of being named one of eight recepients this year of the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism, given annually by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Witcher joins past winners such as Christine Amanpour, Sir Winston Churchill and Gloria Steinem in accepting the award for her work in the journalistic field.
“I was stunned,” Witcher said on discovering she’d been named one of the year’s winners. “I burst into tears when I found out, I was so surprised. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Witcher accepted the award on Oct. 16 at a ceremony at the university in Columbia, Missouri, where she attended as a graduate student decades earlier.
“I am so thankful,” Witcher said. “I remember when one of my editors received this award and I was thrilled just to be associated with it through him. I still can’t believe I have one myself, now.”
Witcher may have spent more of her life on the other side of the world than in her native Monroe, but she counts the town as home for a variety of reasons.
Born in Monroe at the old hospital in Walker Park, Witcher grew up on Bold Springs Road before moving into town to live on Pine Circle when she was around 9.
The daughter of W.T. and Faye Witcher, owners of Monroe Wholesalers, the downtown grocery business, Witcher grew up knowing her parents supported her and her dreams.
“My parents, W.T. and Faye Witcher, always encouraged me to be honest and to be the best I could be,” Witcher said. “If I fell short, their response was always, well if you tried your best, that is good enough.
“It was a lesson in how to raise a child to achieve whatever that child is capable of.
“I know it was hard for them to watch their only child venture off to the other side of the world but they wanted me to soar.”
Witcher attended Monroe’s public schools through 10th grade but transferred to Athens Academy as a junior and graduated from the private school in 1971. She then enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, the first person on either side of her family to attend college, before transferring to Davidson College as a sophomore the first year the school voted to allow women to attend. She was one of 20 women on campus that first year, compared to 1,000 men.
It was there she first began to gravitate toward journalism, in part due to her own self-confessed “fear of unemployment.”
“An English literature professor suggested I liked to write, so why not try journalism?” Witcher said.
So she left for Missouri after finishing her undergraduate degree at Davidson to earn her master’s degree and was soon ensconced in Hong Kong for her whirlwind career.
Witcher said she still loves journalism and working for newspapers.
“Journalism gives you the opportunity to stick your nose into lots of interesting things and meet interesting people,” Witcher said. “I just love learning new things and finding things out through my work.”
While Witcher now lives in Sydney, Australia, with her Australian husband, she still likes to come back to Monroe, especially for the regular re-connection with her kindergarten class, who still gather together and sign dollar bills for one another to show their continued bond.
“I always get together with my old friends when I come back to Monroe,” Witcher said. “Every time we get together, it feels like we’ve never been apart.”
That feeling often extends to Monroe itself, a familiar landscape she still loves no matter how it may change.
“Things have changed,” Witcher said. “It’s very different in a lot of ways. But, deep down, in the end, it’s really still the same.”