Journalist Ann DeFrange never had to work to connect with readers. It came naturally.
DeFrange worked at The Oklahoman for 39 years, retiring in 2008. She died Monday at age 69. Her funeral will be at 2 p.m. Friday at Smith & Kernke Funeral Home, 1401 NW 23.
What DeFrange connected with was the reader's heart. She took them with her through very visual writing.
Take for example her description of a Saturday night at a southeastern Oklahoma honky-tonk:
“For the next few hours, long-legged girls in tightfitting jeans and limber-limbed cowboys in polished boots and big, brassy buckles will scoot their boots from corner to corner of the big wooden dance floor and twirl their partners to hopping and popping, wailing and weeping country songs.”
That connection attracted faithful readers to her column and kept new followers coming. They would call her for advice or just to talk. They invited her to lunch and to speak. She could sit down with anyone — from people with prestigious titles to those who were down on their luck — and she would come away with an interesting story for her readers.
“Ann was a great writer who could make a story about a handmade quilt in the Panhandle interesting or a story about the Blue Whale in Catoosa something readers didn't want to put down until they read the last word,” said Diana Baldwin, a longtime fellow journalist and friend.
DeFrange, a lifelong Oklahoma City resident and 1961 graduate of Bishop McGuinness High School, considered everyone her neighbor.
“I have cried for New Orleans,” DeFrange wrote in her Sept. 6, 2005, column following Hurricane Katrina. “On my television screen, a reporter stood in the center of Canal Street, where I walked once when I visited this exquisite gem of a city. Wader boots reached his knees. Water tickled his calves. Along the submerged sidewalks on either side were buildings so obviously empty of their human inhabitants.
“The scene made me sad for New Orleans.”
DeFrange graduated from Central State University with a minor in journalism in 1969. She was hired at The Oklahoma City Times and The Daily Oklahoman to write about weddings and engagements. She went on to work nearly every desk in The Oklahoman newsroom as reporter, copy editor, layout editor and manager.
“Ann DeFrange showed me what good editors do,” said Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news at The Oklahoman. “When I started as a reporter in 1982, I couldn't wait to get the paper in the morning. Ann always took my writing up a notch. She was a mentor and a friend. She gave me my first job at The Oklahoman and for that, I am grateful.”
When she retired in 2008 — the year she was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame — DeFrange left the newsroom to a standing ovation. Fellow reporters clapped out of respect for not only the columnist but the person.
DeFrange and colleague Don Gammill co-founded Newsoom 101, an introduction to journalism for high school students, 18 years ago. Hundreds of students have attended the program, and many are now journalists and professional writers.
“Developing Newsroom 101 was one of the best, most enjoyable experiences in our careers,” Gammill said. “We fed off each other's knowledge and energy. We would script each day's session, then change it on the fly or during breaks.
“The first year, we had 12 kids and not one of them starting out had intentions of studying journalism. When we finished the class, six were either leaning that way, or told us they definitely wanted to go into journalism. She treated them all like professionals. They loved it.”
Many journalists are better at what they do today because they watched DeFrange at work.
“Ann was a mentor to many, including myself,” Baldwin said. “She was never critical and always helpful. But her writing had a style only Ann could turn out with ease.
“Ann was lifestyles editor where she covered the high society of Oklahoma City. She was just as comfortable in a pair of jeans talking to an interesting man who never left his farm for 50 years. Through their words she would see what victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and tornadoes were experiencing. She knew what to say to make them feel at ease and then she had no trouble telling their story.”
She traveled the state for years with now-retired Oklahoman photographer Jim Argo, capturing stories about everyday Oklahomans.
“Ann Defrange was a great writer, journalist and historian,” Argo said.
DeFrange was a great storyteller who made sure that when readers bought The Oklahoman, they got more than their money's worth; readers got her heart.
“I came here with a few strong talents,” she wrote in her farewell column. “I can write, I'm good with people in an intuitive and empathic way, I have a particular sense of the world around me.”
Through the years, DeFrange found thousands of stories and the perfect career — her entire career was at The Oklahoman.