Renowned Journalist's Papers Now at UM Archives
They met at a Northwest Airlines check-in counter, and she knew she had found her person. Jeff Cole was on his way from Seattle back home to Minnesota, where he was a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Maria Little was an airline agent checking him in. He wrote his phone number on a paper luggage tag and stuck it to the back of his business card.
The timing wasn’t quite right, but they stayed in touch. Over the next decade, they became best friends. In 1999, the stars finally aligned, and they were married. It was 17 months of absolute perfection until tragedy struck – he died in a plane crash at the age of 45.
In the devastating aftermath, Maria Cole determined to honor his memory by living out the dream they had both shared – moving to Montana, building a home and giving something back to the community. Jeff was born in Butte and graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism, and UM held a special place in his heart. It became Maria’s special place, too. She took a job at UM as a recruitment manager, then the coordinator for diversity retention and recruitment. She came to appreciate Montana all on her own.
When she decided to retire last April, Maria had some time to think not only about the future, but about the past.
“I boxed up everything of Jeff’s after he died,” she said. “There were over 35 boxes of materials. I tried for years to go through them – I just couldn’t do it. Finally, this summer, I did.”
What she found was a treasure trove from his 21- year career as a reporter at newspapers, including the Missoulian, Pioneer Press and The Wall Street Journal. Notebooks, story drafts, source interviews, even receipts from reporting trips.
“You could follow it and see the progression, how a story goes from draft to final product,” said Maria. “You can see the entire writing process.”
Now this collection has a permanent home at UM’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library Archives and Special Collections. Archivist Donna McCrea anticipates cataloging the collection and making it accessible by fall 2016.
Donating the collection is just one of the ways that Maria has honored Jeff’s memory and given back to UM. In the years since Jeff’s death, she has created the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, which brings a renowned journalist to campus for a public talk each year, and the Jeff Cole Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded annually to a promising journalism student. (See Grizzlies Going Places)
She recently made a provision in her will to ensure long-term support for these areas, as well as support for the Archives and Special Collections and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, where she devoted much of her time as a UM employee.
She feels her gifts are all connected – that being more aware of diversity policies and issues can help journalists excel at their careers, and that well-informed and educated journalism students will be more thoughtful, engaged reporters.
And she is exceedingly humble about her ability to give back.
“I feel so honored. I mean, who gets to do this? I feel so blessed to be in this position to do good things.”
Pictured above: (Top photo) Jeff and Maria Cole at their wedding. (Bottom photo) Maria Cole and Jake Green, a recipient of the Jeff Cole Memorial Scholarship.