Odell, Mary Jane, 1923-2010
- Existence: 1923 - 2010
Television journalist and politician Mary Jane Neville Chinn Odell, the daughter of Eugene and Madge (Lewis) Neville, was born in Algona, Iowa, on July 28, 1923. She graduated from Algona High School in 1941 where she was class valedictorian. During the following year she attended Emmetsburg Junior College and then enrolled in The University of Iowa from which she graduated in 1945 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and radio. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and served as president of her senior class. In 1946 she married Gerald Chinn, a lawyer, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where she worked for KOY radio. Because of her husband's poor health and the desire to be near their family, the couple returned to Des Moines in late 1946. In June 1948 their son, Brad, was born, and in December 1949, a daughter, Chris, was born.
Beginning in 1955 Mary Jane Chinn hosted a variety of radio and television shows for KRNT, known today as KCCI Channel 8, in Des Moines. Among the "Mary Jane Chinn Show" formats were a weekly morning television show and a Friday night talk show for which she traveled extensively to interview guests. In 1966 Gerald Chinn died and Mary Jane Chinn resigned from KRNT-TV the following year.
After marrying John Odell, a marketing consultant, in 1967, she moved to Chicago. Two years later she joined the staff of WSNS-TV as a newscaster. From 1969 until 1975 Mary Jane Odell was a prominent public affairs interviewer and commentator. "The Big Story" on channel 44 (WSNS) was an hour-long nightly program. On Channel 32 Odell hosted a half-hour weekly program, "Point of View," and on WTTW she hosted public affairs specials for "Prime Time Chicago." Odell was honored for her achievements with two Chicago Emmy awards, one for her interview with a welfare mother on her program "The Big Story" in 1972, and the other in 1975 for her interview with Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski. She also taught classes in communications at Roosevelt University in Chicago during this time.
In 1975 Odell and her husband moved to Des Moines where she joined the staff of IPBN with a nightly half-hour interview show and "Assignment Iowa," weekly documentaries filmed on location throughout the state. She resigned in 1979 after IPBN eliminated the nightly show in favor of a weekly program.
During her television career Odell interviewed prominent political figures, actors, authors, musicians, and television personalities, including seven United States presidents, Eleanor Roosevelt, Johnny Carson, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, Pearl Buck, and Louis Armstrong.
In November 1980 Governor Robert Ray appointed Odell to fill a vacancy as Iowa's Secretary of State, making her only the second woman in Iowa's history to serve on the Executive Council. A year later she announced that she would seek the party's nomination for a regular term. She defeated her Republican opponent in the primary, and was elected in November 1982 to a four-year term. Two highly publicized issues with which she dealt were former governor Harold Hughes' eligibility to run as a Democratic nominee for governor (Hughes did not meet the residency requirement, having lived out of Iowa for several years); and a proposal to move the offices of the Secretary of State, Auditor, and Treasurer out of the State Capitol Building. Odell did not seek re-election, retiring on January 1, 1987. Her husband, John Odell, had died in 1984. She was married to Ralph Siegler from November 1987 through 2001.
Odell has been widely recognized for her contributions to broadcasting, television, politics, and the community. In 1973 she received the Communicator of the Year Award from the University of Oklahoma, in 1976 the Hancher-Finkbine Leadership Award from The University of Iowa, and in 1978 the George Washington Carver Meritorious Service Award for Community Race Relations from Simpson College, from which she also received an honorary doctorate in 1982. In 1979 Odell was elected to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1988 she received the H.R. Gross Award for Lifetime Contributions to Broadcasting and Public Service. She was president of the Iowa chapter, and national vice-president, of American Women in Radio and Television (AWRT) and also served on the executive board of the Iowa Peace Institute.