East Side It took five plane changes and 30 hours for 17-year-old Fortuna Calvo-Roth to reach Columbia, Missouri from Lima, Peru.
It was 1952, and Calvo-Roth was determined to study at the Missouri School of Journalism. At the time, it was unusual for women to travel alone, and even more rare for women to pursue college educations. For a 17 year-old to relocate to another continent without knowing anyone was unheard of.
For those who know Calvo-Roth, the move showed precisely the level of courage and determination that earned her a successful career in communications at a time when few women were present in the newsroom.
This month, Sen. Liz Krueger (D-NY) recognized Calvo-Roth’s remarkable achievements, by naming her a 2014 Woman of Distinction.
“When Senator Krueger’s office called for public nominations, Fortuna immediately came to mind,” said Pat O’Connell, a colleague of Calvo-Roth’s who also led a successful career in communications. “The nomination wrote itself, the only problem really was that there was so much to say.”
Looking at the last half-century of Calvo-Roth’s work, is difficult to choose an accomplishment to highlight. She finished Missouri’s four-year journalism program in two and a half years by taking exams to waive coursework, enrolling in summer sessions, and working at a local paper for credit.
As a reporter, she worked her way up through the ranks, starting as a New York correspondent for the Brazilian weekly Visao. Her work landed her a job at Vision, a nationally syndicated magazine, where she covered national and global affairs and served as a war correspondent, before becoming Editor-In-Chief. Ultimately, Calvo-Roth became the Editorial Director of Vision Inc.
“When I found the job with Vision, it was legwork,” she remembers. “I went into the office, and asked for the personnel manager, who wouldn’t even let me into her office. She sat me on a bench and said ‘can you take short hand.’ And I realized she thought I was asking a job as a secretary and I said, no, I want a job as a reporter. Can I speak to the editor? I can wait all day…so she didn’t know what to do, and so she left to talk to the managing editor…when she came back, she said he would see me.”
In addition to being the youngest editor at the magazine, Calvo-Roth was the only woman who held a top editorial position at a news magazine at the time. To reach the highest level, she had to gamble her job.
“In 1964, I was up for the top job with Vision, and my boss said, ‘Fortuna, we’ve decided to give your co-editor the job.’ And I said why? This is a Spanish-language magazine, he doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, I’ve been on the job longer and have seniority, I know I can do this job,” Calvo-Roth said. “My boss said, ‘we have three very good reasons. The first is you’re a woman, and this is a man’s magazine; number two, you’re very young; and number three, you’re Jewish.’ And, at the time, they could say that because this was 1964 and before equality was truly under legal protection.”
When her boss asked her if she understood, she assured him that she did – and also that she wouldn’t be sticking around the job to work under someone who didn’t deserve the position.
“And then they said, ‘wait, let’s not make rash decisions’ – and I ended up with the job,” she said.
Despite these challenges, Calvo-Roth chose to focus on creating opportunities and pursuing her passion instead of her unequal treatment.
“It’s difficult to understand, it was just a different culture. At the time, we weren’t thinking about it in terms of being discriminated against, it was part of life,” said Calvo-Roth. “When you’d come up against an experience, either you handled it, or you moved on. You didn’t dwell on it…I don’t know how many times I heard, that just isn’t done, but I just kept going.”
In addition to her successful journalism and editorial career, Calvo-Roth taught U.S. and Latin American Politics courses at Hofstra University and NYU, and is a past-president of New York Women in Communications. She currently co-owns an audio books company with her son, and lives with her husband of 57 years.
At a ceremony last week, Sen. Krueger presented Calvo-Roth the Women of Distinction award in Albany, New York.
“Senator Krueger called to tell me herself, and we had a long conversation,” Calvo-Roth said of her nomination. “It was very exciting, from the very moment Pat suggested nominating me, to receiving the award. An after the ceremony, the Senator took us to dinner with her staff, the whole experience was truly lovely.”
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