At the University of Colorado-Boulder in the mid-1960s, Sandy Michel decided to study advertising in the journalism school. First, though, she was required to take an introductory newswriting class. Her focus changed: Newswriting was more creative than she expected and she put advertising aside.
“I decided I’d rather write about people than products,” said Sandy, now Sandy Michel Nance.
People have been at the core of her work for more than five decades. Sandy, CPW’s 2020 Communicator of Achievement, has worked tirelessly to advance women professionally, ensure that the public understands the importance of a strong free press, give back to people in her community, and help transform Press Women into a more relevant organization. In short, Sandy exemplifies the well-rounded professional that the National Federation of Press Women recognizes with its Communicator of Achievement Award.
“Sandy is an exceptional woman,” said Sandy Graham, a CPW board member and 1997 and 2005 COA recipient. “’Her newspaper career covered a myriad of experiences – plus her publisher nominated her for a Pulitzer. In her ensuing public relations career, she fought workplace harassment and championed expanded opportunities for women. Her CPW work has been critically important to the organization. I doubt we’d have a Colorado affiliate without her!”
Born in Denver in 1946 and raised in the suburb of Wheat Ridge, Sandy is the eldest of three girls. (The “bossy first-born,” she says.) Sandy’s mother, an excellent writer herself, advised young Sandy not to marry before she explored the world and a career. Upon her 1968 graduation among CU’s top journalism students, Sandy first was offered, disappointingly, a job as society writer at a Wisconsin paper. Learning that United Press International was hiring, she landed a job in the UPI Cheyenne office, turned down the Badger State and headed for the Cowboy State.
In Cheyenne, Sandy worked for Pete Kelly, a veteran wire service editor who could take a handful of raw notes and compose articles directly on the teletype on deadline – with cigarettes burning in multiple ashtrays around the bureau. Saturday nights often found Sandy and Pete and the third bureau staffer having too many martinis in a local watering hole. Sunday, Sandy opened the bureau at 8 a.m., sometimes a little worse for wear!
Sandy left UPI late in 1968, in part because one UPI client newspaper editor told the higher-ups that he “didn’t want a woman in his UPI bureau,” Sandy recalled. “Women weren’t equal. It was an uphill battle to be a woman in journalism then.”
She joined the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune where she covered a myriad of beats: the legislature, state government, federal, state and local courts, law enforcement, local government, schools and general assignment. Her publisher nominated Sandy for a Pulitzer for her coverage of the search for a boy lost in the Wyoming high country and found alive after 11 days. Her stories were picked up by news media from all over the nation and The Associated Press bought Sandy’s photo of the boy in the hospital. Later, Sandy sold the boy’s tale to Redbook magazine. She also received a special award from the Wyoming Press Association for her work covering the state legislature.
In 1972, Sandy married and returned to Colorado. Although the marriage later ended, Sandy was back in Colorado to stay. She was hired by the corporate public relations department of Mountain Bell, a part of AT&T’s nationwide telephone network, for its weekly company newspaper, which went to 40,000 employees in seven states. She became editor of the paper the next year.
She later moved to Pueblo as PR manager for southern Colorado and then back to Denver for good. There, she took on one of her favorite assignments of her career: creating, training and managing community relations teams in each of Mountain Bell’s seven states.
She excelled in her work. One of her PR campaigns about long-distance carrier selection won a Gold Pick award from the Colorado affiliate of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She later contributed a sales video to the company marketing communications team effort that won another Gold Pick award.
She also was tapped to form the public relations department for a short-lived U S WEST subsidiary, and then moved to public relations for the Information Technologies branch of the company. During her last six years with the company, Sandy served as public relations specialist for a series of U S WEST vice presidents.
She is most proud, however, of her seminal work to help women in the company advance professionally. When AT&T’s 1973 Equal Employment Opportunity consent decree (to eliminate discriminatory recruiting, hiring and promotion practices against women and minorities) was expiring in 1978, Sandy was among the forward-looking female employees who saw need to continue the pressure by creating an official employee resource group, Mountain Bell Women in Management (WM). Formed to encourage networking and empower women to reach the upper ranks of management in Mountain Bell, WM grew to more than 700 members, and Sandy, as WM’s first president from 1979 to 1980, began meeting with the gray-haired, white male officers of the company. She persuaded them to back the “radical feminist idea” of supporting female employees through WM.
Sandy also discussed women’s advancement issues with other companies inside and outside the Bell System and was instrumental in the creation of New Mexico and Arizona WM chapters. Eventually all seven Mountain Bell states had chapters. In 1982, the Bell System agreed to an anti-trust consent decree that two years later broke the monopoly into pieces open to competition — a long distance company and seven independent regional companies. Mountain Bell became U S WEST, and WM became U S WEST Women throughout the new company’s 14 states. For many years, U S WEST was recognized by several women’s magazines as one of the best places in the country for women to work.
Sandy is proud that WM not only helped women advance at the telecom company but also helped with other issues such as aiding parents’ search for quality childcare.
In 1996, Sandy took an early retirement offer from U S WEST but was far from ready to take it easy! She completed her master’s degree in language and communication in 1999 at Denver’s Regis University and then taught Public Relations as an adjunct faculty member at Regis from 2000 to 2010 and at Metropolitan State College of Denver from 2003 to 2004.
In 2005, Sandy became the managing editor of publications for American Water Works Association, an industry organization that works internationally to promote safe drinking water. Quickly learning the technical and political details of this complex industry, she wrote for AWWA’s biweekly subscription newsletter, a membership newspaper and e-publications. She left in 2011, retiring in earnest. Sandy also has been a freelance writer as vice president of the consulting firm, The Speaker’s Counsel, Inc. And she earned her APR (Accredited in Public Relations) designation from PRSA.
Sandy initially joined the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) as a reporter in Wyoming where she served as secretary. She stayed active after moving to Denver, becoming president of the Colorado SPJ chapter in 1984. While working for Mountain Bell in Pueblo, Sandy was invited to social gatherings of local Colorado Press Women members and was impressed by their intelligence and friendliness. She joined CPW in 1978. She says she felt “at home” as a Press Women member.
For 42 years, Sandy has been a devoted and involved member of CPW. She has served twice as CPW president, once from 2002-2004 and again for the past five years. As president, she also has taken on the duties of website manager and membership chair. (Membership is holding steady.) Earlier, Sandy was CPW’s program chair, vice president, publicity chair, contest chair and twice head of the committee that selected the Communicator of Achievement.
“I always regretted leaving journalism. Being involved in CPW has been my way to give back to journalism while also supporting women’s equality,” Sandy said.
Other members recognize and appreciate her contributions.
“Sandy has been an invaluable member of CPW for decades,” said Marilyn Saltzman, past president of CPW and a two-time COA herself. “She has worked tirelessly to keep the chapter vibrant and relevant.”
Ruth Anna, past CPW and NFPW president and CPW COA recipient, says Sandy has been a lifesaver for CPW. Like many professional and service organizations, CPW has grappled in recent years with an aging and shrinking membership.
“CPW would have folded several years ago if it wasn’t for Sandy’s strength of leadership,” Ruth said. “Gifted with the art of persuasion driven by a deep well of pure grit, she kept our affiliate engaged and alive. As our president she spearheaded numerous successful initiatives and offered compelling events that attract new and younger professionals. She was a pillar of strength during uncertain times.”
Sandy is most proud of helping CPW take a larger role in promoting news literacy education in Colorado. CPW has partnered with other organizations to help teach people to sort truth from untruth in this contentious age. In addition, CPW has teamed with the venerable Denver Women’s Press Club on joint events of interest to female writers and communicators, and has continued to take an active role on the board of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
With an eye toward improving CPW’s use of electronic communications and drawing new members, Sandy also undertook the redesign of the CPW website with contract help, and continues to serve as the organization’s web mistress. She also initiated the use of PayPal for CPW events.
For NFPW, Sandy helped plan the 2006 national conference that CPW hosted in Denver and found sponsors for the 1983 conference in Vail. She frequently attended national conventions through the years and served as protocol chair for the 2002 and 2003 conferences. She volunteered as NFPW marketing committee director in 2009. She has accepted numerous state and national awards from Press Women’s Communication Contest, including national first place wins for public relations campaigns, web writing and audiovisuals-original videotape.
The community at large also has benefitted from Sandy’s expertise and energies. She was appointed by the Wheat Ridge City Council to serve from 2015 to 2018 on its Cultural Commission, which fosters cultural enrichment and educational opportunities for city residents. From 1998 to 2002, Sandy served on the board of directors of the Arapahoe House Recovery Foundation, which helps people living with substance use illnesses. She chaired a public relations committee tasked with raising that organization’s visibility. Earlier in the 1990s, Sandy lent her expertise to the public relations committee of Family Tree, which works to end homelessness, domestic violence and child abuse. In 1982, the YWCA honored Sandy as a Woman of Achievement.
Sandy loves to sing – and would gladly have become a gospel and blues singer, had the opportunity presented itself. She has performed with choral groups throughout her life, including the Arvada Center Chorale, the Rhythm of Life Community Chorus, WestSide Chorale, the Lutheran Chorale, the Wheat Ridge Community Chorale, the Pueblo Symphony Chorus, the Sweet Adelines and Casper Community Theater. She was part of the steering committee that formed the Colorado Repertory Singers in 2002 and wrote successful grants for the choral group until 2006. An alto, she shone especially as a classical soloist. She led NFPW members in singing during the 2019 memorial service.
When she isn’t listening to classical, jazz or blues music, Sandy enjoys bird watching and tending her garden filled with roses and iris as well as doing historical research for a screenplay she’s working on. She has been married to John Nance since 1983. She has a daughter, Tracy; a stepson, Devon; a stepdaughter, Nicole; and granddaughters Quinn, Sydney, Bailee and Savannah.
Lynn Kelly, Sandy’s friend and a public relations practitioner, says this about the personal side of Sandy’s life: “Sandy is a loving wife, and mother, ever ready with photos of her little granddaughter. I can’t name the number of hours she spent supporting her daughter’s love of horses and her involvement in Jefferson County’s non-profit riding club.”
Top-notch professional. Dedicated Press Woman. Community volunteer. Selfless mom, wife and friend. For these reasons and more, Colorado Press Women is honored to nominate Sandy Michel Nance for Communicator of Achievement.
Story by Sandy Graham