A local hero celebrated for career as influential female journalist
If you were to ask a group of Shorewood students if they recognized the name Dickey Chapelle, class of 1938, it is likely the question would bring looks of confusion. It is possible that even teachers or local residents would not be familiar with this incredible Shorewood graduate, whose accomplishments have long gone unknown for generations.
“I am amazed no one has heard of her,” said Maryann Lazarski, producer of “Behind the Pearl Earrings,” a recently released documentary chronicling Chapelle’s life. “She is someone who deserves to be remembered.”
Chapelle’s story is remarkable, and one that all Shorewood students should know. Chapelle was arguably one of the most influential female photojournalists and war correspondents in American history; her career spanned from World War II to the Vietnam War, and redefined photojournalism while paving the way for women to come. She would ultimately become the first female war correspondent killed in Vietnam, and the first American female reporter to be killed in action. November 4 marked the 50th anniversary of her death, and November 14 memorial service at Forest Home Cemetery, the site of Chapelle’s grave, celebrated her life and commemorated her contributions to journalism.
Chapelle was known for her love for adventure, devotion to informing the public and for the pair of pearl earrings she sported on the battlefield.
“She’s local, but her legacy touches everywhere. We need to make sure we preserve this history,” said Jackie Spinner, a modern combat journalist who has toured Iraq and Afghanistan.
Born in 1918, Chapelle was raised in Shorewood and attended Shorewood High School, where she was valedictorian as well as the editor-in-chief of Ripples.
Chapelle often attributed her skills as a writer to her time at SHS, and after graduating at age sixteen and attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; she applied the skills she had learned while in high school to photography and journalism. Though she began with little credentials, she soon was recruited as a photojournalist for National Geographic, reporting on wartime conflicts in World War II. Throughout her life, she reported as a photojournalist for conflicts in Algeria, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Hungary, and Cuba, returning back to the United States periodically.
Those in attendance at her memorial included her nieces and nephew, leaders and members in the Shorewood and Wisconsin Historical Societies and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, representatives from the Milwaukee Press Club, the American Legion Post 18 Honor Guard as well as marines from the Recruiting Station Milwaukee. Several renowned journalists also came to pay their respects.
“It was very nice and tasteful,” said Ron Chapelle, Chapelle’s nephew. “It’s always nice to see that people still remember her and care.”
Throughout the memorial service, attendees were invited to explore the extensive collection of photographs, army memorabilia and personal artifacts, such as her iconic bush hat, her camera, and letters she had written home.
Books displaying her writings and photographs were also exhibited.
The service included insightful comments by historical society and press club affiliates and a moving eulogy, and was followed by a motorcade to Chapelle’s gravesite, where a blessing was read and a wreath was laid.
Ceremonies concluded with a 21 gun salute and the playing of Taps.
Martha Rosemeyer, Chapelle’s niece, said she loved seeing her aunt’s writings that showed her as both a powerful recorder of worldly events and a loving family member.
“She was an [embedded journalist] before we even talked about embedded journalists. She was pioneering in so many ways. She was so much herself… her writing was just so alive,” said Rosemeyer. “ She was [also] very affectionate and loving towards her family.” Maintaining a sense of femininity was always important to Chapelle, who had, as a woman, pioneered and exceeded in a role that had then often been reserved for men.
“She was able to be a woman and she was able to do what she could do. She did it really successfully,” said Rosemeyer. She was part of a movement that pushed the bounds of what was acceptable for a woman in her day and proved that journalism functioned beyond the realm of gender definition.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman in a combat zone because in the end you are simply there to bear witness,” said Spinner.
Chapelle helped blaze the trail for all women seeking representation in the fields they are passionate about.
“I’m grateful for every woman who came before me because they make what I do possible,” said Spinner.
Today, a renewed recognition of Chapelle’s legacy has seen her inducted into to the Milwaukee Press Club Hall of Fame in 2014, featured in a documentary in 2015 and several books. Shorewood remembers this heroine with a plaque as part of the Tradition of Excellence display in the Library Media Center at the high school — her memory has also been commemorated by the efforts of the Shorewood Historical Society, which has been involved with various projects about Chapelle, including the documentary “Behind the Pearl Earrings,” which was shown in the Shorewood High School Auditorium earlier this month.
Karen de Hartog, President of the Shorewood Historical Society, says that Chapelle is an example of someone who followed their passion, and someone with guts as well as passion.
“We are proud to claim Dickey one of our own,” said de Hartog in her comments at the memorial service. “Dickey really got her foundation as a writer at Shorewood High School … Her yearning for adventure had its basis here too.”
Chapelle’s story continues to be an inspiration.
“It’s gratifying to know that people continue to find inspiration in her life. The most rewarding [thing] is the gathering of the people who have been inspired by her life,” Rosemeyer said.
The memorial honoring Chapelle’s death fifty years after the fact left many feeling empowered and reflective.
“I feel like it was a moving memorial to her life. It was a celebration of her life and her contributions — not everyone has memorials has fifty years after their death,” said Rosemeyer.
Chapelle’s contributions to the world were both courageous and important, as well as inspiring for many.
Her story began in Shorewood, and, years after her death, her legacy remains a part of her hometown’s identity.
“I think that she inspires people to take risks,” said Rosemeyer. “She took the risk to be who she was, and that’s a message for all of us.”
by Celeste Carroll and Sydney Widell