From journalism and finance to novelist, Story City native has experienced it all
Marj Charlier has come a long way since her days as a budding journalist for the Story City Herald and the school newspaper. A 1972 graduate of Roland-Story, Marj started out as a part-time reporter for the Herald while in high school, and for two years was the school news editor. Employment stints at the Happy Chef restaurant and the original Story City Drive In are but distant memories as well. After graduating high school, she attended Iowa State University, where she earned her BA in journalism, and immediately went to work for the Ames Tribune as a wire and copy editor. It wasn’t long before Marj began a “journalism journey” that would take her through all 50 states as well as several foreign countries.
Living in Iowa
Marj was born in 1953, the middle child of five children of John and Ruth Charlier. She remembers many aspects of growing up in the small community of Story City. Marj and her family moved to rural Story City from Hardin County when she was 5 years old, and into town when she was 10.
“What I remember best about growing up in Story City was the freedom we had as children,” said Marj. “In the summertime, Diane (Mathre) Larson (her best friend) and Larry Mathre and my brother Bruce and I had what we called the ‘Explorer’s Club’, with a plywood clubhouse we built on a slab of concrete behind Diane and Larry’s house. We explored all over town, and especially on the river, when my mom wasn’t making us shell peas or trim beans on the front porch of our house on Elm Avenue.”
Marj’s mother Ruth was an excellent gardener and she always enjoyed coming home when she was in college to help her plant, weed, harvest and can and freeze vegetables, apples and berries.
Marj also remembers working at the Story City Drive In on west Broad Street for a time in the late 1960s. She enjoyed working at the customer window because she loved the fast paced challenge of waiting on customers. She didn’t, however, particularly care too much for working at the cooking grill.
“It was at the Drive In where I watched the first moon landing (in 1969),” Marj remembers. “Last October, when I was visiting Story City, I ran into my old boss at the Drive In, and I was surprised that she remembered me.”
Through high school, Marj also worked as a waitress and hostess at the Happy Chef restaurant near the interstate.
“There were times when snow storms would strand interstate travelers at the restaurant overnight,” she recalls, “and we cooks and waitresses worked non-stop shifts around the clock. Everyone was exhausted, and tips usually fell to zero as families ran out of money. We often ran out of many food items, and I remember my father making emergency runs from town with baby formula and diapers, but there was a special camaraderie among the staff created by the ‘crisis’ that I’ll never forget. Mom and dad would also invite families with young kids to come home with them until they could travel again.”
During the summer of her junior year in high school, Marj traveled to Europe with a group of students from Ames. They visited the countries of Italy, Greece, Switzerland, France and England.
“(That trip) introduced me to a much bigger world and taught me a love of travel,” said Marj.
Since then she has traveled to South America more than a dozen times, taking in the pre-Inca archaeological sites that are not well known to most people.
The two summers following her freshman and sophomore years at Iowa State Marj began working full time at the Story City Herald.
“I worked at the Herald for Dick and Elly Thorson, where I built the experiences that allowed me to go straight to newspaper work when I graduated,” she remembers.
Marj also continued hostessing at Happy Chef in the evenings, burning the candle at both ends. “You would think it would have been exhausting, but when you’re young, you (feel) you can do anything,” she said.
Also, while at college in Ames, she became a member of the Skunk River Cyclists bicycle team. Marj also took part in the second year of the “great Iowa bike ride across Iowa” (SAGBRAI), as well as three ensuing years of RAGBRAI before moving out of state.
Marj recalls her friend Diane also owning a quilt shop in downtown Story City, where she also developed a love for quilting.
“I don’t have time or space for it anymore,” she said, “but I have many more quilts than I’ll ever need, thanks to her! I still love collecting them.”
Marj would finally leave the state of Iowa in 1978, but whenever asked where she’s from, her answer is always “Iowa!”
Marj’s favorite quote is from Gertrude Stein, who said: “You are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa, and really stranger, and you live as you live, and you are always very well taken care of if you come from Iowa.”
After leaving Story City, Marj went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison where she earned her master’s degree in journalism in 1980. She was also a teacher’s assistant in newspaper editing. From 1980-81 she worked for 18 months as a reporter for the Daily Journal in Kankakee, Illinois, before returning to the University of Wisconsin to become a journalism instructor, teaching feature writing and news writing.
Soon it was off to Billings, Montana to become the business editor of the Billings Gazette from 1982-84. It wasn’t long before the Wall Street Journal came calling, and she began a 12-year stint as a staff reporter.
Marj’s time at the Journal was an exciting experience, taking her to all 50 states at least once. Some of the stories she covered were memorable, including the farm crisis of the mid-1980s and the Chernobyl disaster. There were many corporate mergers and bankruptcies to cover, as most of the Journal readers were accustomed to reading. Marj wrote several dozen front page features on a wide variety of topics, from the fire at Storm King Mountain in Colorado that killed 14 firefighters, to a U.S. company’s efforts to build gold mines in South America and a profile of the man who started the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign.
Marj started her Wall Street Journal job as a member of the Chicago bureau before ending up as the bureau chief in Denver.
After 20 years in journalism, Marj decided it was time for a change, so she went back to school for the third time. This time she received her MBA in finance from Regis University in Denver in 1998. While attending school, she worked for Cyprus Amax Minerals and Amax Gold in the investor relations (IR) department.
As a vice president of IR, Marj soon became proficient in financial accounting and reporting for public companies, doing competitive and financial analysis. Her work in IR took her to companies such as Johnston-Wells Public Relations (1998-2000) in Denver before she was off to Seattle to join Expedia, Inc. (2000-2006) and RealNetworks, Inc. (2007-2013).
While at Expedia, Marj created and managed the company’s IR department, before taking on the company’s cause-related marketing program, the World Heritage Alliance; a partnership with the United Nations Foundation.
With 20 years of crunching numbers and analyzing financial data complete, it was time for another “life change” for Marj. Upon finishing her work in the financial world, she had never quite left her writing behind. She began dabbling in the role of fiction writer, self-publishing her first novel “Putt for Show” in 2013. Continuing with her writing, Marj has now written the sequel to “Putt for Show” entitled “Drive for Dough”, plus three other novels about women facing major career and life changes - “Hacienda”, “Professional Lies” and “Thwack!”
Marj now regularly appears at book signings and readings around Southern California. She and her husband Ben Miller, whom she met in 1989 while doing a story in Dallas, Texas, “retired” to Palm Springs full time in 2015 (they had been part time residents since 2004). Marj is also currently on the Palm Springs Writers Guild and enjoys playing golf.
“We both picked up (the game of) golf in 2003 when I was 50,” said Marj, “and play regularly here in Palm Springs and around the country on vacation.”
Marj is currently writing a seven-book series (Johnson Station) about a declining fictional town in Iowa that is trying to rebuild, “told through the eyes of six women ‘of a certain age’ whose career and life plans have suddenly been upended, and who are trying to re-invent themselves”.
“Each novel in the series moves the story forward in time and is told from the point of view of a different woman who plays a role in the town’s rebirth,” according to Marj’s website www.marjcharlier.com. “Filled with grace, humor and love, the stories follow them as they rebuild friendships and make new ones, honing perseverance, strength and talent. Not overly feminist in tone, the heroines are mature and educated professionals who discover personal power and a willingness to use it, while figuring out what comes next in their lives.”
Recently Marj took a break from her golf game and novel writing to return to her home state of Iowa, which she tries to do every year. This time, however, her trip took on an added bonus, as she was one of 10 writers chosen to attend a two-week Iowa Writers summer-intensive, novel-writing workshop, which just concluded last Friday (July 22). She didn’t make it to Story City this time, visiting her two aunts in Grinnell and her sister Barb in Waverly as part of her trip, but she plans to possibly return in October.
Marj will continue to stay in touch with family and friends in Iowa, including her best friend from kindergarten, Diane Larson. The two of them will always have many childhood memories to share, reminiscing about growing up in small town Story City.
“She (Diane) has forgiven me for all of my bad behaviors and embarrassments over time like no one but a best friend ever would,” stated Marj.
But Marj has nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of in her life. She has lived an adventurous and fulfilling life that has taken her on a journey that many of us can only imagine. It has been a rewarding life indeed, that isn’t over yet. Her writing path continues to evolve and prosper, with plenty more “journeys” left to come.