A Woman Who Has Never Taken Up Space

Vija Udenans props her right knee up against her white wooden desk. Her hands clasp and form a net around her kneecap and her voice is often interrupted by a high pitched ding of an incoming email on her blackberry. The director of broadcast operations at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. wears a dark grey suit accompanied by a navy floral scarf whose ends are clipped together by a round silver brooch. On the right side of her desk is a glass vase holding a bouquet of multicolored lilies that produce an inviting mood enhancing fragrance. Her dirty blond hair falls at a length adjacent to her chin and her posture remains intact considering the weight of responsibilities she carries around. Her finger gently grazes the rim of her navy National Press Club coffee mug and her make-up free eye lids widen as she honestly reveals her impressions of Diane Sawyer, a fellow woman journalist who recently visited the Press Club.

“She has made a wonderful success of her career. She has gotten the interviews and information,” says Udenans, 58, a former correspondent for Sawyer’s ABC bureau. “Sawyer makes a salary that no one else makes and she does not live in the reality that everyone else in the journalism world lives in.”

Udenan’s journalism career was a rapid progression from secretary at NBC to Foreign News Correspondent at ABC to director of broadcast at The National Press Club.  She was not discouraged by discriminations against her sex and remains determined to utilize all her journalist attributes for the rest of her career. Udenans hopes to still be working at the Press Club and living at her home in Bethesda Maryland with her two cats and 10 cactus plants that were the only things that survived her non-stop travel with ABC News to many foreign countries.

Udenans was hired by The National Press Club in October 2010 as Director of Broadcast Operations. “I was offerered this opportunity to run the department and use all the skills I’ve had before,” says Udenans eyeing her blackberry. She leads a team of Press Club employees who shoot, edit, transmit and post video of the events held at the Press Club and other locations. The broadcast team produces these packages for clients, including broadcasters like CNN, government officials and corporations.  By accepting the position Udenans dramatically changed her everyday life as a journalist.

“I’ve covered the White House for 16 years and that was non-stop travel and ABC was dying,” she says while picking up her navy mug and swishing the coffee in a circle. The resources were no longer there and people were being let go. I had given everything I possibly ever could but there was nothing more I could contribute. I could use my business skills, my reporting skills, the management, the production. Everything I have done along the way I can put it to use here,” says Udenans, who has met many newsmakers including George Clooney and Tiger Woods while working at the Press Club.

A typical day for Udenans involves reading and listening to many news sources including WTOP, NPR and The Wall Street Journal. After arriving to the fourth floor of the National Press Building, Udenans is bombarded with emails and requests for press releases from many media outlets.  She is the only office with a television that constantly updates her on unraveling breaking news stories around the world.  Her dedication and consideration of every news corporation is commended by many of the employees and her career “speaks for itself and meets the highest standards of the industry,” according to former president of the Press Club Alan Bjerga.

Joshua Funk, director of Business Development at the Press Club works closely with Vija to produce the Press Club Rewind, a weekly piece that highlights the events of the past week at the Press Club. As a young adult in the business Funk is amazed at Udenans dedication and professionalism considering the amount of clients and media she coordinates.

“Her news intelligence is unsurpassed in selecting sound bites and creating compelling, creative content that provides a superior example to aspiring young journalists,” says Funk.  Udenans earned this reputation after producing and contributing to the ABC bureau in Washington D.C. for over 20 years. Her work was not unnoticed and she won many awards including the highest honors of broadcasting: The Peabody Award, for her coverage of September 11th. Udenans was always interested in photography and media but did not predict the successful life she now lives.

Vija Udenans was born Saturday June 7, 1952 in Detroit Michigan where her parents still reside today.  Her parents came over from Latvia after World War II with intentions of returning back to the European country but settled instead in the Midwestern U.S.  Her Latvian ancestry explains her unusual name Vija, which means “beautiful” or “fascinating” in Latvian. Udenans is bilingual and only began to learn English in grade school.

“I switch from one language to the other and I don’t even feel it,” says Udenans with a loud burst of laughter. “People ask me what language I dream in, I can’t really tell you. I guess it depends on who I am dreaming about.”

Udenans attended Michigan State College where she took courses in the communications department. For her last few credits Udenans studied abroad at London Polytechnic University. While writing a research paper on American network operations overseas Vija received the opportunity that would propel her into the field of journalism.  She contacted the NBC bureau in London and visited the location on many occasions. However, she was rarely able to speak about her paper and was often asked to answer phones and send Telexes. Ironically, her willingness to contribute for nothing in return resulted in her first job opportunity with a major news outlet.

“So that was my intro to journalism. I was willing to pitch in and do whatever and take the opportunity and learn from it. I recommend this is the way: be willing to work for nothing.  My course work was ending in London and I got a call from a journalist at NBC in New York who asked if I was willing to work for them,” says Udenans, smiling at the irony of her past situation.

Udenans started her career during a time unfamiliar to many woman journalists nowadays. Her abilities were questioned by many men in the field and she was even brought to NBC as a secretary even after she proved her capabilities in London.

“There were some men in this category that were still discriminating against woman every day,” says Udenans, after answering a phone call from a CNN reporter, which inadvertently shows off her success despite those remarks toward her sex in the past. “I had one instructor in a TV production class, he was older around  50 or 60 at the time said ‘you are taking up space in this classroom, you should be at home making babies and not taking up space’ so those are the kind of things that I heard often.”

Udenans surprisingly does not wish she was covering the recent foreign news coming out of Egypt and Libya considering the danger of some of those situations. However, this is not to say she hasn’t covered foreign events of this magnitude in the past.  Her most memorable foreign excursion was to Saudi Arabia to cover George Hubert Walker Bush’s speech to the troops. Udenans had to brave the intense climate changes and was told Iraqi soldiers may have been advancing toward the ABC base she was working from.  Besides this trip Udenans has traveled to almost 60 countries around the world and has spoken to many famous newsmakers that make Clooney seem rather irrelevant.

“I have been to pretty much every country in Asia and Europe,” says Udenans. I have not done Africa besides Egypt and almost every South American and Central American country. When you are traveling with the president (Udenans traveled with both Clinton and Bush) you can hit anywhere from three to eight countries in one trip.” Udenans does not seem fazed by her interactions with famous celebrities at the Press Club. She appears interested by causes rather than specific people for instance she is interested in efforts made in Sudan and cannot specifically recall a memorable person she has come in contact with.

“Clooney yea he was whatever… I mean I am hard to impress these days because I have seen almost everybody,” says Udenans. She believes if she had to interview one other person before the end of her career it would be the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. “She is a truly creditable woman considering that she has gone from being the wife of the president, to a senator to now the Secretary of State.”

For now Udenans remains comfortable while living in her apartment in Bethesda Maryland. She is unmarried but spends a lot of time cooking for friends on the weekends. She remains in contact with past colleagues from ABC in New York and enjoys reminiscing about the memorable moments they spent traveling together.

“When not working her normal 80-90 hours a week, Vija actually finds time to enjoy the open water and sailing,” says Nanette Belanger, a close friend of Udenans from New York City. “She also enjoys time spent in the kitchen and around the table with friends sharing her love of fine foods and wines.  Vija is working on completing her culinary course work to become a master chef!  Believe me, an invitation to dinner is always a memorable event! A truly remarkable woman.

In the future Udenans still wants to work at the Press Club and feels that the organization is growing and is one of the places that will still be around in the future for journalists and the media regardless of the changing times. Her office surrounded by glass walls will remain a popular location for questions, comments, advice and inquires from the press and employees.

“Vija’s dedication to professionalism is unprecedented, she always wants to make sure she gets the right client and has no problem standing up for anyone and getting them what they deserve,” says Ryan Dillenback, an editor for the Broadcast communications department. Dillenback recalls a time when Udenans actually saved his job at the Press Club. “She saved my career,” he adds. Udenans takes the characteristics of a good journalist seriously and realizes that the popular alternative is not always the right choice, an idea she preaches to her employees and is reciprocated by most.

“I think to be responsible to be credible and to be honest and decent really matters and if you treat everyone that way it will reflect on everything else,” says Udenans, as she spins her silver Latvian ring around her finger with her thumb. The ring is a seven day good luck ring given to Latvian girls by their parents when they are 15. Each charm is a different symbol for the sun, the moon and the star revealing Latvians dedication toward agrarian values.

Udenans stands up to greet a new client who is passing through the Broadcast Operations Center. Her voice changes tone and becomes more serious and less conversational as she explains the new High Definition cameras the center has recently purchased. As she sits back down she clears her throat and runs her long unpolished fingers through her hair. Her attention is directed to the television in the corner that is running the latest updates on Libya. She remains humble while describing the honor of receiving the Peabody Award for her coverage of September 11th.

“I guess people really appreciated that my team was out on the streets of D.C. when everyone else was home watching the coverage at home,” she adds while ushering another client into her office. “So winning the Peabody for covering a day that really scared the shit out of me was like well ok, I’ll take it. Thank you,” says Udenans while walking out of her office to attend a meeting.

Casey Shingledecker