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Joan Barron had a front seat to Wyoming history for 48 years.

She covered murders, grand juries, new state agencies, a groundbreaking public meetings law and 50 legislative sessions for the Casper Star-Tribune, where she has been a staff writer since 1966.

Barron, 85, will retire at the end of March.

She first wrote for the Star-Tribune while living in Rock Springs in 1966. Barron was taking a break from her first career as a nurse to raise her son and daughter when she saw an advertisement for a freelance writer to cover local stories there for the Star-Tribune.

She liked writing, she said. Writing for a newspaper was something she thought she could do from home.

Three years later, an editor asked her to replace a departing capital bureau reporter in Cheyenne. She started with a notebook and a typewriter in the Wyoming Capitol basement in 1969.

"I just came in cold," Barron said. "I would get the House and Senate mixed up and put someone in the wrong place or the wrong party."

By 1980, Barron became a resident expert, said Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Wyoming who wrote for the Associated Press in Cheyenne from 1980 to 1986.

"I've always been impressed with the respect [Barron earned] from the people she covered, as well as fellow reporters," Herman said.

Changing state

When Barron covered her first legislative session in 1971, three women served in the 93-member Legislature. Today, 15 women serve.

Barron recalled Stan Hathaway, a Republican who governed the state from 1967 to 1975, greeting crowds at news conferences by saying, "Gentlemen, and Joan."

Barron fought for access to land board and appropriations meetings because most government meetings at the time were closed. Those meetings did not open until 1973, when lawmakers passed the Wyoming Open Meetings Law.

Conflicts of interest were rampant among legislators when she started, Barron said. Most legislators were unaware such a thing could exist. She recalled legislators sponsoring, arguing and freely voting for bills that would create a sheep processing plant near their sheep farm and permit a pipeline through their land.

So Barron started asking questions. Lawmakers started paying attention. They passed ethics legislation, and declaring conflicts became more common.

"Then they got so they'd argue on a bill, and then declare a conflict after they argued it," Barron said. "I didn't like that, either."

During Barron's tenure, Wyoming went from having $80 in its general fund in 1968 to having a mineral trust fund worth $6.1 billion in 2013. 

People play nice when money is plentiful, she said. 

A debate over whether the state should finance a four-year medical school once brought legislators to tears in impassioned testimony, Barron said.

It was the only time she saw a caucus on an issue, rather than along party lines. 

"They just absolutely came to a total impasse," Barron said. "They didn't pass the budget."

Reporter strategies

Barron is not a schmoozer. She avoids lengthy small talk. She does not play hardball to coax her sources into divulging details.

She doesn't need to.

"I just know what I want to know," Barron said.

Wyoming legislators say they respect that.

"She's strictly business," Rep. Mike Madden, a Republican from Buffalo, said. "And that's very much appreciated by legislators."

Madden read Barron's recent column tracing the roots of an economic development bill that became law this year.  

"I thought to myself, 'There probably isn’t 2 percent of the legislators who know the history and genesis of that deal,'" Madden said.

State Speaker of the House Rep. Tom Lubnau, a Republican from Gillette, started reading Barron's column in the Star-Tribune 40 years ago. His father told him in the mid-1970s how good Barron was, and he's been reading her columns ever since.

"Joan has been a stable voice of reason," Lubnau said. "That voice will be missed."

In an age where consumers pick and choose their news sources, a fair reporter who will "tell it like it is" is important to good government, he said.

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, started a 25-year career as a reporter and editor for the Star-Tribune when Barron covered politics in Cheyenne. 

"It was so daunting just to see how much copy Joan Barron could turn out quickly," Neal said. "You just can't replace the knowledge that's in that brain."

What's next?

These days, Barron uses the elevator instead of climbing stairs to reach her third-floor office in the press room at the Capitol. The carpet at her desk has worn thin beneath her feet. 

On a recent Wednesday there, two sets of flowers sat on her desk near the window. It was her 85th birthday.

She will miss writing and politics, but Barron will continue writing a column for the Star-Tribune. Other than that, Barron said she hopes to spend more time at the gym and read books -- mostly history -- accumulating at home.

Of all the times she saw her name printed in her newspaper, she has never wanted to be the story.

"The fly on the wall, that's me," Barron said.

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Reach education reporter Leah Todd at 307-266-0592 or leah.todd@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter @leahktodd.

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