Valerie Bender was a talented and tough journalist who broke barriers and stared down challenges in a 40-year-career that took her from a reporter in Florida to publisher of the Merced Sun-Star.
In her career, Mrs. Bender fought to be heard and recognized in male-dominated newspaper management circles. In 20 years at The Fresno Bee, she rose from features editor to assistant managing editor, director of community publications to vice president of custom publications.
“If you gave her a task, it got done better than you expected,” said Mrs. Bender’s husband, Andrew Bender.
Mrs. Bender died Friday in Fresno at age 60 after a seven-year battle with breast cancer.
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Life is precious and while it’s easy to ask ‘Why me?’, the most important thing is still family and friends
Being named president and publisher of the Merced Sun-Star in February 2014 fulfilled a goal she had striven to achieve, Andrew Bender said. “She finally made it, but a little bit too late, unfortunately.”
Mrs. Bender worked almost nonstop throughout her illness. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she came back to The Bee full time within months after chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy. She continued to work steadily until the cancer returned in fall 2014, and even then she persisted at her job. She reluctantly retired in November 2015.
She set a high standard for herself and expected others to set the same bar for themselves. But while demanding excellence, she offered co-workers encouragement and support, and Mrs. Bender, who people compared to the feminist icon Rosie the Riveter, became a role model for others.
Kathy Mahan, features editor at The Bee, turned to Mrs. Bender for advice. “Journalism is not an easy career path, especially for an inexperienced, ambitious young woman who wanted to find her way as an editor in a demanding newsroom,” said Mahan, who was in her 20s when she met Mrs. Bender. “Valerie taught me to trust myself, to embrace my creativity, to have confidence, to stand up for myself and ask for what I wanted.”
Throughout my life, I knew my mom was strong but I didn’t know she was SUPERWOMAN strong! I hope the strength she has showed me has been passed down into my genes
Daughter Lauren Bender
Lauren Bender, 26, a recreational therapeutic riding instructor, said her mother fought cancer with every ounce of strength she had. “Throughout my life, I knew my mom was strong but I didn’t know she was SUPERWOMAN strong!” she said in an email. “I hope the strength she has showed me has been passed down into my genes … ”
Mrs. Bender made sure she was a good mom, and “she raised an amazing daughter,” said Keith Moyer, a former publisher at The Bee and longtime friend. The two met as journalism students at the University of Florida. A scholarship has been set up in Mrs. Bender’s name at the university’s College of Journalism.
Mrs. Bender could show a hard exterior, but she was a sweet and caring person, Moyer said. “Right under the surface was someone who just loved people and someone who was very social and really liked people and cared about them genuinely.”
“Val’s contributions to The Fresno Bee during her 20-year span were significant and numerous,” said Tom Cullinan, The Bee’s publisher and president. “You could always count on Val to tackle every assignment and project with determination and perfection. She was a dedicated member of our senior management team and a valued colleague to all of us at the newspaper.”
Jim Boren, executive editor of The Bee, said: “A friend like Valerie doesn’t come along very often, and I was blessed to know her. She laughed with gusto, shared herself with enthusiasm and got a kick out of bringing together people who loved life. I will forever remember the great passion she brought to her work, and the fun she had doing it.”
Mrs. Bender had the capacity to bring friends with disparate interests and diverse backgrounds together. Hundreds of people came to visit her at the hospital during the final months of her illness, and hundreds more went to the family’s home and to hospice to see her, Andrew Bender said. “The doorbell never stopped ringing. It was kind of unbelievable, and shocking, almost.”
Longtime Florida friend Leslie Poole, who worked at the Lakeland Ledger in Florida with Mrs. Bender in 1979, visited this past year. “Valerie loved her family, friends and community with a ferocious passion,” Poole said. “We are better for having known her but now share a loss that can’t be replaced.”
Women in the community benefited from Mrs. Bender’s determination to spread the word about breast cancer. She took time to talk to women she met about getting mammograms, Andrew Bender said. A cyst led to the detection of her cancer, but she was pro-mammogram, he said.
She joined a support group – one populated by women younger than herself – and fit right in. Leslie Batty, 45, a Fresno artist and breast cancer survivor, said Mrs. Bender was a role model for members of the Sistah’s Just Surviving group. “Valerie gave us an example of how to handle these things that life gives us – how to handle them with strength, integrity and grace.”
Mrs. Bender forged a special friendship with Batty, championing the artist’s work early in her career. “She just always, in her very steady way, she always encouraged me and lifted me up and was just an advocate for what I was doing.”
Art held a special place in Mrs. Bender’s life. She served on the board of trustees of the Fresno Art Museum. “She was amazing in her support of the arts, and not just for the art museum but for Arte Américas, for young artists just getting started … you name it, and she and Andy were supporting it,” said Linda Cano, former executive director at the art museum who now is at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.
A native of Houston who grew up in Florida, Mrs. Bender began her journalism career working as a reporter at The Lakeland paper in Florida and for The Virginian Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. Before coming to The Bee, she worked as managing editor at the Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal. As deputy managing editor at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, she had been in charge of graphics, photos and design.
Her flair for design is what led her to her two-decade career with McClatchy newspapers. Moyer hired her in 1995 to be The Bee’s features editor.
At the time of her hire, then-Assistant Managing Editor Rick Vacek said her work “is going to be a treat for readers of The Bee” and noted Mrs. Bender’s “keen eye for design.” Within two years, she became assistant managing editor, responsible for the features, photo and graphics departments. Tapping her design skills, she was put in charge of newspaper presentation.
During her years at The Bee, Mrs. Bender designed eye-popping pages that drew readers into stories. She was in such demand as a newspaper designer that former Bee Publisher Ray Steele said editors across the country requested her help. “I used to get upset,” Steele said. “She was pirated by other McClatchy papers to make their papers more appealing and we’d lose her for weeks at a time.”
She was pirated by other McClatchy papers to make their papers more appealing and we’d lose her for weeks at a time.
Ray Steele, former Fresno Bee publisher
In 2003, she became director of community publications at The Bee, which included The Clovis Independent and Vida en el Valle. She took to her new position, saying “if we want to touch people’s lives, there is no better place than in our community publications.”
The Bee recognized her skills and dedication and three years later promoted her to vice president of custom publications, which included specialty print products in addition to The Clovis Independent and Vida en el Valle.
In February 2014, Mrs. Bender was named president and publisher of the Merced Sun-Star while continuing her role with community publications for McClatchy Newspapers’ California publications.
She embraced her move to Merced, saying “the only way I can know this community is to be a part of it. I can’t imagine being the publisher and not living in this city. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mrs. Bender was soft-spoken and quiet but had a sense of humor and enjoyed a good party, Moyer said. He and Poole were at the wedding of Valerie and Andrew Bender. “It was a huge Jewish wedding” with chairs up on the shoulders, Moyer said.
Andrew Bender, a former Fresno Bee advertising executive, said the couple met on a blind date that he almost canceled.
Set up by friends, the date was his 10th since a divorce, and the nine previous match-ups had been disastrous. He agreed to go out with the then-Valerie Nagler to appease his friends.
But from that first date, Andrew Bender said, “We basically never left each other.”
They just clicked, he said. “I felt like I always knew her. After I met her I felt like I knew her all my life.” The couple were engaged in three weeks and married within five months.
Mrs. Bender embraced life head-on, with no reservations, and Andrew Bender said she “fought like hell” not to let breast cancer take it away.
On Dec. 24, 2010, Mrs. Bender detailed her initial diagnosis and cancer treatment for a story for The Bee.
She wrote: “I vowed early on not to let cancer overtake my life. Like anything else, it was just a bump in the road, an inconvenience. I went to work every day except for chemo days. Even when I didn’t feel great, when my energy level was low, I dragged my ass to work.”
And she refused to give up her sense of humor, telling of a setback in her recovery: “My implants dropped (I say my boobs fall and they wouldn’t get up).” And chided herself about getting a first and only tattoo. “How will I ever explain this to my daughter, who we’ve forbidden to get a tattoo until she’s paying her own bills?”
Mrs. Bender also had peace, knowing breast cancer couldn’t rob her of what she valued most – and it didn’t.
“Life is precious, and while it’s easy to ask ‘Why me?’, the most important thing is still family and friends … I have a husband and a daughter who love me.”
In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Valerie Bender can be made to the following charities:
Project R.I.D.E. Inc. Recreational Therapeutic Horseback Riding, 8840 Southside Ave., Elk Grove, CA 95624.
Please note on contribution that this is for Valerie’s Memorial Fund
University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, P.O. Box 14425, Gainesville, FL 32604
Contributions can be made out to “UF Foundation Fund F003717;” and in the memo area, please write “Valerie Nagler Bender Memorial.”
Born: Nov. 14, 1955
Died: May 6, 2016
Occupation: Retired journalist, former Merced Sun-Star publisher
Survivors: Husband Andrew, daughter Lauren Bender, brothers Joel, Fred, Bruce, Malcolm Nagler and sister Laurel Nagler
Services: Friday, May 20, 1 p.m. at Temple Beth Israel