Not long after moving to recession-riddled Bend in 1981, and six months after finding a full-time job, Cameron Prow was fired. Four months later, after she'd begun offering her secretarial skills on a freelance basis, the man who fired her came to her door seeking help with a resume.
“I'd have liked to tell him to get lost, but I needed the work,” says 62-year-old Prow.
A Willamette Valley native, Prow, her then-husband and young son had relocated to Central Oregon because both adults had visited here as children and enjoyed the climate. But as it turned out, Bend was dramatically different than the larger cities west of the Cascades that Prow was accustomed to.
“I left a job in the valley that paid $1,100 month, and here I was lucky if I was offered $400,” Prow recalled. “There was a huge vacancy rate in commercial buildings downtown, which was rolled up at 5 p.m., anyway. And women were very much a minority in business and civic circles. It was like entering the Twilight Zone.”
Now, 32 years later, Prow looks back from a front-row seat through some of the most challenging and ambitious times in Central Oregon. She graduated from freelance typist and editor to a steady career as transcriptionist for local government, a seat that provided a view of recent history only a few can boast they've seen.
As the family breadwinner — her husband was enrolled at Central Oregon Community College — Prow quickly realized she'd have to create her own career.
She met a woman getting out of the secretarial service business and bought her Selectric typewriter for $700. She had business cards printed up and took out an ad in the Yellow Pages.
“I made $400 that first year,” Prow said.
In the days before personal computers, spell check and word processing software, secretarial services were in high demand. Prow typed research papers, manuscripts, contracts, manuals and textbooks. She created résumés, copy edited and eventually segued into transcription.
“The business changed over time,” said Prow, who has no college degree. “At first I just typed things; then I started suggesting ways to improve it. Then I started editing.”
When she started providing transcriptionist services to the city of Bend, Prow saw an opportunity.
“Meeting minutes can be boring as heck to read,” she says. “And while it's important to get all the legal requirements in, I wanted to capture the historic context of the issue(s), so someone down the road could read the minutes and have a good understanding of the thinking that went into the decisions.”
Prow's job isn't stenography. She takes notes of what transpires at meetings of local advisory boards, then fashions them into a narrative that describes who said what and records what, if any, decisions are made.
Cutting to the chase is Prow's specialty, according to Redmond Planning Manager James Lewis, who has worked with her for more than 20 years at various governmental organizations.
“Cameron does a really great job of capturing the highlights without getting lost in the minutiae, and that's hard to do,” he says. “We chat sometimes after the meetings, and it's clear she has a strong understanding of the issues. She could easily be running any of those boards or commissions.”
The 1990s, when the transcription side of Prow's business took off, was a crazy time for public agencies in Central Oregon.
“I had a ringside seat to all the things happening in the region,” she said. “Many of the longtime residents wanted things to stay the same and they viewed newcomers with suspicion.”
Sitting through endless meetings on land use, historic landmarks, economic development and budgets, listening carefully to testimony, both impassioned and dull, is not an easy gig.
Today, Prow works for the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, Deschutes County and the city of Redmond, taking notes at meetings of city committees and advisory boards.
“In those first years, my tongue got pretty sore (from biting it),” she says. “Sometimes, I could see so clearly what the issue was, even though the discussion was going around in circles. I had so much to say, and could not say it. I was the recording secretary; not the talking secretary.”
Policy to poetry
A career with few opportunities to contribute her own opinions, a difficult relationship with her parents and life, eventually, as a single parent led to a need to express herself. The occasional poetry Prow had been writing for years started to become more frequent. She took creative writing and poetry classes, signed up for workshops and joined a writers' group.
Prow started her journey by taking a new name — she was christened Barbara — and seeking venues for her writing. Her work began to be published in magazines, newspapers and anthologies.
“I was raised in a home where children had no power. You did what you were told and said nothing. Our parents are our first teachers, although, not necessarily our best. And we look to them to tell us what the world is and what it can be,” she said. “If we're fortunate, we have parents who can look beyond their own stuff to help us — but I didn't have that. I had to figure out things for myself.”
As Prow's business grew, she was able to express herself a bit more by working with authors, editing their manuscripts. But during her other work as a transcriptionist, it's been much the same.
“It still bothers me. I have so much to say and no platform for it,” she says.
Prow takes her role as eyes and ears to public agencies seriously. She does not offer opinions in meetings she transcribes, and she's cautious about revealing her opinions in any way that might compromise a public body. Her outlet for personal expression is still her writing. The Central Oregon Writers Guild voted Prow's poetry first-place in its annual Literary Harvest writing contest this year; last year she tied for first with another author.
“Cameron's grown so much linguistically and emotionally since she started,” says Linda McGeary, a friend and fellow writer. “She's learned to reach for ways to make her poetry more universal. In the beginning it was more cathartic writing.”
Prow looks ahead to a day when she'll be able to finish the children's book she's been working on for years. And maybe, once she's retired from public transcription, sit on some of those boards and commissions she's so familiar with.
“I've spent most of my life listening: my parents, my bosses, my clients. I had to. To write in their voices, I had to understand their vocabulary. But I've gotten to the point where I'm comfortable with what I write; and if you like it, great. If not, that's OK, too.”