By Dan Ferber
Ahead of Her Time
In the early 1970s, breast cancer wasn't a topic of polite conversation. So Barbara Boyd broadcast it into living rooms.
By Dan Ferber
The night before her big broadcast, Barbara Boyd sat upright in her hospital bed, a sharp pain ripping across her chest. A nurse had offered her pills, but she refused to take them. The drugs might put her to sleep, and she still had a script to write. Just the day before, doctors had removed Boyd's right breast during a modified radical mastectomy, and her chest was still swathed in bandages. Boyd finished her script, then finally allowed the nurse to give her an injection of a painkiller.
It was late in 1972—a time when women with breast cancer lost jobs, when husbands left wives who'd had mastectomies, when breast cancer was discussed in hushed, fearful tones. But Boyd was setting out to change all that. A reporter for WRTV, Indianapolis' major television news channel, Boyd was covering breast cancer from her own hospital room.
By speaking openly about her cancer, Boyd brought the conversation into living rooms across the region. It's a conversation she continues today in her retirement, appearing each year in an American Cancer Society fashion show for breast cancer survivors, and doing public-service announcements and voice-overs on TV for cancer research and advocacy groups. "I'll do anything to bring up the level of awareness," she says.
Boyd arrived late on the big stage, but she was ready when she got there. Growing up in Evanston, Ill., Boyd, now 77, was a natural performer. She'd ham it up at home, act in church plays, or dress up in a poodle skirt and tap dance on the marble floor of the local post office. "I thought I was Ginger Rogers," she says. "And everybody in the back would go, ‘There's Barbara again.'"
At home, her parents encouraged her to dream big. "My dad use to tell me all the time, ‘You know, anything you want to do, you can do it.' "
After majoring in speech at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she returned to Evanston. There, she met Ted Boyd, the executive director of the local YMCA; they married in 1953. She spent the next 16 years raising their three children, doing a series of workaday jobs, occasionally taking classes in radio and television production, but never working in the business.
That changed in 1969, when she was 39. A local television reporter had done a story on Indianapolis' new Head Start program, where Boyd worked as an office manager. The station was looking for ethnic diversity. The reporter called the office to ask a Head Start teacher, another black woman, to audition for an on-air position. Boyd took the call. "Well, honey," Boyd replied, "If you're looking for a star, here I are!" After she produced a five-minute vignette about Head Start and a sample newscast, Boyd got the job. On Feb. 10, 1969, she became the first African-American woman to have an on-air role on a television news program in Indiana.