Few remember RCC’s first student newspaper, “The Mole.” Now, nearly 40 years later, the anonymous editor is finally revealed.
By Elijah Sullivan
Free speech may not be free, but apparently it only costs about $5.
Just ask the hitherto anonymous author of The Mole, Rogue Community College’s first newspaper, which was painstakingly hand-copied by gelatin and distributed around Redwood campus in 1972. But who was the Mole? And why the secrecy? Who would go through all the trouble to self-publish an underground newspaper and not take credit?
When RCC first opened 40 years ago, The Byline did not exist, nor would it for many years. This left an opening for the many motivated young students who flocked to RCC when it opened. Among those students was a future member of the college’s 2009-10 Board of Directors with a passion for writing.
Joan Momsen started at RCC as a full-time student in 1971, and eventually hatched the plan that would become The Mole. “We really should have a newspaper,” she thought.
So she made one.
With a few dollars and a lot of resourcefulness, Momsen created a homemade hectograph printer. “It was this tinfoil pouch filled with liquid gelatin,” she said. “You pour it into a metal tray and let it sit out, and it would harden to become like a rubbery eraser – only tacky.”
Then, using a special aniline printer ribbon, she typed out every issue on her typewriter, adding illustrations in aniline pencil. Once pressed against the gelatin, the ink would remain in mirror-image form on the gel. “Then I would use mimeograph-style paper and gently press it against the gel. If you rubbed it carefully, the ink would transfer onto the paper.” Momsen found she could make as many as 50 copies before the ink ran out, although 20 or so copies were usually enough for her purpose.
The hectograph was a common enough technology at the time, popular among instructors who needed a low-budget way to reproduce handouts without modern printers. The process had been around since the Nineteenth century. While ads from the period promised to make “Every Man His Own Printer,” it was not a “perfect process,” like they also claimed; the ink had to be painstakingly removed after each printing session, and even the slightest scratch from a fingernail would ruin the gelatin. (Momsen may not have known it, but Stephen King and his brother Dave had done something similar as teenagers, also with a “jellygraph.”)
“I think it was 1972,” she recalled. “The idea was to put forth ideas that they didn’t think were necessary.”
The name of Momsen’s pet project was not meant to evoke spy literature, however. “I thought ‘The Mole’ was a nice name because moles live underground and this would be an underground publication,” Momsen said. “I would buy a ream of paper for a few dollars and print when I had free time.”
Once printed, all Momsen needed to do was secretly drop stacks of The Mole around the Redwood campus – and wait.
“It was a funny little thing,” Momsen said. “It was basically just trivia and things.”
One frequent target was the above-ground septic tank located behind the college president’s old office, which had a notorious stench.
It also featured a regular “Letter to the Editor” section. “The first letter to the editor was ‘A’,” Momsen quipped. The letter was accompanied by a brief history of the first letter in our alphabet and its equivalents in Greek and other languages.
The slight, 2-to-4 page issues were often decorated with little doodles and her own cartoons. Using more than one pass with different inks, Momsen created full color issues for special occasions – such a the Christmas issue, which featured a green tree with red berries. Most of the time she just used the color purple, which is preferred by experienced hectograph users. One issue was printed entirely on recycled paper bags, which readers found endearing.
Throughout, Momsen was adamant that college was for learning, and she dedicated The Mole to arguing for the creation of an Honor Roll and a student newspaper. Although she was careful never to single out anyone for criticism, writing instead about “things that happened,” bits of trivia, and the occasional editorial.
“I think it ran through all of ’72 and into ’73,” she said. It was published infrequently – whenever she had spare time, she said – and was something of a sensation during its run.
In 1972, Momsen graduated from RCC, but her attraction to writing only deepened over the years, although Momsen is probably best loved as Grants Pass High School’s history teacher from 1980 to her retirement in 2008. She even authored the school’s biography on their web page.
As a member of the Josephine County Historical Society since 1977, she wrote extensively on the history of the area. Momsen has volunteered at the society’s Research Library every day since it opened – and even loaned the society money to pay off the property where their Research Library was located, calling it a safer investment than a CD. She served on their Board of Directors for 17 years and was elected their president three times.
But that was not the last time Momsen reported on RCC. In 1996, she published an article about the history of the college in The Daily Courier in which she dubbed Rogue Community College “Harvard on the Hill.”
It was not until years after her RCC days that she revealed to anyone her secret identity. When her friends gossiped about the latest issue of The Mole, Momsen was content to leave them guessing.
“It was tempting,” she said. When asked if she thought it was ironic that she anonymously printed so many editorials about recognizing the efforts of students, she just laughed. A small price to pay for free speech, I suppose.