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Recalling first editor of career

By Tammy Keith

This article was published August 17, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

I don’t think he liked me at first, but then he saw the books.

My first newspaper editor, Mike Overall, died of lung cancer Aug. 7. I was sad and surprised, because I didn’t know he had been sick.

I started working at The Jonesboro Sun when I was just 20. I was about to graduate with a journalism degree, and I knew that’s where I wanted to work to be close to home.

We had two associate editors, and one of them was Mike, a tall, skinny jazz drummer who could also write his tail off.

The fact that I was a little bit of a goody-two-shoes and a sorority girl didn’t impress Mike — in fact, I’m sure he was skeptical about me at first.

One day, he walked up to my desk and saw some books that I’d checked out of the library. One was Eudora Welty’s short stories.

I still remember his look of surprise as he picked up the book, and his nod of approval.

Every year on his birthday, he made a list of books for his mother to buy him. He talked about As I Lay Dying by Faulkner a lot, and I’m sorry to say I’ve never read it.

He once found a stupid mistake in my story. Probably more than one, but this one made an impression. He started laughing and pointed out to me that I’d written “rod-iron” furniture instead of wrought iron. I think he called me “birdbrain.” I never made that mistake again.

The Jonesboro Sun is where I met my husband, who was a reporter there, too. One Thanksgiving when we had to work, we invited Mike to our house for dinner. I don’t remember what we had. I do remember he brought us a P.G. Wodehouse book, and that he went outside to smoke.

Oh, his smoking. That was back in the day when clouds of smoke drifted across newsrooms. He always had one going — sometimes two, we’d have to point out.

The former co-publisher of the paper was quoted in Mike’s feature obituary in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and he got it right: When we worked there, we had good-guy, bad-guy editors, and Mike was the good guy.

The other editor tried to get me in trouble once by telling Mike I’d done something I hadn’t. I was pulled into the darkroom by the two, and I stood up for myself, pretty vocally.

Mike came up to me later and told me he respected how I handled myself — that I could have quit over that.

I didn’t realize until I read his obituary that he’d been at that newspaper for 32 years and three months.

Even though I left there 24 years ago, I thought of him every year on his birthday. It’s Aug. 31, the day after mine.

Some years, I’d buy him pistachios; he loved them.

I was also his personal shopper for a while. I told this to someone this week who said it was weird, but I don’t think so. He knew I loved to shop, and he didn’t. He was divorced then, and I would go to stores and find shirts that I knew he’d like, and he’d pay me back.

As I recall, he practically wore out one chambray shirt that I’d bought him. When he worked the night shift with us, he’d wear his jeans and, in the summer, his leather sandals with a peace-sign design on top. They were falling apart then, probably having been bought in the Vietnam War era. Until I read his obituary, I also didn’t realize he was a veteran, although I’m sure it came up. It’s funny what you remember about people.

I remember that he called me “Kiddo.” I remember that he laughed a lot, and he’d slap his leg or the top of a desk with one hand. He’d pull up his pants on his lanky body and sort of press his elbows into both sides on his pants.

He’d pace the newsroom when we were waiting for the press to start, and he was constantly putting his foot up on a desk and drumming on his leg.

One of my former co-workers at another newspaper, who lives in Conway, knew Mike. My friend’s father and Mike were good friends and fellow musicians. My former co-worker said, “I’ll never forget hearing Mike and my dad’s friends rehearse at Mike’s old house, or seeing Mike drive around town in his old blue VW convertible with his drums hanging precariously out of the car.”

My friend said that when he told Mike he was coming to work with my husband and me at a paper in Conway, Mike said, “You’ll learn a lot from them.”

I also read in his obituary that he was a reader’s adviser and led a book club, until his death, at the Craighead County Library in Jonesboro.

I’ll bet he was the best.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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