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OPINION | DEBRA HALE-SHELTON: Recalling the past in print

by Debra Hale-Shelton | October 25, 2020 at 8:36 a.m.

The older I get, the more I have to remember and, all too often, forget.

It’s easy to remember the things that make us happy, like my 16th birthday celebrated at a skating rink in Marked Tree.

I had dared to invite the 10th-grade boy I had a mad crush on for months. He skated away as I watched. I moved on too. Then, about a year ago, I saw a recent photo of him. I got over my crush.

As a teenager, I worked one summer at a Little League baseball concession stand where I sold a not-so-enticing concoction I named PepBeer.

A mixed drink for youngsters, it combined Pepsi with root beer. Lttle boys would walk up to the stand, order their PepBeer and strut away in their tiny baseball uniforms.

Soon I moved on to other, shall I say, more demanding jobs.

My first was at the local weekly newspaper, the now-defunct Marked Tree Tribune, where editor Dorothy Stuck was a “Rockefeller Republican” in a small rural town of yellow-dog Democrats.

Winthrop Rockefeller Republicans were often more liberal on race relations than many small-town Democrats in those days, and Mrs. Stuck was no exception.

She shared many a conversation with a woman who worked across the street, Elizabeth Elder, an African American community activist who helped inform residents of their voting rights. I don’t know why I remember their friendship so well. Perhaps it was because such was so uncommon in those days, the late 1960s.

According to a 1999 article in The Jonesboro Sun, Elder went on to become the first African American to serve on the Marked Tree City Council and was named one of President George H.W. Bush’s Thousand Points of Light.

Mrs. Stuck, who published the paper with her husband Howard Stuck, left the Tribune in 1970 to serve as a regional director of the federal Office of Civil Rights. Four years later, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare honored her with its Distinguished Service Award for her civil-rights leadership.

To this day, I find much pride and even some humor when I remember my time with the Tribune.

I freelanced my first two articles for it and made $10. My byline in those days was Debbye Hale. One story was on Kampus Kapers, an annual talent showcase featuring student performers at the Marked Tree High School auditorium.

The other was about the school’s annual science fair. Probably because I’d not yet studied journalism ethics and mostly because I was 17 years old, I featured my own experiment in the article, calling it one of the more interesting exhibits.

At the center of my experiment was one Hubert Lee, a gerbil named in part after my sister’s boyfriend at the time. I placed him in a cage with a small ladder that led to some cheese. By showing that Hubert Lee could find the cheese, which he soon did, I proved my hypothesis: that Hubert Lee could learn.

Before you spit out your coffee, there’s one more thing I unintentionally proved. Hubert Lee was apparently a girl and soon began frantically building a nest. I’m not sure who ended up with the pregnant Hubert Lee.

Not all times at the paper were fun.

Once I was sent on assignment to cover a wreck on Highway 63 near my home. It turned out the victims lived on the same street as I did. I remember at least one died. I didn’t know them well, and I’m still grateful I didn’t see as much as the emergency workers no doubt did that day. But the assignment taught me an early lesson: Journalism is sometimes sad, even scary.

Another time, in June 1968, Mrs. Stuck stopped the press, which I recall as a huge, incredibly loud monstrosity that printed papers in the large space behind the small newsroom. She did so to write an editorial the day Robert F. Kennedy was slain during his Democratic presidential campaign. She titled it “As a Nation Thinketh …”

In those days journalists typed on old-fashioned typewriters. We proofread the Linotype by reading small blocks of metal type backwards—yes, backwards. Once a week, we rolled papers into the early morning hours, until 2, 3, 4 a.m., to be mailed that day.

We tried to catch mistakes but didn’t always catch errors in judgment. Take the time Mrs. Stuck was away and left young journalist Raymond “Butch” Stutts temporarily in charge. Like most weeklies then, the paper carried a column announcing who had recently been to Marked Tree to visit friends and relatives.

It was on that page that Butch placed a filler that either quoted or paraphrased the old Benjamin Franklin advice, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Butch, who died young, was talented and ambitious, but perhaps not the savviest on layout design—or on pleasing his boss. Once when Mrs Stuck was away, he published an endorsement of Dale Bumpers, a Charleston Democrat who went on to defeat Rockefeller’s bid for a second term as governor. Mrs. Stuck was not happy.

Later, while attending ASU, I took a part-time job at The Jonesboro Sun. There I compiled the paper’s weekly television guide and stories about what was showing at the local movie theater.

I also covered news events, including a speech by Bumpers. I took the paper’s huge camera with its equally huge flash bulb and snapped a picture of him. Problem was, the bulb kept flashing throughout his entire speech. Making matters worse was the embarrassingly bad lead I wrote for the next day’s paper. I reported that Bumpers came out against crime. Well, duh …

I wrote my first newspaper column when Mrs. Stuck was on vacation or perhaps away on business. I wrote my next column, “To Hale With It,” for The Herald, Arkansas State University’s student newspaper.

And now after all these years, I’m writing a column again. I’m not sure how I’ve gotten this far, but I’m grateful for Mrs. Stuck, the wisest of mentors and now a friend. I’m also grateful for the readers—those who email me words of praise, those who email me otherwise, and those who just read.

Debra Hale-Shelton can be reached at dhaleshelton@gmail.com . Follow her on Twitter at @nottalking.

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