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OPINION | REX NELSON: Salty old editor

by Rex Nelson | February 13, 2021 at 10:53 a.m.

As newspapers close across rural America, the greatest loss might be the voices of the courageous men and women who once edited these publications. The population of rural America declines, and so does the number of wise voices that once spoke common sense to readers.

One of the best country editors of them all was Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder of Dumas, who died Dec. 11 at age 96. Along with her late husband, Melvin Schexnayder, she owned the Clarion Publishing Co. for 44 years before retiring in 1996. Charlotte served in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1985-99. Arkansas is a better place because she lived among us.

As a young newspaperman, I came to know her as the person who edited one of the top weekly newspapers in the South. Later, as this newspaper's political editor and then as a member of the governor's staff, I knew her as a leading light in the Arkansas Legislature. She was the epitome of a gracious Southern lady -- but with a tough streak. Governors and others learned the hard way never to underestimate her.

Former President Bill Clinton called her "a treasure. I'm so grateful I had the chance to know her, work with her and be her friend."

The late U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers once called Charlotte "one of those too rare people who not only cares about what's right and wrong in the world but spends a lifetime trying to do something about it. Together, she and her late husband Melvin were the bedrock of their community, the Delta and the entire state."

Former U.S. Sen. David Pryor called her a "powerful force for equality, fairness and justice. Her life has been an epic story of how one person can make a difference."

In the late 1940s, Melvin and Charlotte found themselves living in the pine woods of east Texas at Marshall. Melvin had accepted a job in early 1948 with Texas & Pacific Railroad as a chemical engineer.

In 2012, Charlotte was author of a book titled "Salty Old Editor: An Adventure in Ink." She wrote: "His job involved analyzing oil and water samples for steam engines. I always dreaded the possibility that he might dislocate his lame shoulder when he climbed the company water tanks for samples. More often, he was in the laboratories or on a train going as far as Pecos, Texas -- 800 miles away. The job demanded five to six days a week on the road, leaving us miserable with little home life.

"Mother came to visit in Marshall in the summer of 1948. Melvin drove her 1937 Plymouth there, and on the back was a coop of chickens from Tillar. We had a flat tire on the way, and a man who stopped to help us was much amused. However, we thought the fried chicken was tasty that summer. My solution while Melvin was constantly traveling was to read and keep our domicile, all the while missing the news business. Occasionally, I traveled with him and particularly remember the dust storms in west Texas. Neither of us was content away from the other."

They received a telegram from W.M. Jackson, owner of the newspaper at McGehee. He asked if they would come back to Arkansas as editor and advertising manager.

"Melvin had never sold advertising but had done well in business courses in graduate school," Charlotte wrote. "Tired of his constant traveling, we said to one another: 'Let's try the newspaper business for a year.' Little did we then realize it would last a half-century."

Southeast Arkansas had no bigger advocate during that half-century than Charlotte. She was born on Christmas Day 1923. Her father was the son of Dr. Stephen Olin Tillar and Fannie Harrell Tillar, pioneer residents of the area. They had come over from Selma in Drew County to found the town of Tillar as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad laid track south from Little Rock in 1870.

The experience at McGehee prepared them for owning the Dumas newspaper. Charlotte said she learned the following lessons as a country editor:

• "Manage with one-boss rule editorially. A showdown with a composing room foreman who sought to direct all operations taught me that I had to control content and deadlines. I made editorial decisions and always faced the consequences."

• "Believe in your community and the people will join you. Many communities depend on their newspaper publishers/owners for leadership."

• "Plain hard work exceeds inspiration, probably in proportion 90-10."

• "Never leave to others some job you should do. A staff will seek to excel when the editor-publisher sets the standard."

• "Listen for the little stories. They often are the most compelling because they touch the human heart. I once gained wisdom from interviewing a 90-year-old who said: 'When ah walks, ah walks slow; when ah rocks, ah rock easy; and when ah worries, ah goes to sleep.'"

• "Expect broadly flung daggers. I didn't cause trouble but was blamed for reporting it. Many would rather blame the messenger than the culprit."

• "Remember that you are writing current history and make every effort to get it right."

• "Rely on humor during tough times. It's the best antidote."

• "If the job isn't fun, find another. I looked forward to every day. I was the eternal optimist; Melvin, the pragmatist. Together we knew how to set goals and reach them."

During Charlotte's first week in the Legislature, Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village approached her and said: "No one expects much of a freshman representative. Just sit and listen and you will be fine."

She replied: "You obviously don't know me very well. I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans."

--–––––v–––––--

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

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