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Remembering inspiring press women

With a recent look at The Carthaginian, I saw Mildred Dearman’s name listed as editor emeritus. That got me to thinking about an organization that I haven’t thought about in many years, Mississippi Press Women (MPW). It doesn’t exist anymore now that women are actively involved in the Mississippi Press Association (MPA), but in its heyday it was made up of a group of assertive, colorful women who got newspaper ink in their veins and never purged it. At the time I participated in their workshops and writing contests, I was a young, inexperienced journalist and totally in awe of them.

In addition to Mildred Dearman, other names come to mind — Mary Lou Webb of Meadville, Marie Farr Walker of Fayette, Margaret Henry of Columbus, Mary Cain of Summit, Marda Burton of Laurel and Pat Sellers of Lucedale. There was also Ellen Orr, but I can’t recall her town or newspaper. I think she was a columnist somewhere in the Delta. I’m certain she sent me a wonderful cake recipe that had chocolate chips in it, with instructions to put it in my “Ruffles & Rumors” column.

Covering the community

Yes, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when such things appeared in weekly newspapers along with hard news such as announcements about summer church revivals and advice from the Extension Service’s home demonstration and county agents. One community correspondent, whom I loved dearly, had a special flair for words. Residents did not drive to nearby towns; they ‘motored.’ They did not go on shopping trips, but had ‘excursions to big city mercantile emporiums.’

There was always a lot of church news in the community columns, because in most cases the churches were (maybe still are) the social centers of the communities. The ladies who wrote the news were genuinely concerned about their friends and neighbors and would request prayers for anyone experiencing difficulties. They didn’t flinch from calling an illness like they saw it either, such as the plea for Mrs. Somebody who “has cancer real bad.”

I also remember the name Hazel Brannon Smith with great admiration as I think of the state’s inspiring press women. Her editorials against the White Citizens Council earned her a Pulitzer Prize but were the death of her Holmes County newspaper.

The members of MPW struggled to keep their newspapers going, to make their communities better, to right injustices and to speak out on issues of the day. Mary Cain even ran for governor to speak her mind.

Making an impact

Mary Lou Webb was a special and encouraging mentor for me. She and her late husband, David, met when they were journalism students at the University of Southern Mississippi where he edited the Student Printz. They went on to buy two weekly newspapers, the Franklin Advocate and the Wilk-Amite Record in Southwest Mississippi. David served as president of MPA and Mary Lou worked tirelessly to keep Press Women viable. Through the years as the demands of business and family took more time, she became less active in the organization.

David died in 2002. Mary Lou continues to edit both newspapers and is carrying on the work that David began to establish a public park in Franklin County carved out of the 90,000 acres owned by the National Forestry Service. It will be huge and will have cabins and recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.

“We always wanted to give something to this area and David worked on it for 40 years,” she said in a telephone conversation last week. “We wanted this to be our legacy.”

Tough stuff

Proving that newspaper women are made of tough stuff, she had made her first visit to a doctor’s office in 18 years the day before we talked. She wasn’t sick, but a 200-pound man working in her newspaper shop had a seizure and fell on her. On her way to the floor, she hit her head and that necessitated a check up.

She has no plans for retirement, nor does she plan to sell her newspapers. “I could sell today if I wanted to, but this is what I’ve always done and I’m going to continue,” she said. “They’ll probably take me out of here in a box. I’m busy, but it keeps me going and keeps my mind active.”

Marda Burton of Laurel racked up awards in MPW writing contests and went on to become a travel writer. I’ve had some contact with her in recent years. She is still glamorous and divides her time between the North Carolina mountains and New Orleans where she hosts “salons” for the Faulkner Society at her French Quarter apartment.

Some of the other ladies have passed on and some of their newspapers are no longer in existence. However, they left their mark on communities and people all over this state.

Carolyn Wilson, director of the MPA, said that when MPW was going strong, MPA was made up mostly of men. “As time has gone by, women have become more involved in MPA and there hasn’t been a need for two organizations,” she said.

She also said that Mildred Dearman was inducted into MPA’s Hall of Fame. When will these other ladies take their rightful places there?

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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