Lessons learned over decades of newspapering
November 2, 2015
Editor’s note: Barb Walter wrote this speech for her acceptance of the Emma C. McKinney Award.
By Barb Walter
Co-Publisher | Hennessey (OK) Clipper
Sincere thanks to the National Newspaper Association board and committees for selecting me as winner of the Emma C. McKinney Award. A special thanks to the talented writers and friends who wrote nomination letters.
As you can tell, I’m not an accomplished speaker, and I’m not used to speaking to a group of journalists who are ... well, sober, and I guess that goes both ways.
I’m a writer, not a speaker, so we’ll see if I can read what I wrote.
When I worked for the afternoon newspaper in Oklahoma City as a teen correspondent, I thought I’d get my degree from University of Oklahoma and go on to work for the Washington Post, or the New York Times.
I never thought I’d be working at a small-town newspaper.
I had a full-ride scholarship to OU. The only catch was that you couldn’t be married. The invitations were already in the mail, so I married my first husband at age 17, then went to work for the Oklahoma Press Association.
I started as a receptionist two weeks after high school graduation, and Mr. Blackstock told me to make sure the ad sales guy, Art Hoag, told me where he was going.
Art kept dodging me and finally told me where he’d be.
Art’s top client, an aluminum siding salesman, called and said it was urgent that he speak with him, so I told him that Art was at The Brothel.
“What?” asked the client.
“The Brothel,” I repeated. “I assume it’s a new restaurant.”
When Art returned and found out what I’d said, he yelled at me, told me to go to the dictionary and look up that word. Mr. Blackstock heard what was going on and chewed out Art because, after all, I was a young, innocent Baptist girl.
That was the start of my newspaper education!
When my second, current and only husband, Bill, and I married in 1971, I told him I don’t darn socks, I don’t do windows, and I don’t live in small towns.
We moved to Hennessey seven years later. Population 1,500 then, and 2,000 now on a good day, and this city girl can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Bill and I decided to put out a newspaper our way in his hometown. I’d like to introduce my husband, Bill Walter, my partner in life for 44 years, and newspaper partner for 35 years. I love him dearly, though we still disagree on everything from politics to grits, and nowadays he rarely gives up the TV remote control.
After we moved to Hennessey, my husband had to keep his paying job in Oklahoma City for a couple of years, so I often ate lunch alone at The Grill where you sit on stools.
That first day at The Grill, I overheard an oilfield guy say he was a pusher. He and another guy talked about foot-long joints and buckets of dope. Then a guy who was in overalls, and I assumed was a farmer, talked about burning Love Grass.
We’d moved into a drug den, I thought, until I learned it was just oilfield and farm talk.
I learned more when I ripped my pantyhose while climbing through a barbed wire fence at an uncontrolled-controlled burn when a fireman shot me with water to let me know I was surrounded on three sides by the fire.
I learned after a week or two not to send people to the pharmacy who came in wanting to renew their prescription.
Covering my first city council meeting was ... difficult. Everyone talked at the same time, and I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of an old air conditioner.
After a couple of months, I complained to the mayor before the meeting.
He ushered me to a spot at the end of the council’s table and said it was mine.
A few months later, a former mayor came back on the council, and when he walked into the chamber, he asked why I was sitting at the council table.
“I sit here at the pleasure of the mayor,” I said.
“Well it *&^$@% sure isn’t my pleasure,” he said.
If I’d never gotten into community journalism, I’d never had the experience of having a pig run between my legs at a stock show. I should have known wearing that wrap-around-skirt was a mistake. Ditto on the sandals.
During the years, we’ve endorsed a handful candidates for office who turned out to be excellent in their jobs, others were so-so, and I think the state auditor we endorsed is still in prison.
I’ve learned when people say at cocktail parties, “Don’t put this in the paper,” that they mean, “Put this in the paper.” And the last time we were invited to a cocktail party was in 1980, although our camera has been invited to several events.
I’ve learned you should not stand downwind to shoot pictures when the sheriff and his deputies are burning off recently eradicated marijuana. I also learned back in 1980s that marijuana only grew every four years—before sheriff elections in Kingfisher County.
If I’d never worked in community journalism, I would have never have ridden a mechanical bull, never covered a rape trial, never taken pictures of an airplane crash, and never crouched down behind feed sacks across the street from a grocery store when I thought it was being robbed. It wasn’t: someone had just triggered the silent alarm, but several people saw me on Main Street sneaking around the feed store.
My husband and I would have never worked together on community projects and parades, or the Pat Hennessey Massacre Pageant, if we’d stayed in Oklahoma City. We would have never run the sidelines at football games together, taken pictures of two state championship football teams, gone to almost every high school awards program in 37 years, or helped with our Heritage and Wine & Chocolate festivals, Pat Hennessey Celebrations, and other community club projects and events.
If we had not moved to Hennessey, I never would have written a story about the 50th anniversary of the Needlework Club, have a friend who was B-17 aircraft gunner in World War II, or had our fourth grade Newspapers in Education students gathered around my desk and computer.
There are some wonderful people we’ve met and worked with in our community, and they have been great supporters of us, and the newspaper.
We’ve had mayors and bank presidents help put mailing labels on the paper so we could get to the post office on time, and our late state senator was the best Tuesday night proofreader we ever had.
Who knows what would have happened if I’d gotten a college degree.
I might have even won a prestigious national award in community journalism such as the Emma C. McKinney Award.
Oh wait, I did!