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Feature of Rural Papers : Hometown Columnists: Dying Breed

Times Staff Writer

Back in 1962, the Manchester Enterprise tried to rewrite Myrtle Shoupe’s weekly dispatch from Kentucky’s hill country, changing the occasional “hain’t” to “have not,” throwing in the missing verbs and fixing the misspelled words.

But the mayor and just about everybody else in town complained. So these days, the editors run it the way it comes in, setting it in type--word for word--from the shaky longhand of their 76-year-old country correspondent.

The Hima News--"printed as written by Myrtle Shoupe"--is an institution in the Enterprise, but it is fast becoming an anachronism.

For generations, hometown correspondents were a vital communications link in rural America. People who lived in such places as Frogtown, Ill., Prairieburg, Iowa, and Long Siding, Minn., came to depend on those regular reports of who was visiting, who was celebrating, who was ailing and who was grieving.

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Bulletin Boards

But most of the old hometown columns are gone now, replaced by community news bulletin boards of coming events, society pages and personal ads. Writing hometown news “is a dying art,” said Richard Robards, editor of the Central Kentucky News Journal, whose roll of country columnists has fallen from 15 to 4 in a decade.

One reason is that the scribes themselves are dying, and no one is willing or able to take their places. Small towns also are losing their traditional social hubs as families move away. And “hometown” news just does not interest as many people anymore.

“I consider them outdated,” said editor Luther J. Dorr. His paper, the Princeton (Minn.) Union-Eagle, had nine country correspondents as recently as the mid-1970s. Today, there are four.

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“In the earlier days, they were a vehicle for finding out what the neighbors across town were doing,” he said. But with the advent of telephones and automobiles “none of that is news anymore.”

Columnists Valued

The columnists are valued, though, in isolated communities such as Hima, a settlement of 250 persons in a lush, steamy--and often lawless--mountain hollow along Horse Creek in southeastern Kentucky. Hima (pronounced HY-muh) is the sort of place where folks may go weeks without seeing anyone except the postman, and phones are a luxury many cannot afford.

“We had more sad news . . . Saturday night,” one of Myrtle Shoupe’s recent dispatches read. “Mr. Berkley Sibert his trailer burned down and his body was burned up in it.

“Well,” she added philosophically, “he could happen anybody but we don’t know what going to happen next but when we got to bed and go sleep we better be saved for we don’t know what going to happen in the night.”

Myrtle Shoupe is small and frail, but she still has the clear, commanding voice that once ordered rowdy, drunken coal miners out of Lucky’s Restaurant on Highway 11. Now she lives in what is left of the restaurant, closed 20 years ago, shortly before her husband died of black lung disease.

Writing for 32 Years

She quit school after the eighth grade, worked as a substitute teacher for a time and raised nine children from two marriages. As a lark, she began writing the Hima News--"my news,” she calls it--for the Manchester Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in the county seat. That was 32 years ago.

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Whether she is announcing a Monday night revival, complaining about her arthritis or selling her homemade bug killer (at $8 a gallon), Myrtle Shoupe’s column is one of the best-read parts of the newspaper, according to Publisher James Nolan.

Some readers compare the folksy column to “Dear Abby.” “I don’t know about that,” responded Myrtle, primly sitting for an interview in a blue-and-white print dress, her hands folded in her lap. “I just enjoys giving people something to read.”

If the readers like her column, she reasons, “they’ll buy papers for James (Nolan, the publisher). His mother and me was real good friends.”

Still a Staple

While many community newspapers have dropped their hometown news columns, “there are still a heckuva lot of newspapers in which those columns are a staple,” said Donald Brod, executive secretary of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

“The more rural the community, the more likely you’ll find them important,” added Brod, a journalism professor at Northern Illinois State University.

Mike Kent, editor of the Monticello Express in Iowa, has nine correspondents reporting from such places as Delhi, Scotch Grove and Prairieburg--and he would like to find a few more. “If it’s a dying institution, it’s dying a very slow death around here,” he said.

“Occasionally, we’ll have someone--especially new people in town--who say, ‘Why do you put all that gossipy stuff in there?’ ” said Jerlene Rose, editor of a weekly in Clay City, Ky., with five hometown columns.

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‘Important to Readers’

“But those gossipy columns are important to local readers. And they are recording small-town history. A hundred years from now, you’ll go back and read these columns and know what the life style was in a given area.”

Like big-paper gossip columnists, country correspondents spend hours searching for items for their columns. Their working definition of news seems to be anything they feel worth mentioning, plus biblical passages and nuggets of country wisdom.

Nannie Schimfessel’s Hardwicks Creek News in the Clay City, Ky., newspaper, reads like a letter to an old friend:

“Some folks had a wreck somewhere about where Mrs. Cora Johnson lived. A woman came and wanted to use the phone to call an ambulance but my phone was out of order. It must have been on account of the wreck.”

Special Intimacy

Hometown news columns are part of the special intimacy of a small community newspaper. Henry B. Hough, the late publisher of the Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, once said the best front-page material for a weekly was “acutely typical rather than violently exceptional.”

Weekly newspaper editors use a variety of techniques to keep in touch with their readers. A Kentucky paper prints page after page of anonymous comments gleaned from Speak Your Piece, a call-in line. (A recent example: “I wish my mother-in-law would get on her broom and fly south for the winter.”)

Some newspapers find it too time-consuming to check and correct every fact written by their hometown columnists, usually elderly women with little or no professional training.

Ann Grobe, community news editor at the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., remembers one columnist writing about a conference where “Sen. Beach Bly” was the featured speaker. The name was corrected to Birch Bayh.

Myrtle Shoupe recently informed her readers that First Sgt. George Robinson was home on “terminal lease” from Ft. Steward in Georgia.

Country columnists also tend to write in chronological order, even if that means saving some important information until last. Thus, an item about a New Hampshire family that moved to Massachusetts ended with the news that all four members were killed in a car accident.

The Valley News stopped using hometown correspondents years ago when the columnists began writing about their own shopping trips and Sunday dinners. “Some had a lot of relatives,” Grobe said. “You’d find the same name 10 times in a column.”

Loyal Readers

Myrtle Shoupe also writes about herself, but her column inspires a special loyalty. Many readers turn to the Hima News first thing, and “them what can’t read, people read it to them,” according to the writer.

When arthritis forced Myrtle to winter in Florida and stop writing her column in 1984, several readers canceled their subscriptions. The publisher asked Myrtle to keep writing, painful though it might be. So last winter, Myrtle, again in Florida staying with relatives, wrote a column every few weeks from information she received in letters from friends.

The rest of the year, when Myrtle is in Hima, the column appears weekly. Her work begins on Saturday when she slowly writes the first of her news items, in pencil, on the yellow legal pad that the newspaper supplies. Much of her news comes from conversations she has at the senior citizens center in Manchester, where she and her friends sew quilts.

On Tuesday mornings, the van that takes Myrtle and her friends to the center makes one extra stop--at the newspaper office to drop off the column.

Columnist’s Responsibilities

It is not easy writing a column week after week, and Hima’s resident scribe is mindful of the special responsibilities. “There is certain things you can’t put in without you getting a bawling out,” she said.

She learned the hard way, about 15 years ago when she wrote about a woman who had a car wreck. When it appeared in the paper, though, it said the woman “had a car.” The woman was teased mercilessly about giving birth to an automobile, and a year passed before Myrtle and the woman were on speaking terms again.

“She thought I’d done it for pure meanness,” Myrtle said.

Myrtle is not paid directly for her column, but the publisher gives Myrtle’s son, Eddie Smith, a bundle of newspapers each week to sell in Hima. And the editors look the other way when the Hima News advertises items for sale by the columnist and her friends.

Hardly a week goes by without mention of Myrtle’s bug spray, which “kills bugs real good.” After a woman wrote to tell Myrtle she had tombstones for sale, the Hima News dutifully passed the word. (So far, the bug spray is outselling the tombstones.)

On more than one occasion, readers have threatened to quit subscribing if the Hima News disappeared from the Enterprise. But the editors try not to think about the day when Myrtle is no longer able to write it.

“She has an unusual way of putting words together, a person-on-the-street kind of talk,” said Glenn Gray, managing editor of the Enterprise. “Someone like Myrtle, you don’t replace, really.”

Times researcher Wendy Leopold also contributed to this story.


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