The best (or worst) Easter dress

     Easter was a big deal when I was a little girl. My mother and I always bought new dresses for Easter, my father would buy us corsages, and we’d all go off to church. Sometimes I even had a hat and gloves. Afterwards, we’d get together with some of my cousins and have lunch and an Easter egg hunt. It was all great fun.

     My mother always picked out my clothes, including my Easter dresses. One year, when I was 8 or 9 years old, I decided I should have some say in the matter. We were shopping at a local store (not one of the better ones) when I spotted my idea of the perfect dress. It was light blue with white polka dots. The bodice and full skirt had darker blue bands on them, and there were little red roses appliqued along each of the bands. I think it had other geegaws and adornments also. As Easter dresses go, it was a Porter Wagoner suit. But to my young eyes, it was the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen, worthy of any Disney princess. My mother gave in and bought it, over her objections and conservative instincts.

     We always attended an outdoor sunrise service, and I was forced every year to wear a coat or sweater at my mother’s insistence. At the other end of the warm weather season, she always wanted me to wear a jacket over my Halloween costume because she always thought it would be cold. I objected to both.

     Coat-clad, I sat through the outdoor service, fretting that my peacock of a dress remained covered. When we arrived at church, I gladly revealed it. I was beaming, although the thought makes me cringe today. I ran around telling everyone, “Look at my new dress!” My mother pointed out to all who heard that I had picked it out. At the time, I thought she was proud of me for doing so. Now I realize she was distancing herself from the fashion abomination, absolving herself of guilt.

     Fortunately, our tastes change as we grow. Today I got up and put on a bright sweater to contrast with the sky’s dingy gray. I didn’t worry about whether I had the fanciest outfit ever. But I did pick the sweater out myself.

Holiday sale

If you haven’t yet purchased a paperback copy of Deadlines (or one for a gift), now’s the time.
I plan to increase the price for the paperback from $10 to $12 on Jan. 1. You can order one from Amazon, or purchase one at Three Rivers Museum in Muskogee; at Murv Jacob Gallery in Tahlequah; or at Liz McMahan’s booth at Crossroads Treasures in Wagoner. Or, if you’re around me, I’ll have copies.

Happy holidays and happy reading!

One way to fight terrorism

DSCN1180DSCN1261I would return to Paris tomorrow, given the chance.

Despite the latest warnings cautioning travelers.

Despite the terrorist shootings in Paris.

Despite the terrorist scare we experienced when we landed at Paris’ DeGaulle Airport early last Sept. 25.

The flight to Paris was quite smooth. We landed on time, although touchdown was somewhat of a shock as the fog was so thick we couldn’t see the lights outside until we hit the runway. We passed through customs rapidly, much more so than at Heathrow a month earlier. And after quickly retrieving our luggage, our hosts Roland and Alain were there to greet us.

We found a small alcove at the airport, where we could wait until Roland and Alain met the other couple who would join us. Tim and I talked and watched the airport passers-by for a half hour or so.

Suddenly, an extremely large cop, clad in black, came through. His size made the whistle in his mouth look so diminutive to appear almost a joke. He began tweeting the whistle, his arm motions ordering us to move back. We did, pulling our suitcases, standing a few moments. He returned, motioning us further back.

Tim and I found a place to sit. Within moments, more officers arrived, wearing black uniforms and equipped with assault rifles. A couple had dogs.

“Why did we ever leave home?” Tim asked.

I didn’t let myself think the same, although we were across the ocean, in a country where I only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language, separated from the only people we knew. I wondered how we would find them again after whatever caused the commotion had passed.

After 45 minutes or so, we were allowed to proceed back across the barrier. We found the area we first occupied and waited there. Roland and Alain arrived, along with the other couple. Somehow we all found each other and left the airport.

The cause of all the confusion? Someone had left an unattended suitcase near the check-in counter. Officials had to check the possibility it might contain a bomb. Like most such threats, it turned out to be nothing.

With my reporter’s instinct, it was natural for me to want to be close to the action. Tim, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with it. I was more frightened as we drove out of Paris, in a traffic jam, with motorcyclists barreling down the thin areas between cars in speeds that appeared 60 mph or greater.

We enjoyed our 10 days in the French countryside south of Paris, a pastoral area where one could drive for minutes without seeing another car. Our time back in Paris was brief, and there’s more I want to see, a lot we didn’t get to do.

So I’d go back in a heartbeat. I refuse to let the random possibility of a terrorist encounter keep me home. I put myself in more danger, statistically, driving to the grocery store. Most people don’t think twice about doing that, but some avoid travel for fear of terrorism.

There’s a slim chance I may become a terrorist victim while living my life. But if I let terrorists rule my life, I’m already a victim.

 

 

Loss of experience hurts readers most

Our local newspaper has lost two more of its most experienced reporters.
Sony Hocklander and sports reporter Lyndal Scranton have accepted buyouts from Gannett, the paper’s parent corporation. Each has written a final column describing how working for the paper has enriched their lives and, they hope, that of the community.
I especially related to Lyndal’s column. He told of learning from longtime News-Leader Sports Editor Marty Eddlemon and other sports old timers. They taught him his craft. Their contemporaries on the news side taught me mine. Long before I entered the hallowed portals of Walter Williams and Neff halls at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I learned to write in news style from Frank Farmer, Hank Billings, Jim Billings, Dale Freeman, Lucille Morris Upton, and my columnist/idol Tom Ellis. On my first day of my beginning news reporting class, the story I turned in earned an A and accolades, because I followed their teachings.
Two fellow J-school grads in my class, Don Underwood and Bil Tatum, spent their careers at the News-Leader, accepting similar buyouts a few years ago. In the intervening time, I’ve read of others who have done the same. The paper has lost its familiar names and its longtime boots-on-the-ground staff.
When I began work in 1980 at the Muskogee Daily Phoenix (also a Gannett publication in those days) I felt fortunate to have longtime Muskogee journalists who could tell me who fit in where, and what had happened 10 or 20 years ago that affected today’s events. Joan Morrison, who had reported at the Phoenix since she was a young woman and whose father, John Lewis Stone, was its legendary managing editor, was especially valuable, as was Warren Weakland, a former sports editor turned education reporter. They retired during my career. When I left the newsroom, I took 19 years of institutional memory with me in my head.
Corporate officials and editors who have come to towns from elsewhere lack that. They look to cut newsroom expenses by getting rid of the higher-cost veterans (most people would be shocked to know how little these people make after years on the job) and replacing them with newcomers who aspire to hit the big time after spending a couple of years in the backwaters. These people, and their bosses, have no real interest in the long-term well being of their communities, seeking rather to advance their careers.
These new journalists cut their teeth on technology and seek trailblazing ways to present the news. The only one of my journalistic mentors who survives, Hank Billings, writes a weekly history column for the News-Leader, while we other retired fossils have gone on to new experiences.
The readers are the only real losers in this scenario.

For some crime victims, suffering never ends

This week I became a crime victim. It was a minor crime and, although a hassle, caused no lasting ill effects.
Tim and I attended an event over the weekend in Oklahoma. Before leaving Monday morning, we discovered someone had stolen the rear license plate from our car while it was parked at the motel.
We filed a police report, Tim transferred the front plate to the back of the car for our drive home, and I spent about half the day Tuesday getting replacement plates.
An inconvenience, but not a major problem.
That’s not the case for all too many crime victims. During my years as a reporter, I witnessed the effect serious crimes had on many families.
My own family is no exception. On June 20, 1989, my cousin Shirley lost her beloved only child, Angela Lyn Fortner. I know Shirley and many other family members have suffered daily because of Angie’s murder. And each time her killer, Bret Alan Arbuckle, comes up for parole the wound opens anew.
This week Shirley told me she and her husband, Paul, will have to confront this pain again during a parole hearing Nov. 3. Arbuckle was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life, and armed criminal action, with a 30-year sentence.
I never knew Angie as well as I did my Oklahoma cousins’ children, but enjoyed watching her play with them as she was growing up, during our annual Memorial Day family reunions. I saw her brighten the lives of my Aunt Virginia and Uncle Bill. She lived next door and was at their house on old Route 66 often.
She was only 17 when she died, looking forward to her senior year at Miller High School in Missouri. She hoped to become a psychologist, because she enjoyed helping friends with their problems.
Angie had an active childhood, taking twirling, clogging, violin and piano lessons. She participated in the youth group at her small community church. She played in the band, loved to water ski and camp at the lake with her grandparents. An animal lover, she had a cat and a white rabbit.
And she loved spending time with other teens. That’s what she was doing the night of her death. She and two girlfriends were camping on the banks of Billy Creek, about three miles from her home. They were near one friend’s house, just a few hundred yards away. Other teens joined the fun.
Everything was going well when Arbuckle, who was 23 at the time, showed up uninvited. He told the group he was intoxicated. Before shooting Angie, he waved a gun at other young people, vandalized the campsite and threatened to rape the other two girls.
A frightened Angie left with her boyfriend and drove toward Angie’s home. Just before arriving there, she told him they needed to return to the campsite so she could check on her friends and get her pickup. She couldn’t find the keys and asked Arbuckle if he had them. Arbuckle pulled her from the pickup, grabbed her in a headlock, pointed the gun at her throat and pulled the trigger. The bullet severed an artery and she bled to death.
Her death left a permanent hole in her mother’s heart, as it did that of her father, the late Joe Fortner; Aunt Virginia and Uncle Bill; and many other family members. Her father and grandparents died knowing her killer remained behind bars. Shirley has made it her mission to see that he stays there.
I plan to write a letter to the parole board, and will help get petitions signed in support of her effort.
Angie lies in the Rose Prairie Cemetery in Halltown, Mo., beside her grandparents. When we decorate family graves there on Memorial Day, Tim and I often run into Shirley and Paul, as they place red and white flowers on Angie’s grave.
I have had other close friends who have lost children, talented people who were murdered at a young age. I have witnessed their suffering and seen how it has affected their lives. In at least two cases, I have seen them turn to alcohol to drown their sorrows.
Shirley didn’t do that. She continued working hard at her job, and in her retirement is able to enjoy travel and her daily life.
But she was robbed of the chance to see Angie graduate from high school, go on to college, find that perfect mate and provide her with grandchildren.
Some sorrow never ends. Some voids just can’t be filled.

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Remembering a helpful source

 

 

 

Reporters deal on a daily basis with many people who never, or rarely, make the news. They don’t get quoted, and usually they don’t really want to. They’re the government workers, school personnel, business employees, all the others we see as we make our rounds and write our stories.

Usually we quote the leaders — the city manager, mayor, county commissioner, elected official, principal, owner of the company. These days it’s becoming increasingly, and more irritatingly, the official spokesman whose job it is to put a positive spin on the news for his or her organization.

But any good reporter knows some of the most valuable hints and story ideas come from those in the trenches, those who make the others’ jobs easier.

Myrle O’Dell was one of those people. As the longtime legal secretary and minutes clerk for Judge Lyle Burris in Muskogee, she was the first person to greet people as they entered his outer chambers. Along with bailiff Margaret Terrell, she kept the judge’s courtroom and paperwork in order.

My immediate impression on meeting Myrle was that she was a sweet lady. As I spent more time around her, especially during jury trials, I learned that impression was correct. She was adept at helping with jurors (although Margaret had the main task of keeping them up to date and getting them where they needed to be), juggling attorneys, and dealing with witnesses.

Sitting on the witness stand is difficult enough, as I know from experience. It’s hard to imagine how grueling an experience it must be for young children who have been sexually abused, especially when those children must testify against family members. I especially remember one of the first difficult cases I had to cover. A 12-year-old girl had been raped by her stepfather. Even after her testimony, she had to remain available. She sat in Myrle’s office, while Myrle comforted her, talked with her, did everything she could to ease the child’s ordeal. I was impressed by her compassion and her ability to provide a warm presence to the little girl.

An obnoxious attorney or a persistent individual who demanded something from the judge would see a different side. Myrle was strict with them, not allowing them to distract her boss with frivolous missions.

I did quote Myrle, on one sad occasion. I had just returned from the house on North F Street in Muskogee where Michael Long had murdered Sheryl Graber and her 5-year-old son, Andy. Myrle called to ask if it was true. I sadly told her it was, and she shared quotes about the young mother who she had watched grow, who she worshipped with at their neighborhood Methodist Church, whose parents were longtime friends. Most touching, she told me how Andy’s grandfather enjoyed taking him on outings to a nearby doughnut shop.

After her retirement I saw little of Myrle. A couple of times I glimpsed her walking her small dog. I hoped she was safe in her old two-story foursquare, in an eastside neighborhood that once was nice but had been infiltrated by meth addicts and other undesirables in recent years.

This morning I learned of Myrle’s death, at age 90. Her obituary was probably one of the few times her name appeared in the paper. It brought me the memory of a woman I always enjoyed visiting with, I always found helpful, and a realization of how many people like this a reporter has the pleasure to meet and get to know — even if they don’t make headlines.

Rest in peace, Myrle.

Pack journalism

The recent anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing led me to reflect on the mentality of pack journalism and how it took over the newsroom of the Muskogee Phoenix 25 years ago.
My first exposure to a mass-scale media event came in 1977, when three Girl Scouts were murdered at Camp Scott near Locust Grove, Oklahoma, as my third week as a full-time professional journalist began. Naturally, journalists from the national and state levels swarmed to join we locals in the coverage. The case was big news when it happened, when suspect Gene Leroy Hart was arrested and when he acquitted. I had to learn how to defend my right to the territory the big boys considered theirs by default. The national TV and print media people were only in town during those three high points, but a lot of good state people were there all along. I enjoyed meeting and interacting with them, especially Doug Hicks and Rob Martindale from the Tulsa World.
It was a big story, and was deservedly covered in a big way.
So was the Oklahoma City bombing, but the style of news coverage had changed between 1977 and 1990.
Naturally, everyone from national and state media outlets flocked to Oklahoma City after receiving news of the bombing.
At the Muskogee Phoenix, Executive Editor George Benge couldn’t wait to get there himself. He also recruited reporter Donna Hales, photographer Jerry Willis (as I recall) and several other people from the newsroom to make the trek. I know Donna stayed in Oklahoma City for two or three days. Her main coup was finding the grandmother of one of the missing victims.
I stayed in Muskogee and was glad to do so. Not that I’ve ever shirked from covering a disaster, but I questioned the wisdom of abandoning our main duty as journalists — to report the news of our community — to go report a story everyone else would have, in pretty much the same version. Muskogee still had its ongoing news. The City Council was still making decisions that would impact local residents, there were fires, shootings, car wrecks, all that our readers wanted to know about.
I could understand reacting to the original tragedy, but in the weeks that followed the continued coverage of the bombing reached levels of absurdity. Our editors looked for anything that might possibly, conceivably have something to do with the bombing.
I remember writing one story that was quite legitimate. Ruby Compassi, who lived on Country Club Road was the grandmother of one of the bombing victims, Julie Welch. Julie, a lovely 23-year-old, had majored in Spanish and worked as an interpreter for the Social Security Administration in the Murrah Building. I had a moving conversation with Mrs. Compassi as she told me about her fond memories of her granddaughter, and her hopes for a future that now would never be realized. Julie’s body had not yet been found, and Mrs. Compassi hoped that would happen soon so the family could make arrangements. Julie’s father, Bud Welch, became a prominent spokesman for the victims as the case proceeded.
A stark contrast was another story I was sent on. My editor told me a Muskogee woman had some relatives who once had lived in Oklahoma City, and she thought possibly some of them might have been in the building when it exploded. A photographer and I went to see the woman, who didn’t appear to have a very firm grip on reality. She wasn’t certain when, or if, the relatives had lived in Oklahoma City, or where they were at the time. She didn’t know of any business that might have taken them to the Murrah Building on that day, had they lived in Oklahoma City. By that time most of the victims had been recovered and identified, and it was highly unlikely that anyone related to the woman could be among their number.
I went back and told the editor it was a waste of time as the woman was uncertain about anything. It was just as likely her relatives were in Portland, Ore., or Kissimmee, Fla. But I had to write the story because of the extremely slight possibility of a connection, we were so obsessed with localizing the bombing story.
Pack journalism has devolved into the mentality of a group of kids, where each has to have something just because the other does. Yes, it’s important to localize a major story if that can be done. But it’s hardly valuable to our readers to become contortionists, stretching to make something local when there is no relevant connection. We can better serve them by focusing our energy on issues closer to home that have more connection to their lives, and letting them learn about other stories from media sources in those areas. That becomes particularly important with the continuing shrinkage of local news staffs and the inability to give local news the coverage it deserves.