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.