Tammy Curtis, Managing Editor
Unbeknown to me as I entered the door of the aging building that would be become my home away from home for the next eight years, my life’s path would forever be altered. The smells of press chemicals, ink, hot wax and microwave popcorn that filled the air and the memories of the people who were “it” would forever be implanted in me, along with the ink sisters I would meet along the way.
Fresh out of college and happy to have landed a local job doing what I had been doing for four years, I felt strangely successful. I was hired to build ads for Areawide Media newspaper in Salem. I did it, but quickly became bored with the methodical act. So, when asked to fill in for a reporter in the county that had been my home for nearly four decades, I naturally jumped at the chance
While my first small story caused a little controversy, I was strangely empowered by seeing it in print with my name in the cutline. I was suddenly acutely aware of how telling the truth to a community who might not have known it otherwise, learned it through my words. It wasn’t long until my then editor, Erma Harris, did what altered my life, despite strong opposition from my boss. She hired me as a reporter. I was young, dumb, lacking much real skill except making a story look great on paper and telling the truth.
I learned real quickly we weren’t ASU or the Herald, my college newspaper, published at that time on the most up to date machinery and technology available. The smell of that hot wax we rolled my proof pages through was almost prehistoric to me. We studied about it but it was long gone era according to college. It was equally as empowering each week, as I waited to triumphantly run my pages through the hot yellow glory to their final destination and receive the approval of both Erma and Janie before it headed back to room press.
I learned, ALOT very quickly. Erma taught me how to gently write about tough topics and the importance newspapers play in compiling a living record for a small community that can be recalled for decades, maybe centuries. She taught me how to make a paper visually appealing and allowed me to finally get really creative with color print when we created Avenues Magazine. Without her, I would never have been subjected to unbridled creativity. I was in my element and loved my job and community who I served with all my heart.
When Erma left the company, we went through several editors in a short time. Shockingly, a few years later, I got the opportunity to be at the helm of the newspaper. While I loved the flexibility of being a reporter and an unset schedule, this was a huge change and I was honestly terrified. I had heard horror stories from former employees about working out of the Salem office. Stories of alleged screaming, jumping, cussing and yelling by the then publisher, Janie Flynn had me questioning my choice. I had worked with her on press days for a few years and a few minor run-ins about stories but nothing serious. Janie was actually the only person in my life who, at that point, made me want to be better at what I did. Ultimately, I accepted the position.
It wasn’t long until we had our first issue. I am a crier and when I am angry I either cuss like a sailor or bawl. The latter gives the person causing the tears perceived power, and quite frankly, that makes me even madder and I cry more. Janie accused me of forging a signature for a sports writer I hired. I was in shock, hurt, mad, sad, everything. She called me in her office and I was adamant it was going to be a literal fight. I was ready to throw down because I had not done what she claimed. I spoke, explained, cried, explained some more and then left her office.
That, I suppose, was the defining moment in Janie and my relationship. She listened and explained she was wrong. I understood how it appeared because the handwriting was that of the new hire’s wife and was strikingly similar to my own. I let my hackles down and made every attempt to switch my focus and see her differently from that point forward.
An unspoken bond was formed that day in that cluttered office she loved so much. I think in retrospect, I gained her respect and while she already had mine, it was heightened. I think she knew as well as me that the guy with the dead bird atop his hat would never be a fit for our sports department, but it was all we had. We still laugh about it.
As the years wore on, there were so many lessons Janie taught me that I would never have learned otherwise. Many are largely what I contribute to the success of my own newspaper I would purchase just four years later.
If I live to be 100 I will always remember the things Janie Flynn implanted deeply in my thick skull. There is an “E” in Glencoe. Mammoth only has one “Spring”. “Toward” never has an “S”. There is no such thing as “First Annual”. Always make sure that your jumps end and most importantly, if you put your name on something, you better make sure it’s true, you actually wrote it and utilized credible sources.
But most of all, she implanted within my DNA the love for truth. More importantly, how to present it to the public in a respectful manner and one in which they can understand. She made the best lemon bars and chicken enchiladas. She had a heart of gold hidden behind a life of hurt and pain. This was something I would eventually understand of her somewhat high strung nature.
The more I learned the more I realized, she was like me… driven and that she always had my backside, even if she wanted to kick it once in a while. Like that time we sat through hours of boring depositions in a court case in Little Rock. Suffering tragic accidental losses of both her daughter and husband and having to deal with her own breast cancer it is easy to see how depression could set in. I felt so honored when she trusted me to tell her cancer story. Perhaps all the tales of “horror” I had heard, yet never witnessed, were nothing more than a result of stress. Stress of having to be head of a company with countless responsibilities, more complicated by the corporate structure of the business.
It was during this time, while attending trainings, I met another person who has a massive amount of influence on who I am today. Angelia Roberts was the Batesville Guard reporter at that time, but she also used to work for Areawide and knew my coverage area better than anyone. I consulted her weekly and slowly earned the respect of hundreds of elected officials, law enforcement and others, something I still have today, thanks to her guidance. She taught me to always listen first and write later and to always stand up for the underdog. Most importantly, she taught me to place a value on what I do and not give news I work hard to write away free.
While all of these ladies are both great friends, make no mistakes either one would cut me to the bone with the truth if needed. I need people like that in my life. After all, if the only advice you seek is from those with whom who agree, why seek it?
I can’t count the times their advise has made me change my angle on an entire story or even not do one. Angelia helped me toughen my soft skin into the finely tanned leather it is today, taking peace in truth and realizing I will never make everyone happy. These ladies have sat through my laughter and tears, shared triumphs, helped load and unload 100s of APA awards and always made me look at what could be done better and realize perfection is never met.
When I left the company in 2016, through no fault of Janie’s, it was in a quick and grand fashion with ugly tears, curse words and the rapid emptying of my office. Janie was there to hug me and tell me she loved me and would write me a recommendation if needed. Angelia simply stated, “I can’t believe you didn’t do it sooner.” Within weeks, my “anemia” was gone the ink in my blood returned, as if by fate. I was asked to run a local paper, the one I purchased just a year later and still have today.
At that point, it became my mission to make Spring River Chronicle the best it could be for the community. I vowed to never allow the corporate censorship that forced me to make the decision to leave the beloved job affect my news coverage ever again… even if had to eat ramen noodles for a year due to my income loss.
The ink that flows freely through my veins isn’t always black and white, but it remains today largely because of my passion for truth, government accountability and just to showcase the great people and talent we have in the area I have called home for over 50 years.
After getting home from last weekend’s APA awards and reflecting on the wins of both my paper and Angelia, I learned of the death of a fellow woman in the truth business, who had also attended the event. It is my hope that during Publisher and Editor Mary Mae Fisher’s over half century of service to the Arkansas newspaper industry, she implanted her impressive DNA ink into strong journalists like herself. I have no doubt her ink sisters will carry on her passion for truth.
If not for getting me an ink sister, I don’t think I ever would have realized the value of truth to small town America. I strive each day to provide that to my readers, regardless of if it hurts someone’s feelings sometimes.
So go get ya an ink sister. Not one who loves newspapers, but one who values truth, will stand by you through the good, bad and ugly and always tell you if your butt is too big in those pants or if you need to reevaluate your situation and change something. I am so blessed to have three, yet hope I can earn the right to create many more during my lifetime.