Some people are born knowing what they should do in life. Others have to be grabbed by the shoulders, aimed and pushed to see it. That was the case with me. From the second grade, I wanted to be a pediatrician. In those days, the response to that ambition was usually “Don’t you mean you want to be a nurse?” I stubbornly refused to change my focus.
When I had finished—by the skin of my teeth—one quarter of Chemistry I in high school, it was obvious I was going to have to back off on the medical ambitions. I didn’t have the right kind of smarts for that.
About that time, I found myself sitting in the publisher’s office of Washington, Georgia’s weekly News-Reporter. Smythe Newsome had welcomed my “may I come talk with you?” call. I was working on a Girl Scout career exploration project. He was a classic southern small-town newspaper man. He greeted me warmly, with that wonderful twinkle in his eye. He was soft-spoken and relaxed.
That office of his could have come off a movie set. Dark wood paneling, big wooden swivel chair, bookshelves and, of course, a typewriter. I had been in and out of that office all my life, but this was the first time I’d paid attention to what was going on. I loved the smell of the ink, the clank and clatter of the presses. In that old building, everything seemed just a little mysterious.
Smythe took me on a tour of the printing plant. He explained how they put together the newspaper every week. I was fascinated. Then he said some magic words, “Myra, why don’t you write something for the paper?” I was flabbergasted. “Me?”
“Of course you,” he chuckled. “Myra, I believe you can write. Why don’t you try it?” I wrote—and he published!—accounts of high school activities, of my Girl Scout troop. He explained why he made certain edits, he asked questions to make me think.
In the summer of 1968, I went off to serve part of the summer as a Girl Scout National Museum Aide at the Juliette Low Birthplace in Savannah. I was one of twelve girls in the whole country selected for the opportunity. Smythe said, “Why don’t you write a column while you’re there? People here will love hearing about your experiences there!” At 17, I had my first, albeit short-lived, newspaper column.
Later in the year, when I was trying to decide on a college, a major, a career, he sat me down one day. “Myra, why don’t you major in journalism? You’d be great at it!” He had that twinkle in his eye, but he seemed a little exasperated that I hadn’t seen what was so clear to him. “The Grady College at Georgia is top-notch. I want you to think hard about it.” The fact that he actually taught at the Grady College made it even more appealing.
Smythe Newsome grabbed me by the shoulders, aimed me and pushed me right into my career. I shall be eternally grateful. He cared enough for me to go out on a limb. His confidence and support were unwavering. Right up until the last time I saw him last year.
We ran into him and Jane at the hospital having lunch one day. (Yes, in Washington, Georgia, people go have lunch in the hospital cafeteria even when they have no other reason to be there.) He greeted me with a broad grin and that old twinkle in his eye. “I’m really enjoying reading your columns, Myra. I like the way you present your ideas.”
High praise from the master. I couldn’t help but puff up a bit. He seemed to be truly proud of me. Oh, my.
My mentor is gone now. I’m in mourning, but I’m relieved he didn’t have to hang around and be sick for a long time. I am so thankful for his influence in my life.
Smythe Newsome was the finest kind of community journalist, committed to the truth. He ran stories about some painful events, including the public downfall of his own pastor, because he believed in telling the truth in the face of rumors and vicious gossip. He had no interest in destroying people, or ideas either. He simply told the truth.
Smythe Newsome did not flinch in the face of criticism. No sirree! He knew right from wrong. You could argue yourself blue in the face, but he would not be moved. That included supporting civil rights and school desegregation. He was not always popular. People pulled their advertising from time to time. Then they realized they needed him to stay in business, and that putting his conscience up against his pocketbook was not a productive strategy. He simply wouldn’t budge.
Smythe Newsome was eloquent, his arguments sound. He explained his positions from a deep Christian faith, a knowledge of history and tradition, and his vast wisdom. I loved his columns, always, even when he moved to the right as he got older. They were masterful. He wove humor, scripture and history into a well-illustrated, thoughtful position. He welcomed opposition and would print his detractors’ comments.
It was hard to be around Smythe and not learn something. He seemed always to have time to stop and explain. Or tell a story. His gentle wit and clear thinking appealed to so many of us.
Oh, that the media world could be full of Smythe Newsomes. But there was one, and only one. Ever.