Journalist Notebook 

*Love of Words*/*Writing Paper*

 Always the Niggling of Words

The Enchanting Pneumatic Tube  and  The Telephone Operator

Stories That Stuck

Love of Words

I love words.  There’s no secret about that.  I can’t remember far enough in the past to find a time in my life when I wasn’t enchanted by what words could do for us.

Anyway, this came to my mind the other day when someone called to ask me how to spell a word. For some reason, maybe because I’ve been deep into this field of words good part of my life, a lot of family members do that.

I went pawing through my book-lined office where I had dedicated one room-sized shelf to books about writing. Reading and learning are close as a door and a hinge. Every time I run across a gap in my knowledge I start reading about that subject.                

The first book I pulled off that shelf was a thin paperback called “The Courage to Create,” by Rollo May.  It was on my shelf but I didn’t buy it.  I was eight or nine years old when it was published. However, when I was older and still trying to learn to write, often the books came to me sometimes as gifts. These gifts eventually lead to me hanging out in bookstores.

I was lucky enough to land a job in the newspaper business. Lining up words into sentences and paragraphs for the newspaper readers became my life.  Early in my writing life I became a fan of Natalie Goldberg. I had read several of her novels before I found  “Writing Down The Bones.”  This book is not just about words but about her thoughts and advice about writing. I liked her thoughts more than just words and definitions; Do not stir the words up together like cake mix, she exhorts in the book; You must put some heat from your heart and soul. “Care,” she insists.

While I was in this mental brain world, I recalled one of the most precious books on my shelves. It was titled “Style Book of the New York Times.” Oh, I’ve looked up apostrophes and brackets and parentheses, which took up a page and a half of the book.

But that’s not why I treasure that little hard cover style book. A signature inside says Dick Connelly, the chief editor of the Hamilton Journal-News where I had my first crack at looking for the daily news and finding my byline. And a second name under Connelly’s was Bill McDulin.

My desk in the newsroom, for a time, was next to Bill’s. When you hear people say their workplace where all the workers become like a family, you can count on it. I missed both of those people along with many others in my newspaper family.

Although Connelly was in charge, he was gentle: One day early in my stay there he called out across the newsroom: ”Ercel, I see you’ve moved this funeral home across the river.”  I can still feel my face turning red, even though it’s been a half a century ago.  A simple street number mistake was an embarrassing lesson.

Some of the staffers are gone but not everyone. One day a few months ago, six or seven of my fellow news writers found ourselves grouped in a circle outside the front door of the former Journal News building. Touring the building brought back many wonderful memories.

I will never forget any person I worked with during the 40-some years while I kept on trying to learn to write. Guess I simply can’t stop trying.

Writing Paper

            I didn’t think it was because we were “poverty stricken” at the time. Looking backward across seven or eight decades I figure that was happening.

            The elementary school I attended when I was very young required a lot of pencil and paper work. As I learned I could transfer my thoughts into words on paper I fell in love with the process. The trouble was; I didn’t have enough paper to do my “fun” writing.

            That money was scarce in our family was well-known; so much a part of our lives we seldom discussed it. We “made do” to the best of our abilities. “ I was aware that my mother turned flowered feed bags into skirts and tops for me to wear to school, her feet manipulating the sewing machine with her feet on a wide treadle.

              I knew my father built from scratch tools he needed when fashioning anything from an axe-handle to a mill that harnessed water from Polls Creek to grind home-raised corn into meal for bread for the family, to feed the farm animals as well as baking for the family.

            Lessons in building what we needed, growing our food, sewing our clothes and a hundred other hill farm activities in the Appalachians where our family lived for many years, apparently took root in my elementary School mind.

            I began my search for paper on which to write my own thoughts, other things than those that came as lessons in school. I discovered grocery bags and already-opened envelopes would lay quietly while I fashioned a poem that had been rattling around in my head.

            My searching uncovered pristine pages in the front and back of hard-back books. I could pencil my words there.

            Fast-forward a bit to high school. At Leslie County High my interest in writing received a great lift. One of my -poems was published in the school paper.

         So. No matter how much I yearned to go to college, there were no funds. I found out Berea College would allow students to work their way through.

           But there was a glitch in that plan. I skipped a grade in elementary school because the state was short of enough books for everyone in Polls Creek Elementary. If I could pass a certain test I could move ahead by a grade. I did and as a result was in high school just about at age 15.

            I’m reaching back along the memory road. . . to  motherhood: two daughters, grand-daughters, great grandsons and what some call “advanced age.” But I’m still putting words along the computer face, having conquered a manual typewriter, electric typewriter, several generations of computers and iPads. But nothing will replace the creative feeling of my pencil to writing paper.

Always the Niggling of Words

Some time in the course of a newspaper staff meeting several years ago, the editor leading the session remarked: “Folks, newspapers are dying.”   Since I had been working there many years, my heart sank.

I loved that job.  I look back, now that I’m retired, at those more than 40 years seeming to pass in a twinkling. I enjoyed and learned, and drove my little blue Vega

Here and there in the county while getting to know a fine group of co-workers I treasure to this day.

Added to that are scores of residents of Butler County, from whom I learned many lessons of all kinds of subjects.

Growing up in a remote mountain area in southeastern, Ky., I missed a lot of what was going on I the United States. Early education focused mainly in a one-roomed school serving eight grades and one teacher, a far cry from computers and all the world of technology our kids are into today.

We children in our family home, in one of the so-called  “poverty-stricken” areas, did not notice that description. I remember wanting to write from those early years. Paper was too expensive for our parents’ budget, but I discovered that many books contained a blank page in front and back.

Books in my mind were to dear to deface, but I had to write on something.  But we weren’t the only “poor folks” some years. During my fifth grade year the board of education was short on texts for that grade. I took a test and became a sixth grader on the spot

Time, I have learned, has a way of racing, swiftly taking years and experiences from human beings and depositing them somewhere in the future. At least, so it seems.

As I settle into retirement, my love of lining up words to frame my thoughts is still niggling at my mind. And I hope to recall some of the highlights and struggles of my efforts in 43 years in the field of journalism    

The Enchanting Pneumatic Tube  and  The Telephone Operator

“Journalism as we know it is dying, “ the person conducting the staff meeting said. Of course all the paper’s employees present agreed. I didn’t want to believe that, I loved my job too much.

Starting out, in that field, I had a lot to learn. So, for a time I wrote wedding stories, some obits, and little odds and ends. Didn’t matter to me, I wanted to write. Old-style typewriters served reporters who traveled to news-gathering scenes then back to the sound of the key-click of those typewriters mingled with a background of a different metallic sound from the wires from an Associated Press machine spitting out a continual  unrolling news of all kinds for us to chose.

Retired after 43 years of doing my best to learn the rules of the game, I still didn’t want to put down my reporter’s notebook and give up meeting the variety of human beings who crossed my path every day.

It was a bright day in May when the city editor said to me: “Ercel, could you do a piece on Father’s Day for us?” Well, I jumped on that request with, found out the deadline and started thinking about the story. As I remember, that story appeared on page one or the front of a section.

We had two daughters by that time, and they learned about getting the news as soon as they began to grow up. I told the editor who was interviewing me for the job (I first spent some little time in the paper’s classified department. I was writing tiny little pieces about selling things—still it was words.)

During the interview with the editor I asked him if I could take time off if one of the children became ill. “You got it,” he said. Though I no longer see him daily, I still love him.

My telling the girls about the day’s work mixed with their report on their school day,

Sparked their interest in going to work with me. So we did that.  I thought they would be thrilled to see the big linotype machines where men fashioned our typed words into shape for the public pages.

But I was wrong. Bridget and Bekka were enchanted by the pneumatic that whisked our rolled-up newsprint stories out to the composing room; next, they had never seen wall phone, where an operator chose long cords connecting outside callers with reporters and editors.

The girls began to recognize happenings in our area as news and questioned me like crazy because I would know. Some things I couldn’t tell them, but if I could I did,

It was, for me anyway, a dream of a job. Because I was unable to go on to higher education, I had to be content with my wonderful high school typing classes and a mail order course in Newspaper Institute of America .


Stories That Stuck       Women/Life Honey/John Glenn 

                                                                            Yesterday's Modern Woman / Bits & Pieces  

Stories That Stuck

Decades of following the stories of my fellow residents of Butler County Ohio and surrounding areas left residue of fragmented memories  floating through my head only to surface at strange times  and  places.

Once in a while I like to remember those faces and stories and pay some small tribute to the many and wise lessons and sparkling moments that have resulted ...  ... Stories That Stuck.



The idea came in the midst of a phone call from a dear friend. I’ve know her about a third of a century, during which time, threads of connection slipped along telephone lines, across dinner tables and through the written word.

At age 89, she deals daily with a health problem, the treatment of which takes about half her time. But her head is clear and she jokes across the phone lines as easily as ever.

Individual’s stories, as they have throughout my some 40 years trying to handle words, leap into larger tales, mingle with women's struggles and find homes in the emotional landscapes of females everywhere, it seems to me.

Women, according to a Sunday morning TV feature hosted by Fareed Zakari, make up 49.75 percent of the worlds population. And, with the aid of a panel of experts he traced the history of women’s painful, seemingly impossible trials to make lives for themselves.

From slavery to white owners, to some countries’ system of burning wives on their dead husbands’ graves, to having their feet bound, having no rights to private property and a thousand other “second class” burdens, they struggled, becoming as strong as they needed to be.

Tales of Native American women, as detailed in Steve Wall’s book “Wisdom’s Daughters,” sent my writing fingers back into the life of one of my great grandmothers. I never saw her, but clung to every account of her actions, such as the way she took a sharp knife and climbed upward on the slopes of the Appalachians in search of medicinal plants.

These she returned to the family kitchen to be stored for times of need. Also popping into my mind along with her are the heart-breaking stories of the Trail of Tears.

Catching sight of the US military and its cruelty to these natives, I couldn’t help but think of the strength and hardiness of the women who had to rise up from massacres that took their family members away.

Women, said the Zarkari’s TV program experts “were responsible for this country winning World War II,” going willingly into war plants to stay ahead of the military’s need for ships, planes, tanks, guns and bullets. They took on the load of house and children, husbands at war, and long days in dangerous weapons shops. 

Strong women stand in long lines in my writer’s head. One Ojibway woman, pointing out that men and women were equal in her Native American tribe. Other tribes, she said, had different ideas. In their culture a woman must walk two steps behind the man. Her take on it: “The only way I’d walk two steps behind a man would be to kick his &*=># ‘hind end’.

This is only a small column, not a book, but Charlotte Bronte deserves a mention for not listening to the man who the told her “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life. It ought not to be.” Good thing she went ahead with her writing. And  there’s magnificent actor, Eleanor Duse, who played Juliet when she was 14.

The battles are not over for women of the world; it only takes a bit of research to be struck again by still existing discrimination.

Life Honey

           If I’ve heard it from one person, I’ve listened to dozens say: “I can’t bear to watch the news any more!”

            I can understand. Too much anger, too much violence, threats, hatred and even death reach across millions of miles of this planet pushing depressing facts of fear into listeners everywhere.

            It seems to me enough good news encircles the earth, to dampen our depression and let a little light of uplifting aspects of humanity into our lives.

             The lives of one couple came to my mind immediately as I decided to write this piece. Take Ruby Singleton and her late husband, Harve Singleton. I recall writing about them several years ago, and for all the time I’ve known them I’ve considered their kindnesses and respect for other human beings.

            Harve had hives of honeybees in his back yard. When he harvested the honey he placed a goodly amount into jars on a shelf or table he had constructed there. And, listen to this dear reader, nearby he placed a note meant for any stoppers-by at his yard-advising visitors to place some money in an empty jar with a slit in the metal lid, and “take some of this sweet honey with you.”

             I don’t know how long he did this before his death, but I heard about it from a number of folks. Ruby confirmed it in a telephone conversation the other day.

I remember her making quilts all the time, and, sure enough she was working on one the day we talked.

             “I’m making a quilt for the O’Tucks to raffle off at their annual banquet,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for a number of years. I donate the quilts and they use the money they get from the raffle for their scholarship program.”

               For that cause and other causes as well as individuals, Ruby Singleton has stitched together more than 100 quilts. One set of special bed coverings she made for a relative of hers who lived in a New York City brownstone home. I think those two   beautiful quilts are a source of pride for Ruby, but after her relative’s death, the home was sold, Ruby recalled, to people from a foreign country.

                 “They had earlier seen the silky coverings and requested that they be a part of the home sale,” Ruby said with a small chuckle, “ I assume they’re traveling abroad just now.

            “I keep doing this because I like to keep busy.” That remark triggered a separate conversation between us about our childhood in the mountains of Kentucky.

            I could go on and on about the good things I’ve noticed in my eight or so decades of life.  And, while my mind is trying to grapple with the state of things around the globe, I feed my soul with reading about and listening to the good things around us all.  (Maybe it is technology has made it so easy for us to learn about all that occurs in the world that makes it possible to hear and read so much.)

            A good friend of mine keeps advising me: “Keep a good, positive attitude,” she says, and I’m working on it folks. It keeps me awake nights.

John Glenn

At a time when heroes are in short supply, comes the 50th anniversary of a stand out.

Just checking my own memories of John Glenn I asked this question of a pilot friend of mine: “So, do you think of John Glenn as a hero?”

His face it up, and he began to relate things that fill in the master plan of one who stands taller than tall in Americans’ collective memories. A number of things NASA experts did not know about Friendship 7, which illustrate Glenn’s courage.

Those unknown worries about the capsule, which is in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, many years since it lifted off that Feb. 20, 1962 with Glenn aboard, are amazing.

 My mind slipped back to that first American as he began his flight.

As the countdown ran down, another astronaut (Carpenter) cried out: “Godspeed, John Glenn!”

“They had to worry about so many things,” said the local pilot. “For instance, How would return to earth affect his eyesight.”  Other unknowns surfaced as ground crews, in breathtaking tension, kept track.

His courage and grit brought the U.S. space program up in the country’s esteem. I can remember earlier, going into an open field near our Kentucky cabin and waiting for the Russian-made “Sputnik” to pass across the sky in one of its orbits.

But John Glenn simply erased the tensions, bringing back his craft, Friendship 7, to splash down in ocean’s waters thrilling us all.

His face appeared on my television on the day of the anniversary: “I remember like it was yesterday,” he started. “Maybe because I’ve recalled so many times. It was such an impressive thing at the time I guess it was imprinted indelibly in my mind.”

He looked so familiar on TV, a flock of other images came along to me. Talking to Glenn in the city room of the newspaper where I worked, meeting his delightful wife, Annie and feeling a distinct privilege of chatting with her in an adjoining room.

I might have covered many of his appearances in our county as his post- flight political life took shape, but nothing has marred the hero-image that stays with me to this day.

Our state has a great legacy left by John Glenn. Thousands of workers have good-paying jobs in aerospace programs, dozens of companies were created as a result.

At age 90, Glenn looks the same as I remember, as though age has simply left him alone to grow old as he pleased.

Still today, he stands in front of cameras and urges this country to keep up the space work.

“Godspeed, John Glenn!”

Yesterday's Modern Woman

Feminists and hosts of others put their shoulders to the wheel of justice for women in the last 100 years or so, yet today’s women continue the battle for an easier life.

Maybe technology takes away a lot of physical labor, including the backbreaking stuff of an agricultural culture, but much of their time nowadays is filled with mental rather than physical stress.

Still, if one wished to compare those two times, modern woman would probably choose today’s life. Below, I tell of one whose life I knew well. I was close to her 40 years or so and admired her a lot.


By the time she was old arthritis had pulled her over so that she no longer straightened up when she rose 

from her chair. I was told by others she was straight and slender as a young woman.

Some of my earliest memories picture her stooped over a hoe handle in her garden, her bonneted head bent to the task of ripping weeds from around cabbage plants. That was only one of her chores, one she fitted in among scores of other duties.

She lived on a farm in a mountainous part of the country and had learned a lot about getting by on very little income because she and her family had weathered the Great Depression.

Her children recalled in their later years how their mother would collect tiny tobacco sacks; little muslin squares when ripped open and washed, bleached, and stitched together, could be dyed and made into colorful tops for quilts. She used the yellow drawstring from the sacks to tack the top to the padding and lining of quilts. 

She kept the inside of her house sparklingly clean. She invented ways to take on what we call “multi-tasking.” I recall her laughingly telling about lifting an iron bedstead to lower the corner on the shirttail of her baby son so he couldn’t crawl into trouble while she left the house to carry in wood for the iron cook stove.

A day’s work might include hoeing in the garden, doing laundry (scrubbing clothes on a corrugated metal washboard, hanging them outdoors to dry), ironing work clothes for her seven sons, sewing dresses (sometimes made of feed bags), cooking three full meals for her large family.

And sometimes she and her husband took in orphans to live with them as long as they were homeless – for some of the orphans that meant until they were adults.

I never heard her voice a single complaint.



Bits & Peices

Maybe its my age letting out the oldest memories, or the emotions evoked while I conducted interviews over some 40-plus years I spent at a newspaper (Journal News) trying to chronicle the life of our area.

Topics of stories ranged from politics and police pieces to general features, sometimes fashion and whatever new happened around us. Following are some examples that sit in my memories.

**An opera singer once surprised me with a deep-throated and wonderful aria at a pause in the conversation. I can’t record here again his name or his background, simply that soaring voice filling the room and his fist punching upward for emphasis at a particularly strong note.

**And, many years ago I wrote about a woman’s 100th birthday. She was sparkly and energetic and liked to tell jokes. I was sent out for another story when she was 103. Got to her front door where I met one of her relatives.

“She’s gone fishing,” he told me. I didn’t mind that she “forgot” our appointment; I was happy she could keep on fishing.

**And over that 43 years of rattling around Butler County I sometimes ran into people with whom the connection was so strong I came home and wrote a poem about the experience. I swear I will never forget that person. Some names I won’t print in this space.

**This column is all about good tales, positive pieces, happy things. I’ll save the sad and horrible for another time.

**I can’t always put a date on when the interviews took place, but those hazy figures floating through my mind, rise up to delight me. For instance, talking to the nature painter Charlie Harper on the rustic porch of his home. A bowl for food sat near the edge of the deck. That, he told me, was where he fed squirrels.

My favorite painting of his is a Cardinal, its pointed feathers and feet sparkling from a tree branch. 

I find myself searching for appropriate words with which to describe the works of this prolific artist. I think “sparkle” fits them best. He followed his own way of drawing, bringing to life the woodland creatures we all love to see.

**I’ve always placed artists and musicians in special places in memory banks. Christopher Walden is also into wildlife painting. My interview with him left me with images of his studio in beautiful Butler County countryside. Built in a large converted barn, the studio offered views of a gorgeous meadow through one whole side of the structure made of glass. I have one of his bird scenes including an intricate background of dried weeds and leaves.

**I could go on and on. Sometimes the editors would send a writer and photographer out to the county’s country roads and tree-lined lanes to get a “spring thing,” or a Christmas thing. Now that was fun.


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