Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Odd Eggs

By Theresa Shadrix

The spring of 1939 was the perfect time for dreaming in Alabama.

The south was hypnotized by Margaret’s Mitchell’s book Gone with the Wind and with the movie premier later that year in December, Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh would become southern royalty.

Even with the depression and looming war, folks were optimistic.

Classrooms were filling up with students wanting to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Farmers were preserving crops by refrigeration.

Industry was booming.

It was the ideal atmosphere for a 21-year-old dreamer.

While most of her friends were setting up house or pursuing careers as nurses and teachers, one young woman set out to become a real newspaper reporter.

Sure, she’d written movie reviews for her cousin’s paper in Thomasville as a pre-teen and the clicking of typewriters in the newsroom held her captive since before puberty.

While other girls played with dolls, she played with wooden type cases and learned to set headlines.

But, just because she had been a shadow in the newsroom, it didn’t make her a real reporter.

In 1939, fresh out of college, she was armed the achievement as class valedictorian of her high school and a degree when she walked into The Montgomery Advertiser for her first job interview.

She felt confident, sure of herself and at home.

After all, the Advertiser newsroom was the incubator of her childhood companions – the words of newspapermen like Grover Hall, Max Moseley and Atticus Mullin.

But, on this spring day in 1939, the dream of this young woman would begin with a compliment and end with devastation.

“I’ve read some of your articles. You write well,” Hartwell Hatton told her. Then he added, “If you were a man, I’d hire you. But, I don’t want any female reporters.”

Confidence and good writing could not change the fact she was a woman.

Kathryn Tucker Windham didn’t give up her dream that day. She wasn’t skipping with glee when she returned home to Thomasville to work with her mother at an insurance office. But, she kept on writing.

She wrote stories for her cousin’s newspaper, The Thomasville Times, and became as a stringer for the Mobile Press-Register, The Montgomery Advertiser and The Birmingham News.

It would take World War II before Windham finally received the call she’d dreamed about. In March 1941, she accepted the position at The Montgomery Advertiser left vacant by Allen Rankin when he became a soldier. She was paid less than Rankin for the same job, but she was finally a real newspaper reporter.

She didn’t have much time to breathe when the real world hit her as two young girls initiated her into the fraternity of reporting. On April 21, 1941 the naive, girl reporter from small town Alabama had to gather facts on the drownings of Euline Hicks, 12, and her sister Juanita, 10.

When one of the bodies was discovered by the river, Windham was the one the police asked the stand guard while they retrieved equipment. This newspaper world didn’t smell as sweet as she recalled in her dreams, but she told every detail in her stories to readers.

Along with being the police reporter, Windham also shared stories of the “odd eggs’ in town and was crowned the “Odd Egg Editor”. Telling odd stories would become her trademark, in print and in spoken word. She shined not only in reporting, but in photography and storytelling.
She was also a widow and mother to three young children at a time when being a single working mother seemed very odd indeed.

Although I was struck by her charm the first time I met her and in correspondence that followed the Longleaf Style magazine feature on Windham in 2007, it took my reading her book, Odd-egg Editor, to appreciate the oddity of Kathryn Tucker Windham. In the current era, when newspapers struggle with identity and reporters want to dictate what stories are important, it is refreshing to remember the dreams and perseverance of a young reporter 70 years ago. Kathryn Tucker Windham excelled at being the odd-woman out and by simply by telling stories. It's a goal that doesn't seem so odd.


Theresa Shadrix is the managing editor of Longleaf Style magazine. Among her most prized books is an autographed copy of Odd-Egg Editor sent by Mrs. Windham that reads, “To Theresa Shadrix, to give account of what it was like to be a girl reporter a long time ago. Kathryn Tucker Windham. Selma, August 2008.”

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

A fascinating account.Thanks for sharing.

The Pulpwood Queen said...

I have to read this book, where can I get a copy Theresa? I can also understand why that autographed copy means so much to you.
I see stories unfold before me everyday that never get reported. The big black pig running along side my car with a big black labrador, now that's a story. The Jefferson woman whose husband was second in command at the United Nations in Baghdad during the devastating hotel bombing and waiting for nearly a day to find out he was still alive and well. The child gymnast who won first place in the national gymnastist competition going on to the Olympics, isn't that a great story. And my fellow Pulpwood Queen whose home was doused with gasoline and burned to the ground while she and her husband were on vacation. None of these things were reported in any newspaper and some though, small are newsworthy and others it blows my socks off there was nary a mention in the local papers. I have to read this woman's book for inspiration.
kat
The Pulpwood Queen

Theresa Shadrix said...

Kat,

There are some used ones on Amazon, but only a few.

You will love this book and all of her "odd" stories and things she went through in the beginning of her reporting days!

Honestly, I'd love to be an Odd-Egg Editor and think I've been able to write some pieces for Longleaf Style, like Bigfoot, that would fit the "odd" category!

If I find a copy of this book, I'll let you know! She will be at the Alabama Book Festival in Montgomery on April 18, as will Rick Bragg.

Blessings,
Theresa

Kimberly said...

What a fascinating woman! I love people who recognize that everyone has a story. Thank you for sharing this. I'm going to hunt that book down.

Melia Dicker said...

This is an inspiring story for those of us women who are making a name for ourselves in writing. We all have our own obstacles, both mental blocks and practical circumstances, but at least women like Windham have opened up the writing field for us. Her story is further evidence that we can make a living doing the quirky things we love, like odd-egg reporting.

Thanks for the motivation to keep building a new career from the ground up!