Max Brantley was perfect in describing William T. Shelton, the long-time city editor of the Arkansas Gazette who died May 8, as a man who “out-Bogarted Bogart,” the legendary actor who played a hard-boiled city editor in the movie “Deadline USA.”
I first met Mr. Shelton (he will always be Mr. Shelton to me) when I was a 17-year-old newly minted graduate of Little Rock Central High School. I learned quickly that summer of 1957 of the great leap from being co-editor of the Central High Tiger to a summer intern Gazette reporter.
At my job interview, Mr. Shelton talked with me, then handed me a few press releases from several civic clubs and asked me to turn them into what the Gazette called city news briefs. Sweaty fingers pounded them out on the Royal typewriter. He read my briefs and told me I couldn’t write worth a damn. But he said he liked my attitude and hired me.
My journalism career began as what was referred to in the newsroom as being “crap editor” -— handling things like the city news briefs, river levels, obituaries, births and the Saturday listing of Little Rock and North Little Rock church services on Sunday, complete with sermon titles. For this 17-year-old, it was like handling page one stories every day.
I came to work at 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and sat at the desk right next to Mr. Shelton. This lasted, thankfully, only to 3 p.m., when assistant city editor Gene Foreman reported in. Then I could slink back into the newsroom and find a vacant typewriter next to such writers as Charles Allbright, Roy Reed or Ray Moseley. I learned from them and others that reporting and writing the news doesn’t come easy.
The most terrifying time that summer came when Mr. Shelton turned to me one afternoon before 3 p.m. and asked me to write the obituary on his wife, who had just died of cancer. I wrote it and handed to him. To this day, I don’t remember him saying a word. He just edited it and sent it on to be published the next morning.
Mr. Shelton has been applauded through the years for his direction of coverage of the Central High crisis, which began that August. He deserved every accolade he received.
On Wednesday, Sept. 4, during my last week at the Gazette before going to Evanston, Ill., to enter college at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Mr. Shelton sent me “undercover” into Central High to get students’ reactions on the crisis since the school was ringed with Arkansas National Guardsmen. The guardsmen thought I was a student. Those I interviewed were very frank.
Upon my return, I sat next to Mr. Shelton, as he began typing, “Randy Preddy, a cub reporter for the Arkansas Gazette, and a 1957 graduate of Central High School, returned to the school yesterday afternoon …” I then gave him quotes from my interviewees. The story appeared the next morning on that same front page headlined with the Little Rock Nine being turned away and that historic photo of Elizabeth Eckford being jeered by a crowd as she approached the school.
Some of the student comments blamed Gov. Orval Faubus for the crisis. The story prompted strange speculation among the crowd that gathered that morning along Park Street in front of Central. Gazette reporters came back to say they had heard I had quit my job because the quotes had been changed to reflect anti-Faubus sentiments. Not true; I was simply going off to college.
Let me pass on one example of Mr. Shelton’s handling of news. Governor Faubus days earlier had testified in a local court that he feared violence at Central if the nine students were admitted. He said pawnshops in the area were selling out of knives and guns.
Mr. Shelton sent reporters to canvass pawnshops. They brought back a different story from what Faubus said, and the Gazette printed it.
For that summer and the next three at the Gazette, I learned that Mr. Shelton was all about truth. That lesson and others stuck with me my whole newspaper career in Kentucky, Ohio and Texas. My four summers at the Gazette learning from Mr. Shelton and the Gazette staff provided me a lifetime of advice to give others. Today, I pass on some of Mr. Shelton to journalism students at Baylor University.
I read too often today with sorrow of mistakes journalists are making, the latest being that of Newsweek’s report from an anonymous source about the desecration of the Koran.
There has been hand-wringing among media types for all these transgressions. The best answer I know would be to have more editors like Mr. Shelton, who could at times be very funny, but who knew why he was there in the smoky city room at the Gazette — to find and publish the truth.
Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald
An amen and high-five to Bob Lancaster for his “Goomered” column.
Dorothy D. Stuck
Jesus’ party affiliation
I don’t know what kind of feedback he’s getting so far, but I for one appreciated John Brummett’s response to Sen. Tim Wooldridge’s comment that “Jesus would have been a Democrat.”
Mixing religion and politics may be like mixing bleach and ammonia, as Wooldridge is probably finding out. Maybe that’s one reason Democrats don’t like to talk about our religious beliefs, if we have any. Or maybe it’s because most of us believe in that old-fashioned concept called separation of church and state. Or maybe we’re just embarrassed to be associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.
Whatever the case, it’s easy to get the impression that all Democrats are atheists and all Republicans are fundamentalist zealots. I don’t believe either is true. I’m sick and tired of both parties telling me how I have to feel, think and vote if I want to call myself a Christian. Call me crazy, but I think it’s entirely possible to believe in both evolution and God. Or to accept gays as our brothers and sisters in Christ. Or to be both pro-choice and Christian. (Please don’t bomb my house.) It seems that the mainstream media and even some Times columnists don’t believe it, but I do.
Maybe it’s time for Democrats who happen to be Christian to own up to it. Perhaps that’s what Wooldridge was trying to do in his awkward way. But we won’t accomplish anything by acting like the Republicans who are claiming ownership of Jesus.
Glad to see one of the more interesting Arkansas sports columnists, Robert Shields, in the Times. He is one of the few willing to give a hard eye to “the Program” in Fayetteville, which consumes so much money and oxygen in the state.
That’s why I was surprised to read he called UAF’s pass on expanding luxury boxes at War Memorial Stadium as cutting off its nose to spite its face. However, that would assume Frank Broyles had wanted to continue to play in Little Rock in the first place.
A better example might be its refusal to play Arkansas State -— an event that, ironically, would be a wild money-maker, in addition to the excitement an in-state rivalry would generate over the three or four Hogs vs. Sisters of the Poor games.
And speaking of Little Rock stadia in need of a few luxury boxes, shame on Jim Harris for a) calling Ray Winder Field a dump and b) making me agree with Rex Nelson.
And shame on the city of Little Rock for long neglecting and now apparently in the process of “re-purposing” a historic, well-located attraction. Especially when Ray Winder Field actually is what all these faux historic ball fields are attempting to be. Even worse — Pulaski Countians, will we pay to construct this proposed North Little Rock ballpark?