Todd Cecil, host of Revival Flames Ministries of Joplin, Missouri, was just about the biggest celebrity to make an appearance in Lennox Valley during my childhood and early teen years. He was a fixture on Sunday morning television since the 1970s, and my dad and I watched the famed evangelist as we waited for the rest of the family to get dressed for church each week.
At 5:30 p.m. Monday, May 4, 1998, Iris Long had just created a headline for the Wednesday edition of The Lennox Valley Hometown News, “Missouri Flame Thrower Heats Up Valley,” when she got the phone call from Vera Penrod, chair of the Lennox Valley Auburn Hat Society.
“I suppose you’ve heard the news,” began Vera, “but I felt it my civic duty to make sure you, as editor of our town’s newspaper, got the information from a reliable source.”
Iris was no stranger to Vera’s “civic mindedness” and could only imagine whether there had been another breech in protocol at the weekly farmers market or, perhaps, Father O’Reilly was drinking a Miller Lite at The Haufbrau again. For once, Vera, just off the phone with Diane Curtis, had something newsworthy.
Timing is everything — not just in the news business, but in most of life. If the Rev. Whedbee, superintendent of the Spring County District of the Methodist Church, had just waited one more day to make the announcement about Sarah Hyden-Smith being appointed as pastor of Lennox Valley Methodist Church, it would have been too late for the news to make the front page of The Lennox Valley Hometown News.
As it was, Diane Curtis, chair of the church’s pastor-parish committee, received the call late Monday afternoon just as Iris Long, editor of The Hometown News, was laying out the headline for what she thought would be her next front-page story.
A new preacher at the Methodist Church wouldn’t normally be front-page news. Methodists tend to change preachers almost as often as underwear. But a woman minister? In Lennox Valley? This was most certainly front-page news.
Iris slyly grinned as she imagined the impact of the story. The timing was perfect. A good portion of the town would learn of the news first in The Hometown News, and the explosion of letters to the editor would make her work that much easier in the coming weeks.
Iris made a monumental decision. She called Scott Critchlow, owner of the printing plant in Springfield, to ask if he could print The Hometown News overnight instead of waiting until the usual Tuesday afternoon. Wanting to keep his longtime customer happy, Critchlow agreed, and Iris was going to have a special edition on the street Tuesday morning, in time to beat Raymond Cooper, of “Renderings with Raymond” fame, to the story.
She had to work fast. She called her lone reporter, a young intern from the local junior college, and told him to interview the Rev. Billy Joe Prather of First Baptist Church and Father O’Reilly to get their take on the breaking news while she finished the rest of the paper in time to take the pages and pictures to the printer by 9 p.m.
The headline, in 120-point type, read: “Turn Up the Volume for New Methodist Pastor.”
Each week, “The Good Folks of Lennox Valley” chronicles the happenings of a fictional American small town.