Small-town newspapers are a bit different from their counterparts in New York or Los Angeles. That’s true today, and it was true in 1998, when I was growing up in Lennox Valley.
Unlike papers in the big city, the Lennox Valley Hometown News wasn’t made up of a large staff of full-time journalists and investigative reporters. The total payroll of our newspaper included Boyd Sanders, part-time intern, reporter and student at the local junior college; Maxine Miller, who penned "Rumor Has It," the most popular weekly column in the paper; and Iris Long, who wasn’t really on the payroll as such.
As editor, publisher and owner of the newspaper, Iris got whatever profit was left after all the bills were paid. Needless to say, she wasn’t rich, but she loved her work and knew that she was involved in something important. And for what it’s worth, that’s a lot more than most folks can say.
Until recently, the Hometown News had a part-time advertising person on staff, but demonstrating the power of printed news, she answered a want ad in her own paper and took a job selling real estate for an agency based 16 miles away in Springfield.
That left one other staff member, Elizabeth Barrett, "Lennox Valley’s poet laureate." She would take offense to being called a staff person. It wasn’t that she was rude, she just tended to think of herself in more elevated terms. It was even rumored that Elizabeth, a widow, had married her husband, Millard Barrett, just for his last name. In 1997, Maxine took aim at her fellow writer in "Rumor Has It" with the headline, "Could Worley Browning be next?"
While Iris covered the hard news, Boyd was sent out to cover city council and school board meetings, high school ball games and church socials.
Maxine kept pace with the local rumor mill and was having a banner year in 1998. Her focus had shifted from the "budding" romance between the valley’s two unmarried clergy persons (at least, she assumed that Sarah Hyden-Smith was single) to the latest murmurings concerning Raymond Cooper’s "conversion" at the most recent contemporary service at Lennox Valley Lutheran Church.
It was hard, even for a woman of sophistication and savoir faire — a term Elizabeth liked to use with regularity — to stay above the fray of the recent events of the Valley. It was rare for her to get down into the mud, so you wouldn’t find Elizabeth writing about the annual turkey shoot or TV evangelist coming to town.
Barrett had a way with words. Her column, titled, "Free Verse," always included the words, "by our own poet laureate, Elizabeth Barrett," underneath.
In 1996, she penned one of her most memorable poems:
"There may not be much to see in my small town / but I tend to not let that bring me down./ For just when it seems no life is near, / I make up for that with what I hear."
And there was much to hear during that fateful week in Lennox Valley. "Silver Tongue" Dick Bland, town mayor, was furious at Raymond Cooper, who on Monday slyly hung up on him just as he was getting ready to "out" Cooper for joining the Lutheran church under false pretenses.
All he was able to say, before hearing the click and dial tone, was, "I want to congratulate you."
Now, daily listeners of "Renderings with Raymond" were more convinced than ever that their champion of the airwaves would soon be their new town mayor.
But Elizabeth didn’t fall for Cooper’s performance. She knew something was amiss, and her weekly poem would be the topic of conversation for days to follow:
"Talk-show hero Raymond Cooper / fell on the floor in religious stupor. / To some, that makes him mighty super./ Please hand me a pooper scooper."
Each week, "The Good Folks of Lennox Valley" chronicles the happenings of a fictional American small town.