Thursday, December 23, 2010

Remembering those who departed in 2010

Some memorable people left the scene in 2010. This was the way I remembered them in The Turner Report:

As much as I love Newtonia, I would be hard pressed to make any claims about the community’s nightlife. That pretty much came to an end in the late ‘60s when Carroll Gum’s store stopped closing at 6:30 or 7 p.m. and began shutting its doors at 5.

Oh, there was the occasional rousing game of bicycle soccer with the Letts brothers, the Oxendines, Danny Hilton, and Larry Wheeler in front of the store until there were either too many injured players to continue or until Herb Troxel called the Newton County Sheriff’s Department on us. We were always gone long before the deputy arrived…if Mr. Troxel really made the phone call.

Things changed on Jan. 10, 1969, with the opening of the Brown Derby, just one mile west of the town. It was open until 9 p.m., with fast food (or complete meals), soft drinks, and a back room with a pool table. Nightlife options had greatly improved. It was also close enough that we could walk there, even though it was highly discouraged due to the traffic on Highway 86.

It wasn’t until I started driving that my options were increased. I was introduced to the joys of Neosho, and even better, as far as I was concerned, I was able to escape from the back room pool table of the Brown Derby and sample the new restaurant on Highway 60 in Granby, Reta’s.

I don’t remember anything about the food at Reta’s in those days. After all, I was an East Newton High School student and one thing all of the boys at East Newton knew was that the best looking girls at the high school worked at Reta’s.

My first date was with a waitress from Reta’s, my first kiss came from a waitress from Reta’s (different girl, better results).

And though the young females were my primary interest at that point, there were other pluses about Reta’s. Often those of us who were fortunate enough to be there were entertained by stories from City Marshal Duane Beaver, or entertained ourselves with spirited, often noisy discussions on sports or politics.

I was usually not there when Reta’s owner, Reta Fullerton, was in the building, but there was another Rita who came to symbolize the restaurant for me and for most of its patrons.

For many of us, Rita Wheeler symbolized Reta’s. As the ownership changed, from Reta Fullerton to Pat and Vern Styron, and whoever followed them after I moved out of Newton County, Rita’s ever-present smile and unfailingly courteous manner was the one constant.

Long after I last stepped foot in Reta’s, when the owners after the Styrons changed the name of the establishment, (it seems like it was Charley’s for a while and then something about a hillbilly) if I happened to run into Rita in a store or downtown, she always greeted me by name, as if she had just seen me yesterday. I have a feeling there were very few people whose names Rita didn’t remember.

Rita Wheeler died Sunday at age 97.

Reta’s was an important part of life in Granby and this area during my teen years.

The building that used to house Reta’s is an empty shell of what it used to be with a for sale sign that may stay on there forever, but the memories linger on. Now it is nearly four decades later, and thinking of Reta’s and thinking of Rita Wheeler bring back memories I will cherish for a lifetime.

Several years ago, I bought a couple of videocassettes at the Carthage Friend of the Library's monthly used book sale and found a pleasant surprise on each of them.

The labeling on the cassettes indicated they featured Audie Murphy westerns and nostalgic for those movies, which I had watched on Saturday nights when I was growing up, I put the first one into the VCR and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Not only did the tape include an Audie Murphy shoot 'em up, but it also had a complete KODE newscast from the 1980s.

For those who can't take their news without the usual mixture of glitzy graphics and banter between anchors, the newscast would have been unbearable. The graphics were primitive and that's being generous. The conversation between the anchors was short and to the point.

For those, however, who like their news straightforward and to the point, this videotape was a true blast from the past. When Bob Phillips was anchoring the news, you never had a doubt that everything he said was true. He was not one of those blow-dried anchors with the gift of playful banter that we see so often on today's newscasts, the result of focus groups that have told us that we have to have male and female co-anchors, trading off on stories and forcing meaningless chatter on us at times when another news story would be far more useful.

In fact, to look at him, Bob Phillips should never have been anywhere near the anchor's desk. He did not look like a male model and his voice, distinctive and authoritative, but probably ponderously slow to today's viewers, conveyed the seriousness and respect he had for both his viewers and the news.

He was a radio voice for television and even at the time when he graced the local airwaves, he was already an antique and those of us who watched KODE during those years appreciated the value of that antique.

Even after his days of anchoring the news came to an end, Bob Phillips continued to add weight to KODE's newscast with his much-remembered features, "The Phillips Files," with their examinations of the Joplin area's past and unusual, interesting local people.

Bob Phillips died Saturday at age 78, bringing a close to an era when the story, not the pretty packaging, came first.

During the past few years, we were limited to seeing Bob Phillips on advertising for Always Buying Books, a perfect fit for Bob Wolfe's business and guaranteed positive memories for those who remembered Mr. Phillips' days with KODE.

I miss those days.

I have always been a person with a keen sense of detail about things that have happened in the past (and usually have the notes to back up those memories).

The fact that I can't recall how Clyde Phillips became a food columnist for The Carthage Press during my watch would indicate the likelihood the idea came from the lifestyles editor at that time, Amy Lamb.

Cooking with Clyde was different from cooking columns in other state newspapers in two senses. It was one of the few cooking columns written by a man and it was geared toward healthy recipes long before other newspapers began heading in that direction.

Take those two ingredients and combine them with a personality known favorably to the Carthage community from his time as The Press' circulation director and it did not take long for Cooking with Clyde to become one of the favorite features of Press readership, something which was borne out by our surveys, as well as by word of mouth.

I was sad Friday when I learned that Clyde died at age 75 . It was not surprising. He had a history of health issues, something which led him to using the recipes that he offered readers each week, but it deprived the world of one of its most genial, likable gentleman.

Clyde was one of those who made my move to The Carthage Press in 1990 a smooth one and he was always helpful to me. He was a bit surprised at the beginning when I regularly asked him questions about Press circulation. As the area reporter, I wanted to know the effect, if any, my reporting in Webb City, Carterville, Sarcoxie, and Jasper, was having on the readership in those communities. I also let Clyde know days when we were having a big story and needed to increase the number of newspapers left at retail outlets in area towns.

And no matter how many times I asked Clyde the same types of questions about circulation, I don't recall one time when he lost his patience. He was always pleasant and always a gentleman, both with the public and with those who worked with him at The Press.

Sadly, the passing of Clyde Phillips marks yet another death of one of the people who provided the solid foundation which made The Carthage Press a highly respected newspaper during the 1980s and 1990s, following longtime newsroom fixtures Marvin VanGilder and Jack Harshaw and composing room foreman Jennifer Martin.

They were among the people who helped make the early years of my experience at The Press so rewarding. And sadly, with the environment of today's newspaper business, it is unlikely we will ever have the chance to see so many quality people at one small-town newspaper again.

The voice of Carthage was silenced Sunday night.

Marvin L. VanGilder, whose list of accomplishments boggles the mind, died at age 83.

The reference to Marvin as the voice of Carthage contains a double meaning. Not only was he the city's biggest booster and a repository of its history, but with his booming, radio-trained voice, he commanded attention, while the words he spoke commanded respect.

I was a bit intimidated by Marvin when I joined The Carthage Press staff as the area reporter in April 1990. Having worked at the Lamar Democrat for nearly a decade, I was familiar with Marvin's book, "The Story of Barton County," and had even used many of the events he chronicled in that book when I wrote the pageant for the Truman Centennial in 1984.

Marvin was not only a historian, but he had a lengthy career as a reporter, both for newspapers and radio, and had at one time been the managing editor of The Press. It did not take long for me to understand that Marvin was not one of those hidebound 'old timers" who demanded that things be done the way they had been done for decades. He was the go-to source for all younger reporters at The Press, sharing with us historical background that enabled us to provide a context to our stories, something seldom seen in journalism, either today or 20 years ago.

The influence Marvin had on The Carthage Press and the community are still evident today. Last week, Marvin's illness forced him to miss the latest re-enactment of the Battle of Carthage, but that re-enactment, the ones held in the past, and those that will be staged in the future, would not have been possible had it not been for Marvin's steadfast championing of the city's history.

Marvin turned history into front-page stories, not just through coverage of the re-enactments and the planning sessions that led to those events, but through his thorough embrace of history as a gateway to understanding the present.

When Bill Webster ran for governor in 1992, Marvin was able to provide readers with a clear understanding, not only of what Webster's candidacy could mean for Carthage, but the historical background of Webster's father, the late Sen. Richard Webster's 1952 bid for lieutenant governor, the last time a Carthage resident had sought statewide office.

One of the biggest regrets I had upon taking over the managing editor position at The Press in 1993, was the knowledge that my promotion came at the same time that Marvin was retiring. I would have loved to have had Marvin as a sounding board, but Marvin had other work he wanted to accomplish.

And what a glorious "retirement" it was.

For the last 17 years of his life, Marvin VanGilder wrote history, he spoke to different groups, adults and schoolchildren, bringing the past to life in a way that textbooks never could. And despite his "retirement" Marvin never left the pages of The Carthage Press.

At one point, he was writing three different columns per week, one on Carthage history, one on genealogy, and one offering his perspective on current events. And for 49 weeks from 1996 to 1997, he made it four columns, also writing a history column for our short-lived Lamar Press newspaper. He also wrote three editorials per week for the newspaper. In recent years, he provided The Press readership with a weekly religion column.

It was 40 years ago this year, that Carthage Chamber of Commerce named Marvin as its Citizen of the Year. He spent the rest of his live proving the wisdom of that selection.

During his nearly 84 years on this earth, Marvin was a preacher, a teacher, a historian, a poet, a musician, an author, and a reporter and he excelled at all of these- what a remarkable life.

Thankfully, his writings and recordings have been preserved and Marvin's influence will continue to be felt for generations to come.

Death has taken Marvin VanGilder from us, but his voice, the voice of Carthage, will live forever.


One of the hardest things for a teacher to accept is that he is not going to be able to reach all children.

The instruction methods, the disciplinary techniques, the classroom atmosphere that we use successfully with the greater percentage of our students will simply not work for a few.

And I, like most other teachers, cannot accept that we will never be able to reach those students. We try new techniques, we talk to other teachers to learn how they are able to connect with the student (if they are), and we grow increasingly frustrated as the school year draws to a close and one more student has slipped away.

Brendan Garrett was one of those students I could never reach.

It wasn't because of any kind of personality conflict. When I look back over Brendan's time in my class, I can't recall ever being angry with him. He was never the kind to create a disturbance or to do anything that forced me to take my attention away from the rest of the class.

Every so often, I would talk with Brendan, and I tried not to center all of those conversations on his missing work. I enjoyed those talks, frustrating as they were. At one point late in the 2004-2005 school year, he even told me he liked my class, which gave me the opportunity to ask, "Then why don't you ever turn in any of your work?"

Brendan didn't respond; he just smiled.

As the year drew to a close, I gave a writing assignment on a topic that must have interested Brendan; he turned in the paper on time. Naturally, I thought I had made some kind of breakthrough. No such luck. Things were back to normal for the next assignment.

Finally, the last week of school arrived and I gave my traditional final assignment- critique my class. This gives the eighth graders a chance to tell me what they liked or did not like, what they learned or did not learn, and offers them the opportunity to recommend changes in my class for future students.

There have been times when students who did not put in effort on many (or any) papers for nearly four quarters would turn in astonishingly detailed and perceptive advice and give me insight on why I had been unable to reach them.

I received no such insight from Brendan. He never did the paper.

Brendan Garrett had never been a troublemaker, he had never been one of those students who delighted in taking lesson plans that I thought were well-constructed and turning them into sheer chaos.

He had just been one of those students who slipped away.

All teachers have had the experience of running into former students who created problems for them and having pleasant conversations and at least feeling better that life has managed to work out for those students despite our failure to ever connect with them.

Sadly, I will never have that conversation with Brendan Garrett. The last time he walked out of Room 210 at South Middle School was the last time I ever talked to him.

Brendan Garrett died Tuesday.

Today would have been his 20th birthday.


The 1980s were not easy years for Democrats and especially ones who lived in Jasper County.

We were living through the Reagan years, followed by four years of George H. W. Bush as president and officeholders who had a D by their names on Jasper County ballots were few and far between.

The 1990s did not start much better for local Democrats. Not only was President Bush still in office, but Missouri's governor was Republican John Ashcroft.

With all of those negatives, Ruby Sapp never lost her enthusiasm for her party. I first met Ruby in March 1992, when she stopped by the Carthage Press office to let me know that the state's lieutenant governor and in her words "our state's next governor" Mel Carnahan was going to be in Carthage. Even though she was in a building in which the Press Editorial Board endorsed Republican and Carthage native son Bill Webster, the attorney general, three times, she never lost her sense of humor and never had any doubt that we were wrong and Mel Carnahan was going to be governor.

And one year later, Bill Webster was headed to prison and Mel Carnahan was in the governor's mansion- and there was a Democrat in the White House, Bill Clinton.

Though there was still on average only one Democratic officeholder in Jasper County, Ruby never gave up hoping and was gratified by the success of Kathleen McGuire when she was elected to office in the mid-90s.

One of my favorite memories of Ruby Sapp came when she stopped by The Press office in 1994, a few months after I had been named managing editor to ask me what kind of coverage I planned to give to Hillary Clinton's visit to Independence, Missouri.

I told her Independence was a little out of our reading area, but I would be happy to run some AP copy of the visit. Then I asked her if she knew anybody who was going, knowing full well what her answer was going to be.

It didn't take long for me to convince Ruby to write an account of the First Lady's visit. Lamar resident Kim Stahl was also headed to Independence that day on another mission- protesting the Clinton visit. So The Press ended up not using any Associated Press material at all. I ran Ruby Sapp and Kim Stahl's first-person accounts side-by-side under the headline "Declarations from Independence."

For Press readers, it was a fun look at politics from both sides. For Ruby,seeing Hillary Clinton was a dream come true and things only got better.

Two years after that, she was chosen to represent Jasper County at the Democratic National Convention.

For Ruby Sapp, life was family and Democratic politics.

Ruby died Thursday at age 81 and things were undoubtedly just the way she wanted them- a Democrat in the White House and a Democrat in the governor's mansion.


In just four years in the U. S. Army during World War II, Ralph Houk, a Lawrence, Kansas, native, rose from private to major and for his bravery battling the Axis forces, including participation in the Battle of the Bulge and the Remagen crossing, he earned the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and the Purple Heart.

His service was described by his commanding officer for three years, Caesar Fiore, on the website, Baseball in Wartime. (

Houk was wounded in the calf at Willbillig, Germany during the battle, had the injury bandaged and returned immediately to combat.

"One day in the middle of the battle I sent Ralph out in a jeep to do some scouting of enemy troops," said Fiore. "After being out two nights we listed him as 'missing in action.'

"When he turned up he had a three-day growth of beard and hand grenades hanging all over him. He was back of the enemy lines the entire time. I know he must have enjoyed himself. He had a hole in one side of his helmet, and a hole in the other where the bullet left. When I told him about his helmet he said 'I could have swore I heard a ricochet.' We marked him 'absent without leave' but were glad to have him back alive."

That brave soldier, Ralph Houk, who died in July at age 90. also was among the troops who landed on the shores of Normandy, had a connection to Newton and Jasper counties, since he lived in Neosho in 1939 and Joplin in 1940.

That was when Ralph was a catcher, playing on the minor league teams in those communities. In Neosho, he batted .286 and drove in 56 runs. At Joplin, his numbers improved as he raised his average to .313

Though he reached the major leagues following his military service, he never made much of an impact on the only team he ever played for, the New York Yankees, until 1961, when Ralph Houk replaced Casey Stengel as the Yankees’ manager.

The following passage was taken from his obituary in the July 17 New York Times:

As he got ready to manage in a World Series game for the first time, against the Cincinnati Reds in 1961, Houk was asked whether he was nervous. “Why, is somebody going to be shooting at me?” he replied, according to “The Man in the Dugout,” a book about managers by Leonard Koppett.

Houk managed for 20 seasons, with the Yankees, the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox. He was known for building the morale and confidence of his players with an optimistic outlook and a refusal to criticize them publicly.

“I don’t think you can humiliate a player and expect him to perform.” he said.
Houk, who was only the second manager in baseball history to reach the World Series during his first three years, never forgot that baseball was just a game, a lesson he learned early as he went from the baseball fields at Neosho and Joplin to the battlefields where he served his country with distinction.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this brief reminder of good citizens. Not a bad role model in the bunch.

Anonymous said...

I was in that 8th grade 2nd hour class with Brendan. I hadn't heard the news of his death until facebook brought it to my attention today, almost 5 months later. Your story was exactly the way I remembered brendan! He was the nicest guy to everyone. He never changed from elementary to middle School and that too was the last time i ever spoke to him. It's very sad!