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A Salute to My Journalism Mentor, Frank Martin

West Plains Daily Quill

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozark Hills. I’m pausing to reflect on milestones, and how, as we get older, we accumulate more and more of them. I just collected another one from the sidelines, upon hearing of the retirement this week of my mentor and former employer Frank Martin III, editor and publisher of The West Plains Daily Quill. He was the son and grandson of respected journalists, one who helped begin the University of Missouri’s school of journalism; the other a seasoned World War II correspondent. Neither could match his ability as a writer, photographer and teacher of journalism. He was bent on bringing the reporters who had the grit for it up to the level of professionalism he insisted on and occasionally got.

Like all of us, he had his warts, certainly. His judgment wasn’t always perfect, and his journalist forebears, it seemed, were probably better journalists than they were at raising children. His was not always an easy journey through life, and that’s his business. His personal pains were compounded when surgery to remove a malignant tumor caused damage to a nerve most famous for causing a level of pain sometimes described as suicidal.  But he soldiered on, as expected of him and as he expected of himself. In other words, he was a complicated man, easily riled, sometimes unreasonable, often uncompromising. But he taught me journalism. He made of me a writer. And he did so by making me understand just how important it can be to ferret out the truth in a boatload of opinions, misstatements and outright dissembling. Not because it will make one popular. “If you manage to offend people on both sides, you’ll have gotten it just about right,” he would say. “That’s why journalists don’t have friends. Sooner or later, you may be required to tell the truth about them.”

I got the job just out of my second try at college, moved down to West Plains and began writing on a green-screened Tandy computer with no on-board memory, so when a disk failed, your morning’s work was just gone, and had to be done over. It became one with the universe, my city editor told me. Do it again. And no matter how many details remained and how deathless the prose, at 2:30 we got the word. Put a period on it. All performed to the chatter of the last old-fashioned teletype machine in America to be silenced in favor of the little dot matrix printer. My first mistake was misspelling a city official’s name due to an attack of Ozarkese. After all, how was I to know that Mr. Gutfahr’s name ended it FAHR and not FIRE? I found out next morning when Frank went over the front page and came roaring out of his office shouting “Marideth, You Blithering Toot!” The next mistake was a long time coming.

One day I hitched a ride in both a tiny, two-seater, no canopy airplane and an even tinier experimental flyer that seemed made from two lawn chairs, a window fan and a large umbrella. Another time I went with him out into the national forest to photograph and document the crime scene after hunters found a man who had had his hands, feet and face removed some two weeks before he was found. I photographed and reported on a Rainbow Gathering. I went to Costa Rica and Panama, alone and speaking no Spanish, and then flew to Florida to report to the funders of the research grant he applied for and got to pay for my trip. I photographed and reported on a house fire where a child died, and was interviewing the firefighter when we came upon what was left of her tiny body. I wrote a series of stories on AIDS before we knew that we knew friends who would die of it. I wrote another series that put a man in jail, and still another that put me in enough fear for my life that Frank loaned me one of the guns he carried, for the same reason he carried it.

By the time I ended my tenure there, I firmly believed that everything in my life previous to that job, the places I lived, the people I encountered, the experiences I accumulated, was just research for the job I was asked to do here in these oldest and most isolated hills. When people asked me how I had the courage to do those things, my reply was always the same. “It was either go out and do it, or come back and tell Frank I couldn’t. I just couldn’t do that.” 

That was just part of the answer. The rest, the unvoiced part, was that through him, and his unwavering trust and support and insistence on my best efforts, I came to understand the real reason why the press is the only profession protected by the Constitution. Because the real job is to give a voice to the truth, for the people who would otherwise have no voice. The people who trust us to get it right. What passes for journalism today very seldom meets that standard. 

The time I remember most from my days at The Quill was a rare, brief moment talking about some long forgotten story when I asked Frank how it was he was able to leave his job as city editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune to take over a small town, small market paper. He replied by telling me of the stories he’d covered at that post, including the night a jealous boy at a gay bar doused the entrance of the bar with gasoline and set it afire and burned everyone in it alive. His were the photographs of the charred hands reaching through the barred windows. “I doubt I’ll have to do that here,” he said.

So Happy retirement, Frank the Three, along with my deep and heartfelt thanks. You have so earned it. You stayed your time, you created a few really good writers, and launched some careers. And you showed a whole lot of people what real journalism looks like. May all your writings now be at your leisure, and all your photographs, as most have in recent years, be of the splendors of these beautiful Ozarks Hills.