By Herb Brock, guest columnist and former editor of The Cynthiana Democrat
It was 1974 and I was supervisor of a small bureau within the state Department of Public Information in Frankfort. It was a good job but my plan since graduating college three years earlier was to become a real journalist, not a government spokesman.
I had mailed out several resumes but not a bite, not even a nibble. At a point when I was about to put my quest to be a newspaperman on hold, I got a call from Thelma Taylor of Cynthiana. I knew Thelma through my friendship with her son, David, when we were classmates at Georgetown College. From time to time, she called me to discuss my career goals and suggest places to apply.
But in this most recent call, Thelma actually had a firm job possibility - the position of news editor at The Cynthiana Democrat. Thelma had served for years in the post but was in the process of phasing down her career. She urged me to apply for the job and, in what was another example of the “it’s not what you, it’s who you know” axiom regarding how to get a job, I did land the news editor position. I thought I was a good writer and had a decent portfolio of samples, but the reason I got the job was because I knew Thelma, and I served in it from 1975 to 1979.
Right from the start of my new job, the old adage took on new and important meaning. Under Thelma’s tutelage, what I knew about journalism increased immeasurably and who I knew that got me into the field became a true friend. Thelma not only took me under her wing to teach about newspaper work but she took me, my wife, Jerry, and even our cat, Blanche Marie, under her other wing to help us in out transition to a new community.
Thelma was my newspaper mentor and my Cynthiana mother.
Regarding her help as an instructor in Journalism 101, she taught me that journalism, especially in a small town, was just a fancy word for getting to know, as well as cover, a community from the bottom up.
You needed to get to know the school custodian as well as the school superintendent. You needed to get to know the courthouse clerk as well as the county judge-executive. Everybody was important, had a key role to perform and had a story to tell, Thelma said.
Thelma also taught me there was more to covering a fire, flood or murder than just reporting the numbers of buildings burned, houses filled with water or bullets fired into a victim. You should also tell how tragic incidents impact victims, their families and their communities, at least that’s what Thelma instructed.
Looking below the surface was particularly required when it came to covering government bodies and other publicly-funded organizations, Thelma taught me. She said you always read between the lines of public officials’ comments and the motions their bodies enact, she said. You needed a shovel to dig below the surface bigger than the one some government officials used to spread their bull over what they were up to. You were to serve as the public’s representative, Thelma said, finding out how their taxes were being spent, forcing officials to be accountable and making local government as transparent as possible.
Thelma also taught me that, as editor of a small-town paper, you not only had the duty of informing the public so they could know what was going on in their government and to make the best possible decisions in local elections, but you also had an obligation to help lead public opinion on important issues.
Every lesson she taught me was accompanied by real-life examples of her at work putting those lessons into practice, and I especially marveled at the way she performed her editorial role as an advocate. When it came to pressing for programs, ordinances, people or facilities she thought the community needed, she was a tiger. She fought tirelessly for what she believed in.
Thelma employed that same ferocity and relentlessness in pursuit of a cause to the Democrat and the company that owned it. The first woman ever to serve as editor of the paper, she was an advocate for equality of opportunity and pay not only for women but also for African-Americans.
Under that other wing - the one where she was my mother in Cynthiana - Thelma not only helped my wife and me in our search for places to live, eat and worship, she also opened her home and family to us. As stubborn, tenacious and even righteous as Thelma was as an editor, she was just as kind, caring and loving as a friend. A devout Christian, Thelma didn’t preach her faith - well, sometimes she did - she lived it.
All of these memories and many more of my journalism mentor and Cynthiana mom had begun flashing before my eyes even before Thelma’s death. The flow actually started during the last week of December as I retired after a 31-year career as a reporter, special projects writer and columnist at The Advocate-Messenger in Danville. It was a good and productive,three-decade tenure, and I was fortunate to win several writing awards and other honors. And every award, honor, well-written story, provocative column and influential editorial was due to what I learned from Thelma. What I knew about journalism had been built on a solid foundation because I not only knew Thelma but also learned from her.
I join everyone in Thelma’s beloved Cynthiana and Harrison in bidding farewell to a woman who not only was the personification of a community journalist, an excellent storyteller in both the spoken and written word, and a passionate proponent of beliefs she held dear and supporter of causes she felt would benefit the community, she also was the best teacher, role model and friend anyone could have.