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Two Press Ambassadors for Arkansas, Gone in a Week

4 min read

Charlotte Schexnayder, who sprang from an Arkansas Delta town named for her pioneer forebears to become its newspaper ambassador to the state and the nation, got her beloved nickname “the salty old editor” not in the newsroom, but at home.

The retired Dumas Clarion editor/owner, women’s advocate and state lawmaker died Dec. 11 at just shy of 97 years.

In a 2012 talk at the Clinton School of Public Service she recalled fuming about some issue of waste or injustice, promising to write a “hot editorial.”

Her husband and partner, Melvin, exclaimed “there goes the salty old editor again.” Their children picked it up, and eventually it titled her memoir, “The Salty Old Editor: An Adventure in Ink.”

That saltiness didn’t extend to her language, though. “My mother would have washed my mouth out with soap.”

Schexnayder was the epitome of a gracious Southern lady, Arkansas journalist Rex Nelson said, though tough and nervy.

Skip Rutherford told of Schexnayder’s ready answer when Rep. Geno Mazzanti of Lake Village advised her to listen and learn as a state House freshman. “You obviously don’t know me well,” she replied. “I am not a sideline sitter, and I always have plans.”

Inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame last year, she was the Arkansas Press Association’s first woman president in 1981 and the first woman to lead the National Newspaper Association. She also broke the glass ceiling as president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce.

The Clarion, where she wrote and Melvin handled the business side for four decades, became a journalistic force that confronted real Delta issues like poverty, racism and prison policy. The late U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers described her and Melvin, who died in 2007, as “the bedrock” of Dumas. Former Sen. David Pryor called her life “an epic story of how one person can make a difference.” Bill Clinton said the world will miss her.

To Schexnayder, joining an organization seemed to mean eventually leading it. “She became president of the Arkansas Press Women in 1955,” her Hall of Fame proclamation said. “She was the first woman elected to the Little Rock chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and became its first female president in 1973.” In 1977, she became president of the National Federation of Press Women.

Born Charlotte Tillar in Tillar, Arkansas, a place of 200 people settled by her grandparents, Schexnayder got a degree from Louisiana State University but had been writing steadily for the McGehee Times in south Arkansas. She married Melvin, a trained engineer, in 1946. In her book, she described the power in her Delta heritage. “Tiny towns can launch fulfilling and diverse careers such as mine. The seed for the dream was planted in my childhood.”

Schexnayder’s death came four days after her friend and APA colleague Dennis Schick died at 83. Schick was APA’s executive director for 25 years, with his wife, Jan, assisting him. He led the association’s move to a site on Victory Street near the state Capitol with a fundraising campaign he dubbed “On to Victory.”

“It’s a sad December,” Ashley Wimberley, today’s APA executive director, told Arkansas Business. “Dennis was always keeping us up to date on how Charlotte was doing.”

Herself the daughter of a husband-wife publishing team much like the Schexnayders, Wimberley “grew up around Charlotte and Melvin and Jan and Dennis” at association events. It was an era of family newspapering, when couples like Cabot’s Cone and Betty Magie and Rogers’ Jay and Patsy Jackson, as well as many others, took leading roles. Wimberley’s parents, Ron and Nancy Kemp, owned five northeast Arkansas newspapers before selling them in 1997. The Schexnayders, who bought the Dumas paper in 1954 after running the McGehee Times for a few years, sold the Clarion in 1998.

“We knew them all and enjoyed press association activities with them,” Wimberley recalled. “Charlotte was a strong encourager” even in later years, sending notes and clippings Wimberley’s way to the very end.

Schick, who led the APA from 1979 to 2004, was the butt of jokes about his miserly ways. But that frugality paid off in landing the new building, a former day care center with space enough for tenants. “There were jokes about all the tiny toilets we replaced,” Wimberley recalled. “But Dennis and Jan were instrumental to our becoming one of the country’s strongest press associations.”

And when Wimberley attended Schexnayder’s induction to the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame at the Statehouse Convention Center in August 2019, she remembered, Dennis and Jan Schick were at her side.

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