Thankful for the many who have ink in their blood

Woodville, Mississippi is one of those places you just don’t pass through. Tucked away in the southwest corner of the state, you have to be going there to get there.

Will Norton, Joel McNeece, Lili & Andy Lewis

I visited the quaint little town with the historic newspaper last Thursday during a two-day adventure around the Magnolia State with Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association (MPA), and Will Norton, Dean of the Meek School of Journalism at Ole Miss.

None of us had ever been to Woodville – home of the oldest, continuously operated newspaper in Mississippi.

We knew we were in the right spot when we rounded a corner just a block off the old town square and saw a large Linotype – the line casting machine that was the industry standard for newspapers from the late 19th century up to the 1960s – sitting outside an old concrete block building nestled beneath  a tall oak tree and surrounded by thick cast iron plants.

Will Norton & Layne Bruce visiting Marcus Bowers

The paper’s history – it was established in 1823 by William A.A. Chisholm – was enthralling on its own, but we were even more taken by the gracious charm of publisher Andy J. Lewis and his wife Lili.

Andy is a fourth generation publisher of The Republican. His great-grandfather acquired the newspaper in 1879. Andy and Lili live next door to the paper office and he sells insurance on the side, but was quick to point out the newspaper is his passion.

It’s a love shared by Layne, Will and myself. This was our third excursion together, since I became president of MPA, on a mission to visit as many of the more than 120 newspapers across the state during my term.

I got a head start the night before when after speaking to a class at Hinds Community College in Raymond, I paid a visit to the Hinds County Gazette, which itself was founded in 1843.

I missed the owners of the newspaper, which is the first one in which I ever saw my name printed. That debut came inside the Utica News article that noted my family’s visit one Sunday afternoon to my grandparents’ Gordon and Dimple Ferguson’s home many, many years ago.

Later that evening, I dropped in on Clay Mansell, publisher of my hometown newspaper, The Clinton Courier. Clay started the newspaper from scratch a few years ago and quickly found great success. Catching him after hours at the office wasn’t surprising, given the time he puts in on a weekly basis, but he was quick to point out he loves everything about the business.

Thursday morning we visited one of the hardest working men in the business in Marcus Bowers, publisher of the 167-year-old Rankin County News. We were extremely lucky to catch Marcus, an MPA past president, in his Brandon office. He stays on the go doing whatever is needed for his newspaper and community.

Layne Bruce, Joel McNeece, Will Norton

Tim Reeves, the new publisher of the Vicksburg Post, took us to lunch at Walnut Hills on our visit to the River City. The fried chicken, squash, cabbage and cornbread was unforgettable, as was Reeves’ stories of his experiences in Selma, Alabama and his excitement for the future of The Post.

I had driven through beautiful downtown Port Gibson many times through the years. The “golden hand pointing to heaven” atop the Presbyterian Church is worth a visit in itself.

The town’s charm is noted in the fact it was spared destruction by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1863 during the Civil War because it was “too pretty to burn.”

James Arrington Goff & Joel McNeece

One place best captures the allure of the town for me – the office of The Reveille. Marjorie Bufkin gave us the grand tour of the downtown newspaper office that’s worthy of charging admission for its great newspaper artifacts.

The offices of the News-Commercial in downtown Collins were very similar. Executive Editor James Arrington Goff saves everything, including an old Heidelberg press and a Linotype used by his father Jimmy Goff and grandfather James Arrington Goff Sr.

He shared stories of working at the newspaper when he was as young as eight years old. His mother, 78-year-old Analyn Goff, is still publisher of the newspaper and was on hand to greet us when we entered and had some fun with me comparing her iPhone 6 plus with my smaller version.

David Gustafson and Will Norton

The trip also included some laughs with MPA board member Jack Ryan, publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb; some of the best BBQ you will find anywhere, at Leatha’s in Hattiesburg, with Lamar Times publisher David Gustafson; and a wonderful visit with Adam Prestridge, publisher of the Columbian-Progress in Marion County.

Jack, David and Adam, like so many other newspaper publishers across this state, play key roles in their respective communities reporting news, promoting business, documenting history, and sharing the important events in the lives of their many readers. When you witness their zeal for their work, it’s easy to understand why 1.5 million Mississippians regularly read a newspaper and why those of us with ink in our blood are so thankful.

Joel McNeece with Adam Prestridge & Mark Rogers of the Columbian-Progress

Email Joel at joelmcneece@gmail.com & follow him on Twitter @joelmcneece