Golden 50 — 1992

1992 Recipients

113th Summer Convention, June 26, 1992, Four Seasons Hotel, Austin

Billy M. Comedy, Haskell Free Press
Morris T. Higley, Childress Index
Mary and R.B. Palmer, Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune
Robert H. "Bob" Whitten, Navasota Examiner

Billy M. Comedy

Sometimes careful planning has nothing to do with how a career begins. Billy Comedy got started in newspapering by being in the right place at the right time.

In 1937, when Billy's brother quit as printer's devil at the Coleman Democrat Voice, publisher H.H. Jackson asked the 11-year-old if he wanted the job. He accepted the offer, earning 50 cents a week to start. In two or three years, his paycheck tripled to $1.50 a week.

When Billy was in high school, the job became full time. By the time Billy was a senior, he was making $80 a week - more money than his teachers.

In June 1945, Billy joined the Army. After a tour of duty, he returned to the Democrat Voice in 1947 to work for Sam Braswell. In 1948, he worked at the Lamesa Daily Reporter for C. C. Woodson as mechanical superintendent. He also worked in Brownwood, Brownfield and Seminole for the Woodson chain.

Billy bought the Throckmorton Tribune in August 1965 and sold it in 1970. He worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a short time and in August 1970 bought the Haskell Free Press, which he operated until 1986, when he sold the paper to his son, Don.

In May 1985, Billy helped form Rolling Plains Printing Co. Inc. in Haskell. In 1986, he became the owner of Haskell Commercial Printing.

Billy has been active in numerous civic and business organizations, including the West Texas Press Association, in which he served several terms on the board of directors and as president in 1977-78. He is a longtime member of the Texas Press Association and was a member of its board of directors for several years. Other memberships include the Lions Club, Rotary Club, Haskell Industrial Foundation and chambers of commerce. He served as a volunteer fireman in Coleman, Throckmorton, Seminole and Haskell for a total of 35 years.

Billy married Audrey "Bud" Comedy in February 1976. They have four children: Don Comedy, owner-publisher of the Haskell Free Press, Mike Cook, Margaret Wheeler and Sam Cook; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Billy says that in his 54 years in the newspaper business, he has met many fine people and has a stock of fond memories, including a one-on-one visit with President Lyndon B. Johnson during a press convention excursion to the Johnson ranch on the banks of the Pedernales.

His only regret, Billy says, is that he didn't go into business for himself sooner. "If I knew then what I know now, I would've gotten started sooner."

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Morris T. Higley

For 57 years, Morris Higley, publisher of The Childress Index, has been known throughout the Texas Panhandle as a man who speaks his mind.

Higley, 82, was born on his parents' farm in northeast Kansas on Dec. 20, 1909. One of seven children, Higley says he probably wanted to get off the farm more than any of his brothers and sisters.

On July 15, 1930, when he was 20 years old, Higley arrived in Amarillo "on a train in the rain" and was hired as a reporter for the Amarillo Globe-News.

Higley says he learned much of what he knows about newspapers during his days at the Globe-News. He surpassed his bosses' expectations, often writing up to 30 stories a day while serving as movie critic, farm editor and general assignments reporter.

Higley's thirst for a good story almost got him fired when he acted on a tip that Will Rogers was staying at an Amarillo hotel. The ambitious young reporter found the celebrity and conducted a nice little interview. Higley's editor had been trying to set up an interview with Rogers for the past 10 hours but didn't have as much luck.

Higley did not graduate from college, but attended junior college in St. Joseph, Mo., and the University of Missouri before coming to Amarillo. He also attended the University of Oklahoma as a special student where he studied law, government and history while working for the Globe-News.

Five years to the day after moving to Amarillo, Higley found himself at another fork in the road: he chose the road that led to Childress, where he became publisher and editor of The Childress Index.

Higley has made good friends and earned the respect of his peers in Childress. He is listed by the West Texas Chamber of Commerce as one of only two entrepreneurs in the Childress' history.

Childress became his permanent home when he assumed ownership of The Index. He expanded his interests in many directions. He has owned or still owns various papers in Colorado and Oklahoma.

Higley presides over three corporations, including Oxbow Printing, which prints the newspapers in Wellington, Memphis, Shamrock, Clarendon and Wheeler, all in Texas; and the Mangum, Sayre and Hollis newspapers in Oklahoma. He set up the corporation that owns the Sayre and Hollis papers.

Higley also owns Childress Office Supply and has the Radio Shack franchise in Childress.

Life away from the newspaper business has been just as busy for Higley. In the late '50s, he received an appointment from Gov. Price Daniel and served on the first Texas Industrial Commission. A few years later, the governor asked Higley if he would rather serve on the Game and Fish Commission (now the Parks and Wildlife Commission). Higley accepted the appointment.

In the '70s, Gov. Dolph Briscoe appointed Higley to the board of the Red River Authority. Feeling somewhat "served out," Higley declined an offer by Gov. Bill Clements for a post on another commission, telling the governor, "The honor you get is not worth the honor you get."

Higley is a strong civic leader. He has chalked up 56 years of perfect attendance in the Childress Rotary Club, in which he served in practically every club office and as district governor in 1957-58. The Rotary Club rewarded Higley for his civic efforts with the prestigious Paul Harris Fellow award. Higley also is a Mason and a past Exalted Ruler of the Elks.

He was named Childress Citizen of the Year in 1952 and Man of the Year in 1988.

Higley has been married once, in 1935 to the late Carol Vassar Amacker, a terrific journalist and a strong civic leader in her own right.

He has two children, Tom Higley, publisher of the Sayre (Okla.) Journal; and Carol Clem Blackburn, an author, in Lubbock; four grandchildren, Carla Holeva of Midland, Paige Higley of Lubbock, Shawn Blackburn of Amarillo, and Christopher Blackburn, editor of The Childress Index; and a great-granddaughter, Emily Paige of Midland.

There it is, a page in the life of an outstanding journalist and an outstanding man. Congratulations, Morris.

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Mary Palmer

Mary Palmer humbly admits that she is a lucky woman.

After more than 50 years in the newspaper business, she is grateful for the blessings she has received in the form of family support and that of a host of longtime friends.

The Palmer Media Inc. matriarch's tenure in the newspaper business began in Oklahoma during her junior high school years when her father, C.R. Bellatti, and several business partners bought the Blackwell Morning Tribune and Evening News.

Looking back, she realizes her father, a practicing attorney at the time the paper was purchased, led the way to many innovative managerial areas. In fact, he managed to run the paper and continue his law practice at the same time.

Mary helped with the bookkeeping duties during the summer months and, throughout the year, pushed circulation and promotional sales.

In 1939, she met young R.B. Palmer who was working with his father. The elder Palmer had contracted with the Bellattis for a newspaper circulation promotion.

Later, C.R. Bellatti sold the Blackwell Tribune and bought the newspapers in Stillwater, Okla., in 1941.

Believing her three brothers could manage the family's newspaper business the Bellattis now own the Stillwater News-Press - Mary's interest turned to radio. She attended Oklahoma University, obtaining a bachelor's degree in fine arts.

The Palmer family relocated to Titus County in 1941 and R.B. joined the Army in 1942. In February of 1946, a week after he returned from overseas duty during World War II, he and Mary were married. She moved to Mount Pleasant on March 1 that year and immediately began assisting with office duties or "whatever I was asked to do or saw needed to be done" at the family's weekly Titus County Tribune.

"One of the first things I did was to take over the regular writing of the personals," she remembers. Mrs. (Hazel) Palmer and I tried to do at least 100 a week. I also started writing a weekly recipe column featuring a sketch on the person and her favorite recipes."

Mary continued to work following the births of her children. "With a weekly paper, I didn't have to open at a certain time each morning like with a store. I could write notes and Bob would take them into the office to be typed. I learned to stir soup with one hand and hold the telephone (for interviews) with the other."

Like most working women with children, Mary started feeling 24 hours a day wasn't enough to get everything done.

"It's good that the day isn't any longer," she mused. "I remember reading a biography on Calvin Coolidge that kind of took the wind out of my sails. I always believed that extra effort, getting things done and keeping at it was the way to do things, until I read about an incident where Coolidge was taking a late night walk with an FBI man. He turned around, pointing to windows with lights, and said, 'If they were smart, they could get their work done in the daytime.' So, I decided 24 hours wasn't the way to work. If you are smart enough, you can get it done."

Mary remembers significant changes in the industry. She grew up with rapid communications, the radio and teletype, and witnessed the dawning and eventual routine use of computers.

Although she is aware of the advantages of today's technology, she notes at least one disadvantage. "While we don't have the concern of the toxic effects of lead and contamination as we did with the old press machines, what irritates me most with our electronic advances is how quickly they wear out.

"Today, you could take a Ben Franklin press and print on it," she added. "It's never worn out. In five years, this new equipment is gone. It wears itself out. Something is wrong. With the old equipment, if it were kept clean, improvements meant improvement; now improvement means replacement."

Always staying busy, Mary keeps a group of projects planned in advance. "I regret that I don't stop to savor the high points," she admitted. "It seems that I am always rushing off to the next thing."

Friendship is an important factor in her life, as well. "I would say that 90 percent of our employees have been friends. With Bob doing the news stories and attending night meetings, many of the people I knew and could visit with were customers. They were my friends."

She remembers helping her mother-in-law bake small trays of cookies to give to the various stores in the community during the Christmas season. "It was always an effort, but it wasn't just a business thing ...they were our friends."

As she takes into account all that is the Palmer family business, Mary says she sees that the dream of being useful to the community is possible.

"The talent that has been gathered into the community, the newcomers, the college, the hours and hours of dreaming by many people show the potential is here for new dreams to be built," she said. "A republican democracy was founded with the idea of a free people who can read and write and study. In trying to keep information in front of people in interesting and difficult times, they have to assess themselves everyday. I think the newspaper should lay it out there."

Mary doesn't waste too much time asking herself if she should have done differently. "You could wonder forever if there were opportunities you should have taken, but a lifetime of gathering facts and looking for truth to prove a point keeps you on the right path... even though you're disappointed sometimes."

Although the Daily Tribune's day-to-day management is more and more being turned over to a third generation of the family, Mary doesn't feel one generation should feel obliged to another. "If they see the opportunity to help the community and church and stay with the family business, that is their decision," she explained.

She admits that she was surprised when her son, R.L. Palmer, returned to Mount Pleasant. The fact that the town was starting to grow and opportunities were opening, she feels, helped draw him and his peers back home from the larger cities and into their family businesses or those of their own.

"Having young people with their talents and enthusiasm wanting a good family town made Mount Pleasant a home centered, thriving town that is most pleasing," she noted.

"With the problems in the world and the ones we have right here in Mount Pleasant... we can keep it healthy," she added. "We teach the children to seek right and abhor wrong and try to lead a good life."

Mary appreciates the parents and teachers she's come into contact with over the years, those who have taken the time to provide special concerts and lectures, always paving the way for new interests.

And she admits being grateful for the support of her husband and family along the way. "I realize many people don't have any of those things and I admire the winners in life who have had to overcome this lack of support."

A lucky woman?

"Yes, she says. "When you see how much has been given to you, family and friends in this crazy world, it's quite a blessing."

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R.B. Palmer

It has been said that newspapering gets in one's blood. In R.B. Palmer's case, however, the family business has always been newspapering - a legacy he'll leave to a third, and perhaps fourth, Palmer generation.

In celebrating his 51st anniversary of newspapering in Mount Pleasant, however, he attributes his success to a great many people - not the least of them being the residents of Mount Pleasant and the surrounding area.

Mount Pleasant and Titus County held a special fascination almost from the moment he, his father, J. Frank Miner, and his brother, Lloyd, arrived in 1941.

"We could see the potential of Mount Pleasant," he says, remembering early January of 1941 when they passed through the city for the first time and quickly arranged to buy the Titus County Tribune from C.E. Palmer (no relation) of Texarkana. "That's one of the reasons we've been so stubborn about staying. Besides, we like it in Mount Pleasant... always have."

Although his first experience in the newspaper business came as a boy in Illinois, folding papers with an ivory wand, R.B. joined his father and brother in circulation promotions full time in 1938, after having spent a year at the University of Chicago and working in the Detroit area for a year.

J. Frank Palmer had been in the newspaper business - primarily circulation promotion - since 1910. And in joining his father and brother, R.B. embarked on an experience somewhat akin to that of the romanticized barnstorming pilot.

"We ran circulation contests and sales campaigns that took us all over the Midwest," he recalls. "Times were hard was the depression years. But my father made many valuable connections in the business.

"We came through Mount Pleasant in January of 1941, and in talking to C.E. Palmer of Texarkana, who owned the Texarkana Gazette and other newspapers in Arkansas, we learned that the Titus County Tribune was about to be closed. We immediately went to Texarkana, and Dad made arrangements to buy the Tribune for $100.

It wasn't until R. B. had returned home from service overseas during World War II that he learned the verbal deal struck by his father and the previous owner did not include the newspaper's equipment. He would later arrange for the purchase of the newspaper's machinery for $3,500.

At that time, the Tribune was a weekly publication housed in a building on the south side of Mount Pleasant's downtown square. The building would later become part of the old Guaranty Bank and is now a portion of the Titus County Courthouse Annex.

"The first week of publication is one I'll never forget," Palmer said. "We sold about $5.60 worth of advertising and were operating with an old letterpress and a Linotype machine. You hand-fed the press to print one side of the paper, changed the forms and fed the other side through.

"That first issue, our Linotype operator and printer had just put the last two pages on the press and, I guess it was about 9 o'clock that night, started the press... it slung those last two pages against the wall and type went everywhere... he'd forgotten to lock them down.

"It was probably about 4 a.m. before we got the type reset for those two pages and 6 o'clock before we got it printed and to the post office," he added, an amused smile crossing his face at the telling. "It was the first of many all night experiences I've had with this paper."

There have been many more memorable experiences during the past 51 years - a span that has seen the Tribune go from weekly to semi-weekly and, finally, to daily publication.

Certainly, there have been some unpleasant times, and in the remembering, those that were the most trying often come to mind first.

"You go through many troublesome times when you operate a business," Palmer said. "And any successes you have are a result of family, friends, employees and other business associates that have helped you from time to time.

"One important step for us... one that helped us grow... was when the Value Day promotion was started and we began publishing a 10,000-press-run tabloid shopper," he continued. "We started off printing it on our 2-page letterpress and that meant that a piece of paper had to be handled 30,000 times every time we sent it to press.

"For years my father would do the press work and I'd feed the folder. Later, we'd bundle the papers, tie them up and distribute them," he added.

"My father and mother had a great deal to do with any success the Tribune has had," he explained. "My father was a very tough individual. I remember one night we were getting ready to put the paper out and the mats jammed in the distributor of the Linotype. He tried to clear the jam and a heavy iron step fell on his foot. He wouldn't let me do anything but re-set the step and clear the mat jam.

"He sent the printer out to get a pint of whiskey. When he got back, my father loosened his shoe, poured half the whiskey down his shoe, drank the rest and went to work. The next day he went to the doctor and was told he had broken two toes."

Although the Tribune always has been, and probably always will be, labor intensive, the patriarch of the Palmer family remembers the process involved in deciding to switch to offset printing.

"The Clarksville Times was the first paper in Northeast Texas to go offset," he explained. "I visited them, but still wasn't sure. So, I went to Dallas to see about a plant that could print our paper.

"By that time, Dad had pretty well turned the paper over to me," he added. "We'd gotten a couple of Justowriters and a stripper and began producing the paper with cold type. We'd paste up the pages, then I'd take them to Garland to have them printed. There were times when I'd have to over inflate the tires on that old station wagon because of all the weight we were hauling back and forth."

After seeing the convenience offset printing afforded and the amount of time it saved in production, R.B. and his father agreed that they could begin printing twice weekly.

As a semi-weekly, the Tribune was printed in Garland, then in McKinney and later in Gladewater.

Soon after the decision to have the paper printed in Gladewater was made, several other publishers in the area Fred Napp of the DeKaib News, Chili Cochran of the Cass County Sun in Linden, Lee Narramore of the Naples Monitor and Harold Pope of the Bowie County Citizens Tribune in New Boston - joined R.B. in founding Publishers Press Inc., which placed an offset printing plant in Naples.

With the central plant located closer to Mount Pleasant, it became apparent that daily publication was possible, and the Daily Tribune made its debut in November of 1969.

"The first six months we operated as a daily, I didn't have a wire service," he noted. "The Daily Times (the Tribune's competitor) had its service with the Associated Press, so I contacted UPI, but found their rates were outrageous.

"So, every morning I'd turn on the radio and re-write both what they broadcast and wire stories from other dailies, and that was our state, national and international news until I later found out the Associated Press couldn't give an exclusive franchise to one paper in a market. I approached them, their rates were very reasonable and we've had them ever since."

The Daily Tribune underwent another significant transition in 1972 when Robert L. Palmer returned home from the service and joined his father in publication of the paper.

That summer the Palmers made arrangements to buy their daily competitor, the Mount Pleasant Daily Times and Times Review.

"With that consolidation and growth, I could see the need for being able to print the paper in Mount Pleasant," R.B. said. So, two of the members associated with us in Publishers Press, Napp and Pope, joined the two of us in forming Nortex Press Inc. We bought a press and began central plant operations in Mount Pleasant in 1973.

"It s pretty clear that we needed a larger press and better facilities than we could secure in a downtown location, so we bought the property where we're currently located during the later part of 1983.

"Initially, we purchased the land and the large metal building on it, and made plans to first move the press and circulation. Later, we decided on a new larger press and remodeling."

On Jan. 13, 1985, the Palmers began construction on the present newspaper office building and remodeling the existing facility. The company's growth continues today, and the Palmers have acquired property north of the paper's property for future expansion. It is almost certain that any future expansion by the Tribune will not come at the expense of the paper being sold to a chain - an occurrence that has become all too familiar in today's newspaper industry.

The elder Palmer makes little secret of the pride he takes in the Tribune being a "family affair."

"The dominant people at the start, of course, were my father and mother, then gradually Mary and I took over more and more responsibility," he said. "Now my son has assumed duties as publisher with his wife taking an active role in the paper, and this summer our granddaughter, Amber, is working in our advertising department.

"Looking back now after more than 50 years of working with the Tribune, I'd have to say a major portion of the success is due to two women - my mother, Hazel Palmer, and my wife, Mary.

"I've always thought Mary was one of the bravest women I've ever known," he added. "I met her when she was working for her father's newspaper in Blackwell, Okla. Our paths went separate ways but shortly after I was inducted into the Army in April of 1942, I recall being lonely and writing her out of a clear blue sky. She was attending the University of Oklahoma at the time.

"A year or so later, after getting my commission, I took leave and went to visit my brother and his family in Oklahoma City. Mary came up and we were engaged to be married then."

It would be a lengthy engagement of physical separation.

"When I returned to camp in California, I heard that we were alerted to ship overseas," he continued. "It was Jan. 30, 1946, before I could call her from Camp Kilmer, N.J., to tell her I was back in the States and to ask her when we were getting married."

When he returned to Mount Pleasant, he again called Mary and was informed she had reserved the church in Stillwater for Feb. 11.

"After a short honeymoon, she returned to Mount Pleasant with me and has been involved in the family business ever since," he said. And if someone were to ask who has the brains in the family, I'd say, 'She does.'

"Three children and six grandchildren later," he adds with a smile, "she still puts up with me, for which I am very grateful."

The role the three Palmer children have played in the newspaper's growth is also a source of pride. R.B. admits it has been particularly rewarding to see his son follow in his footsteps as the Tribune's publisher.

"For some time now, he has been responsible for operation of the Tribune," he noted, but the girls, Frances and Barbara, have put in their time, too."

Frances and her husband, Mike Lobpries, now have their own paper in Archer City, and Barbara, the Palmer's youngest child, received her degree in interior design at Texas Tech, and after graduation, worked at the Tribune before getting into the design field full time. She has supervised two remodelings of the Tribune's offices and designed the newspaper's current facility.

The true secret to Palmer's success may lie in the priorities he places on news affecting his community.

"I do have a different view from most newsmen about what constitutes important stories," he admits. "The Korean Conflict, Kennedy's assassination, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. ... they're important events, but they don't seem to me to be the most important news to our area."

He instead pointed to "covering and developing stories about the building of Lone Star Steel; the years of work and endless meetings it took to get Lake Bob Sandlin permitted and constructed; construction of the Monticello power plant and its mines, bringing Interstate 30 closer to Mount Pleasant; and stories on the development of our hospital... those are the important stories to me.

"I've always had a greater interest in news about the people of Titus County, and what directly affects them, rather than that which we can do nothing about... only gape at the headlines."

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Robert H. "Bob" Whitten

Robert H. "Bob" Whitten, a former president of the Texas Gulf Coast Press Association, got his start in the newspaper business with a broom, sweeping the sidewalk in front of the Navasota Examiner office. Shortly after his father, J.G. Whitten, and George T. Spears purchased the newspaper on May 1, 1924, Bob - then a first-grader - had a paper route.

He graduated to printer's devil, casting type and handfeeding an old No. 7 Babcock Standard. He continued to wield a broom, take out the trash and run errands.

In 1936, Bob's father sold his interest in the Examiner to Spears and moved the family to Austin. Bob graduated from The University of Texas with a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1940.

He worked one summer for M.W. Trussell at the San Saba Star before volunteering for the U.S. Navy officer training program. During World War II, he served aboard the USS Sumner, a hydrographic survey vessel in the South Pacific, producing charts for Adm. Halsey's Third Fleet.

On a 30-day leave in 1944, he married Marianna Faulkner of Austin, whom he had met in college. He returned for 18 months of duty. After the war, he worked a year and a half for Walter and Addison Buckner as news editor at the San Marcos Record. He returned to Navasota in 1947 when he and his father purchased the Examiner back from Spears. The newspaper has been operated by the Whitten family ever since.

In the 1940s, the newspaper's equipment was old and needed to be replaced. The first purchase was a $15,000 Model C Intertype. Such purchases left little money for personnel, so Bob handled all of the editorial work himself. He gathered the news and ran the business during the day and wrote at night.

Among the highlights of his career was the publishing of a 64-page edition to coincide with Navasota's centennial celebration in 1954. He was proud that the edition was produced without overtime. The staff started six months in advance, finishing an eight-page section on their four-page Babcock press each Thursday after the regular weekly run.

In 1958, Bob received a Headliner Club award in Austin for a photograph he took of the demolition of the old city hail building in Navasota. He stood outside most of the day with a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, waiting for the right moment to catch the fall of the hail's tower clock. The photo was picked up by the Associated Press for $5 and used worldwide, including papers in London and Hong Kong.

While serving as secretary of the TPA in 1961, Bob was among a group of Texas newspapermen invited to a special luncheon at the White House to discuss state and national affairs. He was seated next to President John F. Kennedy and across from Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. Bob describes the late president as a friendly, down-to-earth man who wore rumpled socks and talked about his family rather than world issues.

In 1960, Bob started a daytime-only AM radio station and later added an FM station. He sold both earlier this year to McMullen Broadcasting Company.

Bob also has been active in the community. In 1983, he received the Grimes County Citizen of the Year award from the chamber of commerce. He has served as an officer in the First Presbyterian Church of Navasota since 1947. He presently serves as chairman of a senior retirement housing center and on a committee of the Navasota Golf Association.

Bob and Marianna have four children, Robert J. Whitten Jr., a partner in the Coopers & Lybrand accounting firm in Houston; Dorothy Chapman, a 7th grade math teacher at Kingwood; Kent Whitten, president and general manager of Grover Printing in Houston; and Clark Whitten, editor and publisher of the Examiner; and eight grandchildren.

These days, Bob tends to favor a game of golf in the afternoon rather than a stay in the office. After more than 50 years as a newsman, he's earned it.