Columns » John Brummett

One of the last great ones

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Some of us called him “the grim man,” but only behind his back. William T. Shelton, the late and lamented Arkansas Gazette’s legendary city editor, was a powerfully impenetrable force in the newsroom. I wasn’t there in 1957 when he worked 42 days straight directing the coverage of the Little Rock Central integration crisis that would win the Pulitzer Prize. I can only share some of my moments with him three decades after that, wincing at some, treasuring all. President Reagan came to Little Rock the Friday before the election in November 1984. He was trying to help Ed Bethune oust David Pryor. They hauled reporters to a platform on some remote section of runway at the Little Rock airport. Soon Air Force One rolled to a stop nearby. My article didn’t describe where this was, exactly, in relation to the terminal, one reason being that I had no idea. Shelton, editing the piece on deadline, or perhaps slightly past, asked me to identify this location. I stammered. He said something close to the following, but I wouldn’t dare suggest that it’s verbatim because I spent the moment quite shaken, and Shelton wouldn’t approve: “Buddy, if you can’t tell me where the president of the United States first stepped on the ground in Arkansas, you’re not much of a reporter.” Then there was the day Shelton asked several 30-ish reporters what the hell was “disco,” after somebody had presumed unwisely to drop that word into an article. Try describing “disco” to a grim man who demands precision — who asked me one day why I would use “capability” when it meant nothing that “ability” didn’t cover. Was disco short for discotheque, a place? If so, what kind of place? Was it a form of music? If so, describe its distinguishing characteristics. Somewhere in the Gazette archives is a somber, hilarious paragraph — longer than the rest of the article — describing this “disco.” There was the time shortly before the sale of the Gazette to Gannett when one of the Gazette high-ups had attended too many conferences about how newspapers needed to change to survive. This high-up was meeting with staff members in small groups to share what he’d learned. I happened to sit next to Shelton. The high-up said we needed to popularize our articles. Shelton passed a one-word note to me: “Popularize?” I’m not sure which offended him more, the nonexistent word or the very notion. There was the time after he’d retired as city editor, but was working part-time on the copy desk. It was after the sale to Gannett, and the Gannett people threw the retiring veteran courthouse reporter a reception. As the retiree’s long-time editor, Shelton was asked to say a few words. He extolled the basic coverage of the news for which the veteran courthouse reporter had a certain flair. Then Shelton regretted those who had led newspapers away from the basic coverage of the news, meaning, everyone knew, the Gannett people, a few of whom were standing around. It was during his “retirement” when Shelton strolled into the newsroom around 3 p.m. one day to work the late copy desk. He came straight to my desk. I’d become a columnist, and was on something of a heady roll beating up Steve Clark, the attorney general, for expense account fraud. “You’re not going to be happy, are you, until Steve Clark kills himself?” Shelton asked, and walked away. That quote I’m sure of. A young female reporter gasped and asked why I hadn’t defended myself. I said I needed to consider what the man had said. She hadn’t known of Shelton as a city editor. She probably didn’t know of his crashing his B-24 in Nazi territory. She hadn’t encountered his charm outside the office, or, more precisely, outside the uncompromising seriousness of the news business. Steve Clark’s fine, the last I heard. One of the last great newspapermen died Sunday at 85.

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