Learning the Ropes

Sara in her early newspaper days

“After starting to work for the Commercial Appeal in August, 1956, as their Greenwood correspondent, I spent most of those early years involved in routine coverage of news, society, sports, obits and doing feature writing. I tried to write as many feature articles as I could because there was more money in those when they used pictures, and sometimes they would use three or four pictures. I guess I took pictures of half the people in Greenwood at one time or another, and children provided me with all kinds of photographic opportunities. I much preferred a session with the kids rather than a garden club group where all the ladies expected me to make them look glamorous.

Leflore County Court House. Photo courtesy of Mary Rose Carter

“My first assignment was to cover a District Democratic Caucus at the Court House. I did not dare admit that my knowledge of caucuses was very limited, so I just knew I would ‘blow it’ before I ever got started. Russell said he would go with me, but he didn’t know a bit more about what was going on than I did. It seemed this caucus was considered very important because Governor J.P.Coleman was trying to swing it a certain way. The press was sitting up in the jury box, so Russell and I went up to take our place there. Coleman took his seat on one side of us and Congressman Will Whittington on the other side, and they talked over us the whole time.

Governor J.P.Coleman

“When it was over I was just as ignorant as I had been when I entered the court room. Jay Milner, a reporter for the Greenville Delta Democrat Times, asked if he could come by our house to type his story, so I figured I could get him to tell me what really happened. I took his facts and sent them in, but a short time later I got a call from Ken Toler, the bureau chief in Jackson, asking me how I came to those conclusions about the outcome of the caucus. Apparently, Milner didn’t know much more than I did.”

Sara went into this with no clue about what she was getting herself into. She could handle debutantes (although she dreaded that yearly ordeal more than any other) and garden clubs and wedding announcements, and she got to be quite a pro at crafting readable obituaries. If you think it’s easy writing a decent obituary, pick a random local personality and try to do one. There’s an art to it. Anyhow, Sara was up to the challenge of local tidbit news, but the Commercial wanted more. So she gamely packed up her steno pad and her pencils and her camera and slipped into that courtroom, where she had likely not been since Dr. Dean went on trial for Dr. Kennedy’s murder, twenty years before. Then they put her in the jury box, between two of the most powerful men in the state, and what must she have been thinking? Political intrigue was thick enough to stir in that old high-ceilinged room and she couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but she stuck it out. I’m sure Russell was just sitting there wishing he could get out and smoke, but he stuck it out as well.

I have no clue whatever became of Jay Milner, but I suspect his journalistic career was not nearly as exciting as Sara’s turned out to be. Within just a few years, she was a familiar sight in the halls of the Leflore County Court House and Greenwood City Hall. I would often be tagging along and even as a child I knew she carried some weight when those big, swaggering men, the supervisors and police chiefs and city councilmen, would spot her and immediately go into something like “Now, Sara, we don’t need to put this in the paper…..” or “Let me give you my side of the story, Sara…” Didn’t do them a whole lot of good, but it sure was fun to watch.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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