by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer
Just over 50 years ago, on March 9, 1967, the newspaper that evolved into the Sewanee Mountain Messenger published its first issue. The Sewanee Civic Association had decided the community needed a vehicle for “people to know what was going on,” said Phoebe Bates, editor of the publication created to satisfy that need, The Sewanee Siren. Ellen Webb, who previously worked at the Sewanee Review, joined Bates in the effort, with Webb handling the business end of the undertaking. The Civic Association gave the two women $300 seed money for the first three months, and after that, selling ads provided the only revenue.
“I didn’t have any experience,” Bates insisted, modestly dismissing her degree in English from Carleton College, where she edited the school newspaper and an assignment producing a summer program’s newsletter for the University.
“People sent in news items, but I usually had to rewrite them to accommodate the space available,” Bates said. The number of ads determined the paper’s size which ranged from eight to 14, 8 and a half by 14 inch mimeographed pages stapled in the upper left hand corner.
Bates used a closet in her home for an office. The College Board had an on-campus presence and printed the publication gratis for the first couple months. A fee-based arrangement with the University Public Relations Office followed until a new director objected to the work load. Bates and Webb bought a mimeograph machine and Bates’ husband Scott took over production, but “we kept getting shunted from place to place,” Bates said. “For a while, we were in the basement at Convocation Hall. It was so damp the pages stuck together.”
“A team of kids” supervised by circulation manager Louise Cross helped with collating, and bowing to 20th-century technology, The Siren invested in an electric stapler. The University donated the paper. Available at select locations free of charge, The Siren offered delivery by mail to paying subscribers. “We tried door to door delivery by the Cub Scouts, but there were too many dogs,” Bates concedes.
Many of the features in today’s Sewanee Mountain Messenger originated in The Siren. Scott Bates, professor of French at the University, selected the poems and wrote the film reviews and Nature Notes. Jean Tallec, a former illustrator for Newsweek, illustrated the ads and, along with Anne Oliver, did the proofreading.
“We didn’t pay much,” Bates said. “If we had a good year, there might be an end-of-year bonus.” Volunteers and quasi-volunteers too numerous to mention left their mark on The Siren over the course of Bates’ 18-year reign as publisher. Children’s books’ author Joan Balfour Payne designed the masthead; Pixie Dozier helped with ads; Jane Flynn served as editor when Bates and her husband spent a year in France.
Asked about the publication’s name, Bates laughs. “Sewanee had a volunteer fire department. When the fire siren went off, everyone turned out, and we’d be standing around in our nightgowns gossiping.”
The Siren eventually moved into an office on University Ave. in the backroom of Kathy Dudley’s beauty parlor. But after 18 years as publisher, Bates decided to step down. “I wanted to be free,” she confessed. “The Siren took up all of my time.”
The University, Civic Association, and Sewanee Woman’s Club joined forces in the search for someone to carry on the community newspaper tradition.
“I thought I was applying for a position as editor,” said Geraldine Hewitt Piccard who responded to an ad in The Siren. Charged instead with creating a new entity, Piccard was thrilled. “It touched all my buttons. I wanted to honor Phoebe and Ellen for giving an organ to the people’s voice.”
“I asked myself ‘what is it I’m going to do?’” Piccard explained when asked how she came up with the name The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. “It was important to me to include all our people on and off the Mountain and bridge gaps in the town and gown cultures.”
The newly dubbed Messenger began offering news about the Alto, Cowan, Monteagle, Pelham, Sherwood and Tracy City communities, as well as Sewanee. Waring McCrady designed the masthead and a logo featuring the mythological reincarnation symbol the Phoenix emerging from flames. As a tribute to The Siren, the epitaph read, “Ex Cineribus Sirenis”—from the Siren’s ashes.
“I was standing on Phoebe’s shoulders,” Piccard said in gratitude. “She was always there for me.” Piccard cites it as fortuitous the first issue appeared on “the day of love,” Feb. 14, 1985.
It was also the week of the infamous ice storm—“It was insanity trying to put out a paper,” she concedes, “especially since it was an entirely new experience for me.” Previously Piccard worked in the Development Office at the University and then Public Relations at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School.
She set up an office in her home using a computer and dot matrix printer. The University press photocopied and collated the manuscript pages she delivered, providing printing free of charge. As in The Siren days, ads provided the only revenue.
“I was hired to do the job of five part-time people, with a projected salary of $12,000 annually.” Piccard laughs. “The first year we made $4,500, and $6,500 the second year with the assistance of $2,000 from the Civic Association.”
A friend insisted she begin requesting $10,000 annually from the Community Chest, the Civic Association’s funding mechanism, to help with expenses. “I’m not a beggar,” Piccard said. “It was the hardest thing I had to do each year.”
She plowed her inheritance from her great aunts into the business, building a publication celebrated both on and off the Mountain. In the early 1990s, the Messenger moved to an office on University Ave.
When the property changed hands the rent doubled. “I was freaking,” Piccard said. Vaughan and Nora Frances McRae offered her a small house with “dirt cheap rent” on St. Mary’s Lane. The former thrift shop houses the Messenger to this day.
“I had the pick of the crop,” Piccard crowed rattling off the names of the many talented people who worked for her during her 26 years as editor and publisher.
“If my husband John hadn’t gotten sick, I’d probably still be doing it,” she said. “But, I wanted to be with him.”
Peg Palisano served as editor during Piccard’s husband’s illness, but she wasn’t interested in the position on a permanent basis. For the past 15 years, Janet Graham had worked for the Messenger selling ads and eventually doing layout. “Geraldine talked about closing the paper. I was worried,” Graham said.
“I wanted someone to take over who understood the people of our community,” Piccard insisted.
Piccard and Graham ultimately approached Laura Willis, who’d served for the past 10 years as director of the Community Action Committee, the nonprofit providing free groceries to the underprivileged in Sewanee and the surrounding vicinity.
“It was my dream job,” Willis said. Like Graham, Willis had a degree in journalism. The two women decided to purchase the paper together, with Graham responsible for ads and circulation and Willis responsible for content.
Graham had worked as advertising director at the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, and Willis served as editor of the school newspaper at Baylor University and after graduation went to work for the Dallas Morning News.
“Geraldine left things in great shape,” Willis said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I had to start from scratch.”
But after five short years, Willis and Graham decided to move on.
“I was nearing retirement age, and my husband Tim and I wanted to travel,” Graham explained.
An opening as the first director of the South Cumberland Community Fund snared Willis’ attention—“I love getting things going, the challenge of a new job and the energy it has.”
“The biggest change I brought to the paper,” Willis said, “was expanding the number of columnists. I wanted there to be lots of different voices. The paper belongs to the community. The editors are just caretakers.”
With that criterion in mind, finding their successor proved easy for Willis and Graham. Kiki Beavers’ Sewanee ties dated back to her student days at the Sewanee Academy, and she’d already proved herself in the newspaper business, serving the Messenger in the capacity of reporter as well as filling in for Graham when she was on vacation and acting as editor when a book tour called Willis away.
“Geraldine nearly killed herself trying to do both jobs,” Graham said, “but advances in technology have made it possible to combine the two positions. I knew Kiki could handle it.”
Beavers also had business experience as owner of Shenanigan’s restaurant, and in college as a journalism major she worked for the school paper.
“I freak out if we don’t have a byline news article on the front page,” Beavers admits, committed to the Messenger being a true newspaper not just a community bulletin board.
“Owning the local newspaper is something I always wanted to do,” she said. In graduate school, she wrote a paper about purchasing the Messenger and running it as a for profit business.
After the University press closed, the University continued to make a financial contribution to offset the cost of printing and an annual donation from the Community Chest covers the remainder of printing and circulation expenses. Through these donations and the support of advertising revenue, the Messenger carries most of its own weight these days
Many popular features dating back to the Siren years still grace the pages—movie reviews, Nature Notes, poetry, church news, the Community Calendar—and it’s still free!
Trivia quiz: who’s making the poetry selections for Bard to Verse? Answer: Phoebe Bates, 50-year veteran of news on the Mountain. As the Phoenix logo suggests, the immortal tradition of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger is here to stay.