Nineteen years have passed in a blink of an eye. There has been so much that’s happened and I’ve been so busy that I’ve never slowed down long enough to reflect on what has been an amazing journey.
It seems like it was only a few days ago I was wrapping up my first week at the Daily Light when Charles Johnson walked into the paper and invited me to lunch. When I protested I was too busy to eat, Charles wouldn’t hear of it. He stuck his hand into his jacket pocket and pointed a finger like a gun, threatening to kidnap me if I refused.
That was the first of so many wonderful friendships I’ve made during the past 19 years.
Saying good-bye isn’t easy.
For nearly two decades the Daily Light has been my home — and the folks I work with, as well as those I serve have been part of my family. And now I’m faced with the reality that my time at the Daily Light is coming to an end.
Now that I think about it, that lunch with Charles set the tone — and pace — for the 19 years that followed. Our lunch dates became a weekly routine we continued until his passing from cancer a decade ago. And every time I’ve walk through the door at the paper, I’ve thought of that moment and recalled the words Charles said when he brought me back to the office after our lunch.
After thanking him for the meal and the history lesson about Waxahachie, I was about to open the car door when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Neal, the community has been waiting a long time for you to get here. Waxahachie needs you.”
I thought it an odd thing to say, seeing as how we had just met.
But I never forgot it.
When I arrived at the Daily Light in 1997, I was the paper’s fourth managing editor that year. Eric Bishop had just taken over as the publisher and during the interview, he pulled no punches in expressing how he needed someone that could help him turn the paper around quickly. The picture he painted was bleak. I didn’t know until after I accepted the position the situation was a lot worse than he described.
At that time, Boone Newspapers owned the Daily Light. I had been carefully vetted. My pre-interview process included phone interviews with four Boone publishers and a four-hour conversation with Mr. Boone himself. When Eric offered me the job, he told me Mr. Boone insisted I be fast-tracked into the Boone management program to be groomed for a publisher position. Mr. Boone believed all his senior managers needed to know how to do every job at the paper. In addition to my duties in the newsroom, I began a rigorous training program spending time in every department, and learning every job — which was pretty much a necessity back then because the day I took the job, I filled one of four open department head positions as Eric began the process of rebuilding the paper.
My first day on the job Barbara Huddle greeted me at the door. I introduced myself and as I shook her hand, she let me know in a very matter-of-fact tone that she didn’t think I would last six months.
“There’s no point learning your name because you’re not going to be here that long,” she told me.
Despite that ominous welcome, Barbara became one of my close friends at the paper.
Needless to say, those first few months were rocky. I didn’t know if I was making a difference or not until Memorial Day of the following year. Everyone had taken off for the holiday weekend except our classified advertising director Bill Vogel and myself. We came into work Monday morning and were nearly overwhelmed by subscribers coming in complaining they hadn’t received their Sunday paper. We quickly figured out that several of our delivery carriers had decided to take the weekend off as well, and deliveries hadn’t been made to more than half of our routes. To compound the situation, the circulation director was out of town and out of reach, and neither Bill nor I knew whom else to call to try and get the papers out. All we could do was apologize and hand folks a paper. It was a steady stream, and at one point the line out the front door went down the sidewalk nearly to Dunn Street as folks waited to come in and pick up a paper. Most of them were pretty mad.
I was freaking out.
Bill was just grinning from ear-to-ear.
I didn’t think there was anything funny about the situation and told him as much.
“You don’t understand, Neal,” he said to me. “These people want their paper!”
“I know, Bill. That’s the problem. And we don’t know how to fix it,” I shot back.
“Neal, you don’t get it,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder to try and calm me down. “Before you got here, if someone didn’t get their paper, they didn’t care. It was one less piece of litter to pick up in their yard. These people want their paper and they are mad because they don’t have it. Neal, they want their paper! Do you know how long it’s been since that’s happened?”
My next affirmation that things were on the right track came a few months later when the Rev. Dr. Lee Turner came to the paper and asked to meet. We went into the conference room and he told me that he was worried about me and I needed to be careful.
I asked for clarification, not having a clue what he was talking about.
“Before you got here, the only time a picture of a black person made the front page of the Daily Light was when they were handcuffs. You’ve been putting us on the front page doing good things and writing positive stories about the East Side,” he said, taking a long sign before speaking again. “Boy, you ain’t up north anymore. That could get your strung up down here.”
All I could do is smile.
I thanked Dr. Turner for his concern and told him I wasn’t worried.
“Let ‘em try,” I told him.
When I came to Waxahachie for my interview, I had taken a drive through the community and noted the disparities between the East Side and the rest of the city. I told Eric I would only take the job if I had the freedom to allow the paper to become a true reflection of the entire community — a paper that represented everyone and allowed every citizen the same forum to share their views.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” he told me.
From my first day at the Daily Light, our newsroom has been held to lofty standards. We also ruffled a few feathers along the way.
Back in the day, Waxahachie was a dry city – except for the Waxahachie Country Club. When the bowling alley filed for a permit to sell beer, the city council balked. Rejecting the request was one thing, but I felt they deserved to be called out for the manner in which they did it. At the time, most of the council members were members of the country club. Yet during the hearing, several of the council members stated in open forum they objected to “those people” drinking beer in a bowling alley.
I called them a bunch of hypocrites in an editorial and called for the community to call out the council for their hypocrisy.
The bowling alley eventually got its permit.
But there were calls from several city officials wanting my head on a platter.
Eric always had my back, though, and told me to keep doing my job.
In 2000, Boone sold the paper to American Consolidated Media (ACM), a newly formed company based in Dallas owned by Jeremy Hallbright and Rick Starks. Mr. Boone wanted to keep Eric with the company, and he was transferred to another paper in Alabama.
Curtis Williams was publisher of a Boone paper in Minnesota and wanted to return to Texas. He knew the paper was being sold, but agreed to the transfer in order to get closer to home.
By that time I was really feeling my Wheaties. We were winning awards, circulation was growing and we were becoming a positive force in the community.
Curtis still loves to tell the story about his first department head meeting at the Daily Light. I had the honor of introducing him, but before I let him speak, proceeded to tell him how we had turned this paper around and if he had any bright ideas about slowing our progress he better think again.
I have to admit when he tells the story, he does a really good impersonation of me — even the mannerisms.
Despite that awkward beginning, we became very good friends and he proved to be one of the best publishers I have ever had the honor of working with. When I had the chance to step into the publisher role (twice), I remembered all of the lessons Curtis taught me — especially the one on dealing with passionate employees who take great pride and ownership in their company.
He also taught me that leaders lead by example. They don’t just give orders, they work side-by-side their team when they have to work late at night, or on the weekends, doing whatever job needs to be done. He taught me if you expect your team to go the extra mile, you have to lead the way.
That was also the beginning of the boom days.
ACM was expanding at a rapid pace. Curtis taught me about vertical integration and how to develop an efficient business model when we launched the Ennis Journal. The key to success, he taught me, was having the right people in place and to always remember that people are not disposable assets. We brought in Jackie Larson as the paper’s first managing editor, and we were off to the races.
The Journal’s launch was followed by ACM’s acquisition of the Midlothian Mirror, purchased from Debbie Garvin.
Curtis left the newspaper industry to form M2 Marking with Bob Lynn — who has quietly done more for Ellis County behind the scenes than our community will ever know. I’ve learned so much from him over the years and there is no possible way words could express my gratitude.
When Curtis left, I was tapped to take over as publisher, but I retained the Editor title.
The growth didn’t stop.
Thanks to the lessons I learned from Curtis, ACM acquired the Ellis County Chronicle (Red Oak) and Italy News-Herald from Allen Gell. My job was to integrate the new nameplates into the fold and make them as successful in their respective communities as the Daily Light had become in Waxahachie.
The company purchased the Alvarado Post.
We launched “W Magazine” and “The Ellis County Real Estate Magazine.”
One day Rick Starks called and told me to be in Bonham on a Friday morning because they had just purchased a weekly newspaper and I had to hire a staff and get the first edition to press the following Wednesday.
And then there was the time he called to tell me they had just purchased a paper in Edinburg and he needed me to design the paper and put the first edition together while he was trying to hire a staff. I asked him how much time I had and he told me, “We go to press tomorrow.”
Those were heady times for me. Rick and Jeremy had designated me as the “go to” editorial person in the company. In addition to running our growing lineup of mastheads in Ellis, Johnson and Fannin counties, it was common for me to be helping newsrooms at our sister papers throughout the state daily. The company was growing so fast and Rick told me the company was eying me for a VP editorial role and it was just a matter of time before they could afford to create the new position at the corporate level.
JoAnn Livingston had also joined our newsroom, and in a very short amount of time she and I had gained the reputation from our Texas colleagues as being the “Woodward and Bernstein” of Ellis County. Our newsroom was earning as many as 50 awards for journalism excellence year after year, including three consecutive “Sweepstakes” awards from the Texas Press Association for being the best newspaper in our division in the state of Texas.
JoAnn and I also created the newsroom internship program for high school and college students. And our interns earned quite a few scholarships from the Texas Press Associations.
During that era the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce presented us with its “Industry of the Year Award.”
We were always grateful for the recognition, not so much for us, but for helping bring our community positive recognition around the state.
The awards were nice, but what mattered were the stories that made a difference. The stories about families in our community in need and time after time watching the community answer the call for help after those stories were published.
And the times we partnered with local organizations to help raise awareness and raise funds that made so many things possible in our community.
We worked with former State Rep. Jim Pitts to lead a yearlong initiative that resulted in the construction of the Ellis County Children’s Advocacy Center Gingerbread House. We worked with the Waxahachie Rotary Club in another yearlong initiative that eventually led to a partnership with the city to construct the Waxahachie Senior Citizens Center.
And then there was the day Greg Compton walked into the office asking for my help because he read about the National Honor Flight organization and wanted to create an Ellis County chapter. All we had to do was raise $150,000 to take 50 World War II veterans from our county to Washington, D.C. so they could visit their memorial. He told me he had talked to a few other people and they all told him he was crazy.
I told Greg not only would we help, we would write stories about each veteran who signed up for the trip, and with every story, we would publish a donation form asking our readers to help with raising the funds.
We not only raised the money for that trip, we raised enough money to take four trips, taking nearly 150 area World War II veterans to Washington. I will cherish the stories they shared for the rest of my life, as well as the experience of being there with them as the memories came flooding back as we walked through the memorial. There were so many wonderful people involved in that initiative. Their compassion for others, their dedication and commitment, well, I am so blessed to have worked with so many incredible people.
And then there was Global High.
In 2006 I was asked by WISD Superintendent Dr. James Wilcox and Navarro College-Ellis County President Dr. Harold Nolte to serve on an exploratory committee to possibly form a new kind of high school in Waxahachie.
What a remarkable panel: Porche Butler, Ken Lynch, Claudia Williams, April Moon, Carol Bush and several others set out to establish a STEM Academy with a goal of becoming an Early College High School. It was a bold experiment that few gave much chance of succeeding.
Porche put together a remarkable teaching staff that truly believed there are no limits to learning, and from the beginning the students proved our noble ideas were so much more than just a dream. They continue to succeed, year after year, with the majority of each graduating class earning a college degree before receiving their high school diploma.
While so many others deserve so much more recognition for Global’s success, you’ll have to forgive me for feeling ownership in this school. I was there in the beginning, when all we had was a blank sheet of paper. I later served as President of the Global High PTO for three years. My son Alex was among the members of its first graduating class, earning his associate’s degree from Navarro College a week before his high school commencement. Following Global, he earned bachelor degrees in international business and international marketing with a minor in Mandarin Chinese from Texas Tech University.
I know I’m not supposed to be prideful. But I’m very proud to have been part of this school.
I was taught very early in my career that community newspapers not only report the events going on the community — community newspapers are part of the community. I was taught success requires taking an active role and when there was a cause we believed would move our community forward, our team certainly rolled up our sleeves and worked side-by-side so many wonderful volunteers over the years.
David Hudgins, Bernyce Crownover, Peggy Loftis, Mark Singleton, Jim Chapman, Laurie Mosley, George Brown, John Hamilton, Alfred Mims, Beverly Worthington, Jim Phillips, Bob Sokoll, Chuck Beatty, Edwin Farrar, Kevin Strength, Betty Jefferson, Perry Giles, John Thornhill, Melissa Ballard, Marvin and Shirley Singleton, Buck Jordan, Bonney Ramsey, Karen Maxwell, Lonnie Gaylor, Ferne Lyle, Gaylord Hanes, Jeff Frazier, Jay Fox, Bruce Zimmerman, Nathan Bickerstaff (my crime fighting partner), Bryan Johnson, Linda Alvarez, Cindy Camp, Ron Langenheder, John Wyckoff, Joe Grubbs, Lane Ballard, Dave Eder — this is just a short list of a few of the outstanding, dedicated volunteers we have worked with over the years (and I apologize for not listing everyone’s name). They all taught me what it means to be an invested citizen by having the commitment to improve our community. I’ve learned so much from each and every one of you.
One of my favorite “giving back to the community” projects was helping Don and Toni Edwards with the Waxahachie Girls Basketball League, which also allowed me the opportunity to coach my daughter Emily for several years. One of my cherished memories will always be her senior year at Waxahachie High School when she wanted to give back to the league by becoming a coach for the younger girls — and she asked me to be her assistant coach. What a great year that was. After graduating WHS, Emily went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Tarleton State University, and now she makes a daily impact on the lives of children as a special education teacher at Ferris ISD. While she often voiced concerns over the number of hours I worked, as I’ve watched her interact with children in classroom, I can’t help but believe I helped influence her passion to help others.
And I have often written about the wonderful experiences during my tenure with the Waxahachie Youth Baseball Association, and the very small role I served in the expansion of the league, where I coached and served on the board of directors for 14 years, three as the organization’s President.
I served along side so many great men and women. Chim Curry, you will always be a role model, an inspiration and a hero to me. Scott Allred, thank you for pushing me and for helping me become a better leader. Jose Constancio, I can’t even begin to thank you — not just for all the years we coached together, but for the positive impact you’ve made on my life and for being the best friend anyone could ever hope to have.
To all of the moms and dads and volunteers in the WYB organization, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share the game I love and help create a new generation of baseball fans. As well as creating scores of father-son moments I will always hold dear in my heart.
My oldest son Zakk was one of the most naturally gifted athletes I’ve coached (I know, baseball dad alert. I’m no different than any other baseball father in dreaming their kid is going to grow up to become the next Derek Jeter). But I’ve never been more proud than I was the day Zakk told me baseball is just a game to him, an activity he enjoys with his friends. He told me had no interest in playing in the Big Leagues. He just wanted to have fun.
His passion was music. Waxahachie, it turns out, was the perfect place for Zakk. And that led me to meet two other incredible leaders in our community. Under the leadership of Benny Davis and later Rich Armstrong, Zakk had the opportunity to perform at the Texas UIL State Marching Contest, twice. Of course I became involved with the WISD Band Boosters (another group of incredible volunteers) and during that tenure was elected to serve as President for three of those years. After Zakk graduated WHS, during his undergrad work at Texas Tech, he was a member of four different bands at the university. I listen to his music on my iPod every day and I always get a lump in my throat when I hear one of his songs.
In my community role, there are so many amazing, wonderful people I’ve worked with during the past 19 years. Tim Allen is another one and during his tenure as Scoutmaster of Troop 233, writing about new Eagle Scouts almost became a standing feature in our Sunday edition. Watching him turn boys into leaders was amazing. It was a calling, and the boys responded. In my “future story ideas” book, I have a note to track down his Eagle Scouts for a special “where are they now” feature. I’m sorry I didn’t get to do that piece before I left.
When it comes to taking a leadership role in improving the community, the Chamber of Commerce is at the forefront of nearly every major initiative. I had the opportunity to see this first hand during my tenure on the Waxahachie Chamber of Commerce Executive Board, where I served terms as Leadership Waxahachie Chair and later, Chairman of the Board. I am proud of the work we accomplished, which included leading the effort to move the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau from the chamber’s umbrella to become a city department, as it should be. I also had the opportunity to work with Joe Gallo to pave the way for Mike Ramsey to create the Economic Development Council, and then get out of his way and watch one goal after the next become reality (the new Baylor, Scott and White Medical Center, downtown redevelopment, the I-35E expansion project and helping lead the charge to make Waxahachie an education destination).
If you want to make an impact but don’t know how to get involved, visit the Chamber.
I also have to mention how much I’ve enjoyed working with the Ellis County Master Gardeners helping promote their many programs, most especially, taking the challenge I issued to former Ellis County Ag Agent Gary Stanford to create a farmers market and watch them turn it into what has become an amazing asset for our community.
And I can’t forget the Waxahachie Lions Club, who allowed me to give a presentation on a fundraising project I was involved with during my time in Wisconsin. They took my presentation and turned it into the Lions Club Mini Grand Prix, which became a popular community event as well as the club’s major fundraiser for many years.
And I have to say how much I’ve truly loved being a Rotarian. Dave McSpadden, God bless you. You set the example of the Rotary’s motto, “Service Above Eelf,” and I strive daily to live up to the example you set.
At one point, I was serving on 14 different boards. That was in addition to serving as Vice President of the Texas Auto Writers Association and being a member of the U.S. Auto Tour. I don’t know how I did it. I actually told JoAnn the next time someone asks me to serve, if I look like I’m about to say yes, tape my mouth closed.
And the job offers were rolling in. It seemed like once a month I was being recruited to leave the Daily Light. There were times my family begged me to take one of the offers on the table — for no other reason than it would provide me with more time at home.
But saying good-bye is hard to do.
I sometimes think what my life might be like now had I taken one of those offers.
I know only God can answer that question.
But I do know how I benefitted from the experiences and relationships by staying.
It’s funny how when you’re on top of the mountain, you think you’re going to be there forever.
But then economy collapsed. That was about the same time the Internet finally caught up with the newspaper industry, and not in a good way.
Then came contrition and the shelving of newspaper nameplates. And the RIFs. I hated the RIFs the most because I had to say good-bye to so many of the people I had worked with for so many years.
That was followed by the reorganization of ACM, which happened about a year before the liquidation of ACM. Those were tough years. Once again I was asked to step in and lead the team through the transition. We rebuilt our remaining products. We restored morale that had taken a beating during the recession years. We became leaders of the new digital age of multi-media publications. And we made budget for the first time in years. The staff even has a video of me doing the happy dance to the “Hey Ya!” song, which I promised to do if they met budget goals.
I really hope I don’t see that on YouTube down the road.
And through it all, we continued to serve our community.
We earned two more “Sweepstakes” Best in Texas Awards, as well as a lot of other awards.
The other evening I was visiting with Scott (Mr. Hall of Famer) Dorsett and he pointed out during the past 19 years, our newsroom staff has earned more than 400 awards for excellence in journalism and won five Best in Texas honors, perennially being honored as one of the top five small market dailies in the state.
There have been so many awards and individual recognitions. He reminded me that I had been named an Honorary Admiral in the Texas Navy by Gov. Rick Perry; he pointed out how I had received the Leadership Waxahachie Award; and he didn’t need to remind me, but he did, that I am a published author (and the publishing house is anxiously waiting for my second manuscript).
“Dude!,” Dorsett said, slapping his hand down on the metal table in the paper’s smoking lounge where we were sitting. “You’re Mr. Waxahachie.”
I cut him off.
“Buck Jordan will always be Mr. Waxahachie,” I told him. “Ken Roberts will always be the Voice of Waxahachie. If anything, I tried to be the conscience of Waxahachie.”
There was a pause in the conversation. Dorsett shook his head and slammed his hand down on the table again.
“Listen dude, you’d be hard pressed to find any positive development that’s happened in this community during the past 19 years that doesn’t have your fingerprints on it somewhere,” he said.
I let the comment sink in for a few seconds before I reached up with my hand to wipe away a tear from my cheek.
While it is my desire to paint a happy picture, the past year has been the most difficult year of my life.
Lately I’ve felt like I have been living the words to the Bruce Cockburn song, “Pacing the Cage.”
Sometimes you feel like you live too long
Days drip slowly on the page
You catch yourself
Pacing the cage
I’ve proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip’s worn thin …
I never knew what you all wanted
So I gave you everything
I leave knowing I gave the community, and this newspaper, everything I had to give. I’m leaving Waxahachie grateful for a tremendous journey and for so many wonderful memories I will always cherish.
That day back in 1997 when Charles took me to lunch, I never told him that I was having second thoughts about my decision to work at the Daily Light. Nor did I tell him my old paper had been calling me daily asking me to come back. I certainly didn’t tell him that I had decided that I was going to call my wife when I got back to the hotel that night and tell her to cancel the movers who were scheduled to move our furniture the following week.
I never shared any of that with him.
But I never forgot his words.
A few years later during one of our lunch dates, I asked Charles if he remembered that conversation. He said he did. I asked him why he said those words to me.
His answer brought tears to my eyes.
“God put it in my heart that you needed to hear that,” he told me.
I hope I have lived up to the expectations God conveyed through Charles.
I’ve been told that when one door closes, another one opens.
I do believe God has a plan for us all.
I have faith He will send me where I am needed — to the next “Waxahachie” that’s been waiting a long time for me to arrive.
Thank you Ellis County for 19 wonderful years.
May God continue to bless and watch over our communities.
I will miss you all.
Neal White has served as Editor and General Manager of Waxahachie Media Group. His recent novel, “Crosswinds” published by The Next Chapter Publishing, is available at Amazon.com. Stay in touch with Neal on Facebook at Neal R. White III or on LinkedIn at Neal White.