WATER VALLEY – With weekly deadlines always looming, celebrations are few and far in between in the newspaper business so you better mark your calendar for next Friday, June 22. Next week is Betty Shearer’s 60-year milestone on the job at the North Mississippi Herald. That’s six decades working on Main Street as the face of the newspaper. A reception is planned at the Herald office from 3 to 6 p.m. to celebrate the occasion. The public is invited.
Shearer’s tenure spans almost half of the newspaper’s 130-year history–she started work on June 23, 1958, just four days after marrying Edward “Ed” Shearer, III, and has over 3,000 weekly editions of the paper under her belt. Her father-in-law, Edward B. Shearer, or “Big Ed” as he was known, was one of three owners who purchased the business 15 years earlier. By the time Betty started it was the Shearer’s family business.
Her indoctrination into the business was short, just an hour-long “crash course” before being assigned front office duties on that Monday, joining her husband; father-in-law, Big Ed; mother-in-law, Dolly Shearer; along with Faye Ross, Meryle Cox and Ham Baker.
She quickly learned that the weekly routine was more than a job or career, it was a way of life. Vacations were infrequent and always scheduled after the paper went out Wednesday morning. Babies weren’t allowed to be born on press days nor were funerals held. And sick days, they were scarce.
In fact, Betty can readily recall the handful of days she has missed since 1958. There was that week in April, 1964, when she and Ed welcomed Jim Shearer into the world. Jim was born on a Sunday, accommodating the newspaper’s production schedule, and she was ready to come back to work Monday morning, the next day, even though Dolly Shearer nixed that and made her wait another week.
“I think she was more worried about him than me,” Betty recalled about bringing Jim to work with her so soon. There were another few days she was out for the flu in the 80s and that is just about the extent of her sick days.
“I grew up on a farm, so I was used to hard work,” Shearer recalled about the transition as both a newlywed and a newspaper employee when she was 20 years old. Hard work has defined her time at the Herald, especially in the early days when they worked a rigorous six-day-work-week that often included laboring through much of the night for days on end. Like most newspapers back then, they were also operating a print shop to keep the presses rolling and there was always plenty to do.
“In the early years we even worked late on Saturday nights, but back then the whole town stayed open late and it was a lot of fun,” Betty recalled.
It sounds exhausting, but she wouldn’t change a thing – the long hours were spent alongside her husband and Main Street in Water Valley in the 60s and 70s was a wonderful place to raise a child, even if he was a surprise.
“We never intended to have a child, we worried that we didn’t have time,” Betty said. “Main Street helped raise Jim, but we had a lot of Main Street kids back then.”
Ed enjoyed music and airplanes and when they weren’t working, she enjoyed every minute with him in these endeavors. They were also able to squeeze in trips to see Jim when he got older, making trips to New York, New Mexico and others stops along the way as he pursued an education in music before settling in for the last 26 years at New Mexico State University in Los Cruces, where he serves as Senior Professor.
It’s a life that she wouldn’t change as she still enjoys the weekly routine and plans to continue working as long as her health allows. She still type-sets, reads proofs, delivers the paper on Wednesday morning, greets the customers and performs countless other jobs and enjoys every minute of it. And, of course, she writes Betty’s Week, the weekly column that defines the Herald’s identity after appearing on the front page for more than 30 years.
Her only grief is that she lost Ed too soon – he left on December 29, 2003, at the age of 68. It was a Monday and one of those few times they were apart, he had gone to Oxford to pick the inserts early that afternoon and she stayed back at the office.
“He left early because we were going out to eat with friends that night,” Betty recalled. Mayor Larry Hart and Police Chief Mike King came down to the Herald office to break the news that Ed had died out on the bypass.
“Larry called my sister, Jimmie, and they said they weren’t leaving until she got to the office,” Betty recalled.
Jim arrived the next day, and with the help of longtime friends Dr. T.J. Ray and Lucia Holloway, the paper was printed Tuesday night and hit the streets Wednesday morning, just like always.
“I laid out the pages and wrote his obituary,” Betty recalled.
“We did the same thing when Ed’s mother died,” she added. “You do what you have to do. The best half of me was gone. But I knew if it had been me, he would have done the same thing.”
There were hard days, weeks and years ahead, but it was the weekly routine and good friends who got her through. Ray continued to help her with production for the next six months, as did Rupert Howell, John Howell and others. She sold the business that following July to the Howells, and readily agreed to stay on and help the new editor, David Howell.
That was 14 years ago and since then it has been business as usual, the paper has hit the streets each week with Betty’s help. In 2007, the newspaper office moved from 500 North Main to the current location at 416 North Main. This was the third time the newspaper office moved in the six decades since Betty started, and was only two doors down from where she started.