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CHARLOTTE TILLAR SCHEXNAYDER: Newspaper Editor and State Representative.

In seventh grade in the 1930s, Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder created her first newspaper for a class assignment. She walked to the grocery store to request sheets of butcher paper, scoured state and local papers for inspiration, then carefully created her own four-page bulletin. That young middle school student went on to spend more than half of her life in newsrooms in Desha County.

"I fell in love with newspapers then, and I never could get it out of my blood," she said. "I was so fascinated by newspapers all my life. It was hard, hard work, but fun, fun, fun."

Schexnayder's roots in Southeast Arkansas ran deep. Her family founded the town of Tillar in 1870 when the first railroad came through that area of southeast Arkansas, making it viable for commerce.

She was between Dumas and McGehee on Highway 65, and so close to the Mississippi, she remembers her family fleeing the flood of 1927 in the middle of the night.

"We were awakened at three in the morning and told we had to get out because the Bayou Bartholomew bridge was going to wash away and there-would be no way to get out," she said. "We were one of the last cars to get over the bridge."

In 1931, her father died of pneumonia, her grandfather passed away from kidney disease, and they lost the family plantation within the span of three months. Her mother took up teaching and held things together in a way that inspired Schexnayder.

"My mother certainly was a magnificent woman," she said. "She had all the bad things happen to her, but she never lost her sense of humor or her sense of purpose."

After high school, Schexnayder attended Arkansas A&M College two years before entering the journalism program at Louisiana State University. She returned to McGehee to edit the newspaper. Melvin Schexnayder served in the U.S. Army in the battle for Europe. They were married in 1946, and returned to LSU for further study. The young couple returned to McGehee to "try out newspapering" for a year at the McGehee Times. They ended up staying in Desha County for 50 years.

The two purchased the Dumas Clarion in 1954 and owned that paper for 44 years.

"My mother came to Dumas with us to become what we called the 'Society editor' of the paper," she said. "We were a team and the newspaper was another family member. Everything revolved around getting the newspaper ready and published for that week and then working on the next one."

The Schexnayders also added three children--John, Sarah and Steve--to the newspaper family. In her journalism career, once she joined an organization, she was sure to be elected president.

She became president of the Arkansas Press Women in 1955. She was the first woman elected to the Little Rock chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and became its first female president in 1973. In 1977, she was elected president of the National Federation of Press Women. In 1981, she became the first female president of the Arkansas Press Association. In 1989, she was elected treasurer of the National Newspaper Association, and by 1991, she was its first female president.

When asked how she always seemed to rise into leadership positions, she said, "I worked awfully hard in all of them. When I was in those organizations, I did hard jobs and things that took a lot of time. And I think those are parts of leadership. I knew I could do the job if I were given it, and I was, so that was nice."

Schexnayder always had an interest in politics, but that interest began to solidify when Gov. Dale Bumpers named her to the Commission on the Status of Women in the early 1970s. When Gov. David Pryor appointed her to the Arkansas Board of Pardons and Parole, she became the first woman to serve on that board. In her role, she met attorneys and lawmakers and became more comfortable with the halls of government.

From there, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation named her to its board in Little Rock where she served for five years.

One morning in the newspaper office, she got a call from a sitting representative who revealed he wasn't going to run for re-election. Out of the blue she said, "What do you think if I run for the House?" The representative said he'd support her. It was 11 a.m. The next edition of the paper would publish later that day. Schexnayder discussed the idea with her husband during the lunch hour.

"He said, 'You've always been interested in politics. Why don't you run? I'll get out and drive you around anywhere I can,'" she remembered.

During that time, some friends had heard of her possible campaign bid, and called to paper to urge her to run.

"So, I sat down and wrote an announcement story for the paper and something to send to the other papers, and we published it that day," she said. "That was the most expedited decision I've ever made."

She ran unopposed and was elected in 1984. Her first order of business was a compact to build a bridge across the river from Desha County to Bolivar County, Mississippi.

"It's one of the preferred routes in the United States or 'Highways of Choice' they call it," she said. It was her first large bill, and the project is still awaiting funding.

She was also the lead sponsor of a bill to create the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

"We passed it out of the House of Representatives and when we couldn't get it out of the Senate, it went to a petition drive," she said. "When Gov. Clinton signed his name on the petition, the petition paper was on my shoulders and that was very symbolic because I carried that legislation."

She served seven terms in the House, and was the lead sponsor of several bills enhancing the Freedom of Information Act; educational reforms; and a bill creating sales tax for a research center and endowed chair in alcohol abuse prevention at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. After her husband died in 2007, Schexnayder published her memoir, Salty Old Editor: An Adventure in Ink.

"It's the story of time gone by," she said. "And I felt like it needed to be told because country journalism was so much different then."

Despite the changing media landscape, Schexnayder has hope for the newspaper industry.

"I think there will be room for weekly newspapers as long as you tell the local stories well," she said. "But I think I lived and worked in the best era in weekly newspaper journalism. I lived in a grand era."

BY MELISSA TUCKER

1923: Born on Dec. 25

1944: Graduated from the journalism program at Louisiana State University

1946: Married Melvin Schexnayder

1954: Purchased the Dumas Clarion with her husband, Melvin

1955: Became president of the Arkansas Press Women

1973: First female president of the Society of Professional Journalists

1975: First woman appointed to the Arkansas Board of Pardons and Parole

1977: Elected president of the National Federation of Press Women

1981: First female president of the Arkansas Press Association

1984: Elected to the state House of Representatives

1991: First female president of the National Newspaper Association

1998: Schexnayders sold the Clarion

2012: Published her memoir, Salty Old Editor: An Adventure in Ink

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Author:Tucker, Melissa
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Aug 12, 2019
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