Thursday, September 11, 2008
It’s perhaps my highest honor ever.
And it wasn’t in the form of a plaque or trophy or certificate.
I got a text message Friday, Aug. 29, about 3:30 a.m. My wife heard the cell phone. She awoke me.
The message was from Joel McNeece, son-in-law of Gale Denley.
Mr. Denley, as I called him, had just passed away after more than two weeks in the intensive care unit at Baptist Hospital in Oxford.
It was the end of the text message that signified an honor likely greater than any I’ve ever received.
“We would like for you to be a pallbearer,” Joel wrote.
I rubbed my eyes a bit, tried to get them to open more that early in the morning, and thought about the significance of that for several minutes – a pallbearer for the funeral service of Gale Denley.
Gale Denley had more friends than anyone I’ve ever known. He defined friendship and he defined community journalism.
That network of “buddies” had been built through lots of avenues – including the newspaper business, the University of Mississippi, church, his community, politics and so on.
He was a third generation newspaper publisher. His parents established the Calhoun County Journal in 1953. His grandfather purchased The Coffeeville Courier in 1907. He taught journalism at Ole Miss for 33 years. In 2003, Ole Miss named the newly renovated S. Gale Denley Student Media Center in honor of the man who led its tremendous growth.
My earliest memories of Mr. Denley are from the Mississippi Press Association conventions when I first moved to Mississippi more than 20 years ago.
I was working for another community newspaper legend, Rubye Del Harden, but I was told then that if I wanted to learn even more about the business I needed to hang around Mr. Denley, pick his brain and particularly listen to what he had to say.
And I did so on every opportunity.
Then seven years ago I had the chance to go to work for Mr. Denley. The owners of The South Reporter, including Mr. Denley, notified me about an opening in the publisher’s seat.
I was looking for a good move. God answered my prayers.
I suddenly had the chance to develop a closer relationship with a great newspaper man, but more importantly a man of great integrity.
Mr. Denley assured me when I was hired that he’d be there for me. But he also assured me it was my newspaper to run. He never wavered on those promises.
I called him several times during the past seven years – not necessarily to ask questions but just to talk in search of more knowledge.
He’d almost always say – “The newspaper is looking good. Keep up the good work.”
I took that as the highest of praise.
I was blessed a few weeks back, not long after Mr. Denley had entered intensive care, to be able to go back and spend a couple of minutes with him. Thank God, he was able to recognize me and respond – although I could not understand the response.
But I know that whatever he said, it wasn’t about him, it was about me – no doubt words of encouragement.
Bruce United Methodist Church was standing-room-only for the service August 31. There were folks from all walks of life – all there because they loved and appreciated Mr. Denley.
Helping carry his casket from the church to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave in Bruce Cemetery was a very special time in my life.
It made me think more about his guidance, his friendship and the special relationship we shared. And it made me proud, very proud. It was a tremendous honor.
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