VIEWPOINT: The Keeter Gospel 

Reporter Terry Keeter, who died last week, was funny, profane, insightful, and talented. He knew more about Memphis and the Mid-South from the 1960s through the 1980s than just about anybody. But some of his best work never got into print, either because he wrote it for the annual Gridiron Show or because the newspaper he worked for rarely allowed reporters to indulge in personal recollections.            

The newspaper business nurtures reporters, lets them shine for a while, then uses them up and tosses them on the junk heap. After Keeter got sick and was forced to retire, mainly due to his smoking and drinking, he shared a personal recollection called “Lone Cedar News” which he hand-printed in black ink on six sheets of parchment paper. Here are some excerpts.

“When I was five years old and went to visit my grandparents in North Arkansas, I put together my first newspaper so my family in South Arkansas would know what was going on along the banks of the White River. It had handwritten headlines over handwritten stories, the conciseness of which was only recently challenged by USA Today. And, in retrospect, it was about as apt to catch the eye of Pulitzer judges as Gannett’s afternoon digest of the morning news … It told of wood stoves, lye soap, and exploring a root cellar. That handwritten paper also carried a bit of sports news about listening as Harry Caray shouted above the summer-night static about Cardinals, holy cows, and Griesideck Brothers Beer."           

Keeter began his career in Meridian, Mississippi in the 1960s during the civil rights struggle. “I have walked the lonely dirt road where three young men were gunned down. And I held a slave light as Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer Jack Thornell took photos as a Neshoba County deputy sheriff, who had helped take those three lives, helped unload their bodies at University Hospital. … I’ve seen a boney-fingered, redneck prosecutor named Bill Finch convince an all-white Mississippi jury that the Laurel Jaycee’s Man of the Year was Ku Klux Klan nightrider who should be found guilty of murder in the firebomb death of black voter-registration leader Vernon Dahmer.”

“I attended school with three Miss Americas and a Soybean Queen…. Knew to stand up-wind from Jerry Jeff Walker spoke with Ray Price about what he did For the Good Times, asked Ralph Nader on television what kind of car he drove, shot the bull with Jerry Lee Lewis, rode the bull at Gilley’s, and survived confrontations with Madison Avenue, Bourbon Street, Market Street, Broadway, Beale Street, Gaslight Alley, Printer’s Alley, Basin Street, Peachtree Street, Main Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, several episodes involving Elm Street, and a gambling boat on Lake Hamilton.”

He wasn’t bragging when he said “I have been on a first-name basis with governors of seven states and more than two dozen U.S. senators” or that he “rubbed shoulders with Kings – Martin Luther, Elvis, and B.B, drank coffee with Imperial Wizards and beer with Black Panthers.” A sports fan, “I found out Archie Who, saw Billy Cannon’s best shot, went one-on-one with Pete Maravich, exchanged jabs with Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali, stole moments with Lou Brock, Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial. And on a peach farm near Pope, Mississippi, I took a swing into the past with Samuel B. Vick, the man who pinch-hit for Babe Ruth. I’ve known the animal magnetism of Bear Bryant, Snake Stabler, Squirrel Griffin, Hoss Anderson, Dan Quayle, Bull Sullivan, Dog Owens, Meadowlark Lemon and Tommy Cribbs…..          

“In these 50 years, I’ve found that there are only two legitimate standards by which to judge a news story – who cares, and who ought to care. And I’ve learned that there are many things that are nicer not to know, things best left unsaid, unreported, you might say. But unreported things don’t just go away. They can jump out and grab the very people left untold. …. I’ve tried to remind others that the news does not belong to those who own the presses. And I have constantly reminded myself of the single reason for that first handprinted newspaper I so carefully prepared on my grandfather’s farm: so the folks at home could know what’s going on.”

(John Branston is a senior editor of the Flyer.)

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