Merger keeps alive newspaper Norman Rockwell once immortalized
Tasked with painting the quintessential country newspaper for the Saturday Evening Post, artist Norman Rockwell had the entire country to search for his subject. He discovered exactly what he was looking for at the Monroe County Appeal in Paris, Missouri.
The result was one of the artist’s most popular works. The painting, titled “Norman Rockwell visits a Country Editor,” shows a typical day at the weekly county seat newspaper in the 1940s. At one end a young man dashes off to carry copy to be set. Seated behind his old Remington typewriter, the editor, H.J. “Jack” Blanton, puts the finishing touches on his column while the typesetter estimates how much space it will take. At the counter a farm family discusses a subscription with the city editor. Walking in the door, portfolio in hand, is the artist himself making a cameo.
The artist got one thing wrong says Becky Vanlandingham, the great-granddaughter of the editor. “He was missing the ends of his fingers because of an accident,” she says. “He was a two-finger typist.”
The work was published in the May 25, 1946 edition of the Post. Becky recalls the original painting being displayed at the newspaper office. “He put it in the office for everyone to see. After a week or two it was just in the way.” She says he loaned it to the University of Missouri, which eventually sent it to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In 2015 the original of the painting sold for a whopping $11.5 million.
A large, framed copy of the painting still hangs in the office of the Appeal, which recently merged with the Ralls County Herald-Enterprise. Combining the two papers likely kept both from folding as so many others have says its publisher, Robin Gregg. “When I came here in 2018, they were very much in the hole. This year we’ve been break-even or above. We’ve come a long way.”
The staff, which also includes Editor Lacey Shumard, continues to meet an important need for the two-county coverage area, just like the newspaper did when Norman Rockwell visited.
Today’s paper has a following that includes subscribers all over the country and even in Canada and France. Its 1,200 print copies compare to the 40,000 who read it online. Beyond the printed words, the paper livestreams just about every event taking place in the area.
“We are very digital,” Robin says, comparing today’s paper to the one featured in the Post. “We of course have one generation that has to have that paper in their hand. And then some want the news right now when it happens, which is online, but then they want the paper to keep.”
But she believes its former editor would recognize and appreciate their weekly efforts. The Appeal was featured by the Saturday Evening Post because its editor was almost a household name across the country, thanks to his Appeal column called “Hints by the Horse Editor” and “When I Was a Boy,” a twice-weekly column that ran in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and was later published as a two-volume book.
Jack came from generations of newspapermen in a family that included his father, Benjamin Franklin Blanton, who bought theAppeal and moved it to Paris from Monroe City in 1873. Becky recalls Jack being “very genteel. He always wore a coat and vest. When he came home from the office the radio went on to the national news. When the news was over then we ate.”
He started his journalism career at age 12 as a janitor and printer’s assistant, one of 10 siblings who learned to set type at their father’s paper. By 15 he was reporting the news. He took the helm as editor when he was just 21 years old.
In 1942 he earned fame with a banner headline splashed across Page 1 after a lengthy drought: “Lord, we confess our sins, We ask forgiveness, We pray for rain.” Within an hour after the paper was printed rain started falling and Jack was the most popular man in Monroe County.
An article on the editor printed in Country Gentleman magazine and widely reprinted around the state told the rest of the story. “Unfortunately, the rain continued to fall. Crops rotted in the field. Fall plowing couldn’t be done. By Thanksgiving Blanton was being shunned by friends and by New Year’s Eve, with rains still falling and fields knee deep in mud, he was regarded as public enemy No. 1. He had, however, achieved a reputation as a drought breaker, and eventually that long wet spell was forgotten.”
Years later, the corn crop was again dying in the fields due to lack of rain. “Blanton’s farmer friends, cocking an eye to a cloudless sky from which no moisture had fallen for a month, began to hint that something ought to be done — but nothing too drastic, mind,” the Country Gentleman story related. “The editor acceded but refrained from couching his appeal to heaven in a banner headline. This time he printed a prayer — a modest and humble prayer — in a 2-column box.”
True to form, Jack wrote about the result in his weekly column. “A million-dollar rain fell in Monroe County Sunday night. Hundreds of people feel it was in answer to a prayer that was featured on the first page of last week’s Appeal. Comments on every hand indicate a deep-seated belief in the efficacy of prayer, though as stated last week, the average citizen would rather do without rain than go to that much trouble.”
Jack also mentioned the incident in one of his Globe-Democrat columns, writing “The farmers still come to me when we are having droughts. ‘But please, this time don’t put it in 60-point type.’ ”
A devout Baptist and stalwart Democrat, Jack never shied away from religion or politics. He once wrote that “Democrats are staying up nights to keep Republicans from shooting Santa Claus.” But he also added a Republican perspective to the paper.
“I kept getting so exasperated at the treatment we Democrats get from city papers that one day it just occurred to me that some of our local Republicans might have the same feeling about the way we treated them,” he said of the conservative column.
He blasted papers that did not take a political stand one way or the other, writing, “A newspaper without political convictions outspokenly expressed is like meat without salt or pepper on it.”
Jack also unashamedly did his best to put Paris on the map. When he learned that “a squad of the old boys” was planning a fiddle contest, Jack turned it into the Missouri State Fiddling Championship with the champion crowned, of course, in Paris. He convinced cities around the state to hold contests to select regional representatives to the final showdown. Then he invited the mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City to be the judges.
The event ended up on the front page of every paper in the state.
The excitement of the fiddle contest had barely died down when Jack again put Paris in the news. This time he was acting as president of the Mark Twain Park Association organized to save the writer’s birthplace in nearby Florida, Missouri. A picnic he organized — complete with a modern pressroom with photos and necessary statistics — became a national event and led to the creation of the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site.
His columns were routinely reprinted in papers around the state, especially the Sikeston Standard where his brother, C.L. Blanton, was the “Polecat Editor.” The Standard wrote a tongue-in-cheek column about Jack’s premature death gleaned from the county financial records, which noted “Pauper coffin for Jack Blanton — $17.” It turned out Jack had convinced the county to pay the funeral expenses for a poor man whose family had no money and his name was substituted in the accounting.
The Rev. Harold Hunt, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Paris, related that Jack told him “to go help the poor wherever there is a need and charge it to me.”
While he often traded political broadsides with the competing Paris Mercury’s editor, Tom Bodine, he was quick to write a glowing tribute to his rival’s deceased sisters in the pages of the Appeal. He also offered the office of his paper, including the staff and equipment, so that the Mercury could publish while its editor mourned his beloved sisters.
“Jack is a better editorial writer than any man who contributes to the editorial page of the dailies in St. Louis, Kansas City, St. Joe and other Missouri seaports,” opined the Macon Republican. “But he will probably live and die in Paris, Mo., thereby showing more sense than some of the rest of us who sought larger fields.”
Jack would indeed stay in Paris. He tried to retire twice, the first time in 1941 when he was 71 years old. He returned when his second-in-command, Si Colburn, joined the Army. Once Si returned Jack again retired but continued to come to the office twice a week to write his column. Those visits grew increasingly longer until he was back full time, perhaps prompted by ribbing from the Globe-Democrat:
“We herewith and to his face call Jack Blanton a quitter, a fellow with a future who is deliberately passing it by to dally down the primrose path with a niblick in one hand and a fish pole in the other.”
Both Jack and Si were inducted into the Missouri Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Appeal was named one of the Top 5 newspapers in the nation by Country Gentleman. Time magazine did a story on Jack and the Saturday Evening Post called him the best-known country editor in the nation. The University of Missouri School of Journalism honored his work with a gold medal for “Distinguished Service in Journalism” and a silver cup for “most constructive work in journalism on behalf of good citizenship.”
The Missouri Press Association, which Jack once led as president, framed a copy of the painting along with a tribute to Jack and donated it to the Monroe County Courthouse. It hangs just outside the county history museum.
Residents of Paris honored Jack by dedicating a fountain to him on the courthouse lawn. This came in response to a column he wrote. “The Horse Editor wants to see an artistic drinking fountain in Paris — a fountain with a bowl for dogs, and a bowl for horses, man’s most faithful friends, as well as a drinking place for men, women and children.”
Jack once told his readers that he “aimed to live to 100 or die trying.” He wrote his last column just hours before his death in 1955.
In reporting his death on Page 1, Si Colburn wrote, “Nowhere in the Appeal this week will appear ‘30’, which in newspaper circles is used to indicate the end. Jack Blanton does not die.” Instead, he promised, Jack’s legacy, principles, practices and policies would continue in the pages of the Appeal.
Tributes to his life’s work came from far and wide and included this one from the Mexico Ledger: “If there is a newspaper in heaven, and we suspect there is, Jack Blanton is writing editorials for it. They’re rich and fine and bulging with depth of meaning. They’re fair and forceful — the honest opinion of a square-shouldered man. They’re human of course. But more than that, reflect a humility and humor rising above the smallness of mere self … just like they always were here on earth.”
The paper may have changed, merged and gone online but it continues in the tradition Jack Blanton brought to it so many years ago. If it’s missing the politics and religion, its current staff more than makes up for it by reporting the local news no other media outlet is likely to cover.
“I think the worst thing that could happen is there could be a day where a generation doesn’t know what a newspaper is,” Editor Lacey says. “That could be a reality at some point, and an unfortunate one.”
You can find the Appeal at www.monroecountyappeal.com and on Facebook. To see the painting and sketches from Norman Rockwell’s visit, search for country editor at www.collection.nrm.org.