Shannon Lowry Managing Editor
The Ada News, long a staple in Pontotoc County, will lose a staple of its own Dec. 31 with the retirement of Associate Editor Brenda Tollett, whose career with the newspaper spanned almost 30 years.
Tollett sat for an interview Friday, admitting she was more comfortable asking questions than answering them. With characteristic humbleness, Tollett talked about the changes she’s seen — both in the newspaper industry and in Ada — since starting as the Lifestyle editor in April 1984.
“It’s kind of funny how I got the job,” she said. “My husband, Delton, and I had gone to lunch at some friends’ house. The managing editor of the paper, Tony Pippen, was also a guest. I didn’t know Tony, but he and Delton were talking, and Tony mentioned that he was looking to hire a Lifestyle editor. Delton popped off, ‘My wife can do that.’ I came in the next week for my interview and started less than a week later.”
Tollett had never worked for a newspaper. Having majored in home economics education at East Central, she was then substitute-teaching in Stonewall, McLish and Ada. However, her husband thought her minor in journalism qualified her to work for the paper.
“I thought it would be interesting and that I would like it,” Tollett said. “I decided to try for the job based on that.”
Her duties consisted of wedding, engagement and anniversary announcements; births, and “getting little tidbits of information about the community into the paper — people getting awards, having new grandchildren, club news.”
Like everything else in the newspaper industry, those duties changed over time. “Now it includes education, agricultural and business-type news, as well as religion, which is anything from a new preacher coming to town to pie suppers and revivals,” she said.
Her earliest challenges were learning to write according to newspaper style and making a daily deadline. She also found that “people do not like change.”
“I was stepping into Betty Brooks’ position, and she’d been Lifestyle editor 15 years,” Tollett said. “People said, ‘That’s not the way Betty did it.’ I was happiest when people would call to say they were pleased with a story I’d written. That really made me happy, to hear ‘thank you.’”
Her earliest mentors included Pippen; city editor Patti Reese and Steve Boggs, who later became managing editor. “They taught me a lot about style and ethics, what’s important for a newspaper.”
When Tollett began, stories were still produced on typewriters, and the Ada Evening News was still put together the old-fashioned way: by hand, using the cut-and-paste method. The paper also had its press in Ada; today’s Ada News prints in Norman.
“The paper would hit the streets by noon so people eating lunch would be able to pick up the newspaper,” she said. “When I started, there was a Lifestyle page every day. My deadline was always the night before.”
In 30 years, she only go to say, “Stop the presses!” once, when a fire broke out downtown. “It was probably late on a Saturday,” she said. “The fire was only a couple of blocks from the newspaper. It was exciting.”
Her role gradually expanded to cover news. “I became more of a city editor. When I found out Steve Boggs was leaving, I approached him about the managing editor’s position out of curiosity.”
She took over as managing editor in January 2000. “It was really difficult for me,” she said of the transition. “I had to relinquish control to the new Lifestyle person and let go of my way of doing things. It was kind of a struggle for me.”
The newspaper swiftly began to convert to digital production methods after Tollett became managing editor. “It was hard for me to grasp the concept of digital anything. I was not computer-savvy at all.”
The paper eliminated its composing department and switched from film to digital photography. “It was just the way technology was moving,” Tollett said, “a new way of printing.”
Three major news stories stand out in her mind: the kidnapping and murder of Donna Denice Haraway; the fire that destroyed Evergreen Mills in downtown Ada, and the dismissal of murder convictions against Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson — the event that led to John Grisham writing his book, The Innocent Man.
“Grisham met with me and our publisher, Lone Beasley,” Tollett said, “and he and his staff kept in touch as they needed more information from The Ada News files.”
Her interest in genealogy spurred her interest in maintaining the newspaper’s files from a historical perspective. “I have an interest in preserving and telling the story in the true light rather than word of mouth that may not be exactly right. I’d like to make sure that the history has been preserved for future generatons.”
She and Delton have been building a house in Stuart for the last several years and she plans on enjoying her new home as well as time with her family. She also has a new granddaughter, Evelyn Elizabeth, to help take care of.
“After Delton decided to retire, he wanted me to retire,” she said. “I resisted at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be able to spend more time with him.”
“I’m going to miss the paper, the people I work with, the readers. I’ll miss the news as it happens. But I have a new goal in life. I want to relax and and play with my grandbaby and teach her to read.”
See page 4A for Beasley’s farewell column to Tolleett.
Dan Marsh is managing editor of The Ada News