I was a young journalist in 2013, a mere 28 years of life behind me, when I took the reigns as managing editor at The Belton Journal and met the late Belton historian and journalist Berneta Peeples.
Her white hair shone through the windows of her large Crown Vic as she pulled up haphazardly to the front doors of the Journal.
My new boss and publisher, David Tuma, went to help her from the car and walked her in, arm in arm. It was easy to see she was important to him. She was dressed to impress, and luckily, so was I.
If my own grandmother ever taught me anything it’s that you can never be overeducated or overdressed.
I look back at the encounter now and imagine what a doe-eyed child I must have looked like to her.
She was 94 at the time and had been a journalist in Texas for 76 years.
I heard a few whispers of advice as she settled into her desk at the front of the office, which was sprinkled with many pairs of reading glasses. The gist from my new coworkers was that she knew everything and everyone, and I’d better stay on her good side.
I was prepared for a fierceness that I was certainly not met with.
I clacked over the tile floor in my heels and David introduced us. She extended her delicate hand to shake my own and addressed me with two words that I’ll never forget.
“Madame Editor,” she said as she squeezed my hand. I beamed. There sat this legend of a woman recognizing a position I held that I was naïve to know how hard she worked to pave that path for me.
I didn’t know then the impact those two words would have on me for the rest of my career. To me, I bore her title.
She was an icon, and I was not only a green journalist, but I’m not a local Beltonian, either. She was a local historian, a lifelong journalist, a woman who paved the trail for so many young women journalists and career women, including myself.
Now, it was my job to help her continue her legacy. She came in once a week to write a feature article and type up obituaries and wedding announcements. Each day before she arrived, I opened her computer for her (she hated the computer), opened a document, set the type face to HUGE, and organized her paperwork.
With all the glasses on her desk, she might have needed to wear more than one at a time, but, regardless of the mounting typos brought on by her failing eyesight, it occurred to me that I might be the last editor to work with the iconic Berneta Peeples, and that wasn’t something to complain about.
Beyond working as her editor, she helped introduce me to Belton. Through her stories and recants of years gone by, I was able to develop a love for a town that I now call my own. Her vivid memory transformed the landscape from modern-day Belton to the historic town with so much rich history.
In the last eight years, I’ve worked on and off at The Belton Journal in numerous capacities. The joke has been made that if I don’t make a quit stick, I’ll be the next Berneta Peeples, and I’d be honored.
Until then, though, may the real Madame Editor of The Belton Journal rest in peace.
By Gray R Thomas