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Writing mentors revisited
by Gene Owens

One of the nice things about being in your middle 60s is that you have mastered the art of time travel.

I have now traveled more than six and a half decades into the future that awaited me at birth. I have bridged the gap between the world before World War II and the world beyond the Cold War. I can glimpse the world gone by through my rearview mirror. And on occasion, the mirror is so clear that I can almost step back in time, as I did a few weeks ago when Miss Peggy and I returned home after celebrating our 20th anniversary on Hilton Head Island, S. C.

The trip took us through small towns whose citizens peopled the stories and columns I chronicled 45 years ago as a fledgling reporter for the newspapers in Augusta, Ga. And it took me back to the village where I learned the art of writing; to the feet of two gracious ladies, one who, more than 50 years ago, nurtured in me a love for journalism and another who helped me master the touch system on a manual Underwood and thus free myself from dependence on an illegible scrawl.

Freezing rain was falling by the time I reached my mother’s home in the mill village of Graniteville, S. C. A call to our home in Anderson revealed that an inch of snow was already on the ground, and more was coming. We stayed overnight with Mom and took a side trip to Aiken, Graniteville’s larger neighbor, where Lecil Cushman and Penny McKeown now live in an assisted-living home on the site of the old Aiken High School.

Lecil is 84. I remember her as an energetic presence in the classroom and in my life: beautiful, flowing strawberry-blond hair and a voice that was always just a millimeter away from a laugh. She was the wife of Edward C. Cushman, a handsome ex-Marine who became a lawyer and represented the county for many years in the state Senate.

She coached me in writing and in public speaking. She taught me what little French I know. And she was my window on the educated middle class.

Penny Willis McKeown taught typing and other business courses, and was my homeroom teacher for one year.

I found Lecil in a wheelchair in her small but comfortable room at Trinity Presbyterian Home. Ed lives in a nearby facility that offers the more intensive care he needs.

Penny was in her bed, oxygen tubes inserted in her nostrils. She took them out to talk to me.

“What do you call Lecil?” she asked me.

“I’ve called her ‘Lecil’ ever since I left college,” I said.

“And what do you call me?”

“Penny,” I told the lady I had always known as “Mrs. Willis.”

“You’d better,” she said.

I reminded her of the times she had caught me chewing gum or committing other minor infractions in her classroom. She had punished me by making me stay after school.

“We probably were a little too strict,” Penny said.

“No you weren’t,” I assured her.

Lecil was a police reporter for the Columbia Record during World War II, when male reporters were off fighting the Axis. She told me about the time she rode all night with a policeman patrolling Columbia’s seamier haunts. After she wrote the story, her father -- an educator in a nearby county -- called to give her stern counsel. A young woman should not expose herself to that kind of danger, even in the performance of her job.

I wonder how he would have felt about the Jessica Lynches in today’s military -- or the female war correspondents who took such grave risks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under Lecil’s tutelage, our small mill-town school newspaper won top honors competing against bigger schools around the state. I recently learned that the loving cups we won during my editorship are still stored in the basement of the old school -- long since transformed into a middle school. It’s good to know they’re there.

Lecil has never used a computer, isn’t sure what the Internet is, and would certainly feel lost in a hotel room trying to move a story out of her laptop and into a distant newsroom via e-mail.

When I first began practicing the journalism she taught me, I typed my stories on a manual Underwood and, when away from the office, dictated them via a telephone call placed through a Southern Bell operator who had never heard of an area code. I would be lost today without my computer or the Internet. But I would be even more lost without the enduring knowledge and skills she imparted.

Lecil has never flown in an airplane.

I have flown across the Atlantic and the Pacific; across Europe, the old Soviet Union and mainland China. I have landed aboard an aircraft carrier and set down on the deck of a Navy cruiser in a chopper. I still don’t like to fly.

She, like me, was loath to retire. After giving up her high-school career, she taught kindergarten and primary school well into her 70s and was a popular figure in local theater productions.

As we headed toward Penny’s room, Lecil declined my offer to push her wheelchair. She extended her legs in front of her and, with feet on the floor, pulled the chair along.

She’ll walk again soon, I’m sure.


Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.

As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers last year named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.

He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He recently went into semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.

Read more of Gene's entertaining columns:
A Tribute to Johnny Cash
Roy Moore at the Courthouse Door
All about Gene and Greasepit Grammar
Greasepit Grammar: Misplaced modifiers
Greasepit Grammar: Inertia can get you
Greasepit Grammar: Drinking and dranking
The Wal-Mart Paradox
Taking a week off from retirement to do nothing
Insulation reduces mouse mortality rate
Flocking South with the snowbirds

Write Gene Owens at 1004 Cobbs Glen Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at genepegg@bellsouth.net


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