Editor’s Note: The below is an expansion of an article that Mr. Nordlinger had in the June 24, 2019, issue of National Review. This expansion is written in the style of his Impromptus column, with bullet points and some photos.
Local papers are dying, fast. Some are migrating to the Web, in some fashion. Many are simply … bidding farewell. The Rockdale Reporter is hanging on. Its editor, Mike Brown, is one of my favorite journalists in America. One of my favorite writers. I have often quoted him, over the years. In my view, he exemplifies what a newspaperman ought to be.
• Rockdale is in Central Texas, about 160 miles south of Dallas. The town used to be 60 miles from Austin, says Mike, but Austin has spread out so much, the distance is now 48. Rockdale is in Milam County, whose seat is Cameron. The county is named after Ben Milam, a military hero of the Texas Revolution (1835–36).
• The population of Rockdale is 5,500, and the Reporter’s circulation is 3,500. Not all of those readers are Rockdale people. The paper goes out to nearby communities and even beyond. It is a weekly, the Reporter — always has been, since its founding in the 19th century. The paper comes out on Wednesdays. Many readers don’t want to wait for a copy to arrive by mail — so they come in to the Reporter’s office to buy one (for a dollar).
• The office is a museum, in part: There is old, outdated equipment around, just for show, just for fun. There is a Linotype machine, for example, and a few job presses. Have a look at a shelf or three:
And here’s Mike Brown in front of some back issues:
Every now and then, a police scanner squawks, just as it’s supposed to in a newspaper office, or many of them.
As you might guess, Mike knows everyone in town, pretty much, and they know him. Is it ever awkward to report on them, when they get arrested or something of that nature? Maybe, yes, but Mike, a professional, does it anyway. He is the genuine article (and writes them).
• Rockdale was incorporated in 1874, once a railroad had reached the area. When in town, you might like to visit the Rockdale International & Great Northern Railroad Depot & Museum. Trains still come through here, whistling loudly (I can attest). But they no longer stop.
Two prominent founding citizens were the Loewenstein brothers, Benjamin and Joseph, Jewish merchants. They started with tents and grew from there — a classic American story. They were of special help to black residents — again, classic.
• In November 1920, Warren G. Harding, the president-elect, stopped in Rockdale on his train. He was headed for the Panama Canal Zone. Have an excerpt from the account in the Reporter:
Mrs. Harding, the Nation’s coming “first lady,” also appeared on the platform with her husband and graciously greeted the people. She seemed particularly pleased with the college yells given for her husband by the Rockdale High School boys present, and when she thanked them for their courtesy they responded with another battery of “rahs” for Mrs. Harding herself, this drawing forth from her the remark, “Boys, that’s mighty sweet of you.”
• Ceramic tigers dot this town. Why’s that? The high-school sports teams are the Tigers. Mike Brown figures that 60 percent of the high schools in Texas are either the Tigers, the Eagles, or the Bulldogs. “We cover three teams, and one of them is the Tigers, one is the Eagles, and the other is the Bulldogs.” That’d be Rockdale, Milano, and Thorndale.
Have a tiger — a Rockdale Tiger:
• We wait a long, long time before we can cross Main Street. Traffic is fierce. “I live in Manhattan,” I tell Mike, “and I work near Times Square, and the traffic is not nearly as bad there.”
I exaggerate a bit — but just a bit.
• Twisted Scissors is an unusual, interesting establishment: a “salon and boutique.” Get your hair cut and shop for select products. I can’t pretend to be a restaurant connoisseur when it comes to Rockdale, but I can highly recommend Coronas Mexican.
• The library is the Lucy Hill Patterson Memorial Library, donated by her son, George Hill Patterson, who was a prominent Hollywood neurosurgeon. His mother had lived in Rockdale briefly, when a child. He was looking for a way to honor her.
The library has a collection of rare books — Dr. Patterson’s — and there is also an interesting letter. Patterson wanted Margaret Mitchell’s autograph. (She is the author of Gone with the Wind.) He wrote to her to ask for it, and she replied that she did not give out autographs — but, of course, signed the letter.
Mike Brown’s wife, Sue, works at the library. When I tell her I’m a fan of Mike’s, she has to concede, “Yeah, he’s awesome.” (He thinks the same of her, clearly.)
• He was born in 1950 — not in Rockdale but in Alvin, a town south of Houston. Its other claim to fame is Nolan Ryan, the pitcher (born three years before Mike). The Browns moved to Rockdale when Mike was two. His father was a minister and his mother a music teacher.
As a kid, Mike loved to read the newspaper: the Reporter and also the Houston Press, “a scandal sheet,” he says. He also loved astronomy (and still does). When he was a sophomore in high school, he and his dad built a telescope.
But back to journalism: During his senior year, Mike drew up a parody, the Rockhead Reporter. In it, he poked a little fun at some of his teachers. One teacher, a civics teacher, was none too pleased, and he and Mike went down to the principal’s office to have a talk.
There was no great harm, however — at least to Mike. That very year, he won the civics award.
• He entered the University of Texas in 1968, that radical year — the year of the barricades. His parents drove him over to Austin, and he checked into Brackenridge Hall. He worked at the undergraduate library, shelving periodicals, and one day he came across a magazine with a blue border. “I looked inside and thought two things,” he says. “First, these people think like I do. And second, that’s really good writing.”
He subscribed to the magazine — National Review — and eventually got his first two issues. They arrived in non-consecutive order. And the cover of one of them had been torn off. Left-wing sabotage at the post office or just a mishap? Mike, generously, suspects the latter.
Over the years, he would enjoy reading such writers as Keith Mano and John Greenway (an English-born folklorist). And, of course, he greatly admired William F. Buckley Jr. “I devoured everything he wrote.”
One afternoon, when Mike was a senior, WFB came to the university to speak. “The talk was in the old Gregory Gym,” Mike remembers, “and it was packed. Standing-room only.” How did WFB do? “He was every bit as impressive in person as he was on the page. He showed that you could be both conservative and cool. And that was a big thing.”
The next day, the Daily Texan — UT’s paper — had a report. It showed a picture of WFB, with the (apt) caption “Beaming, Biting Buckley.” “The student audience seemed attentive despite stifling heat inside the gym.”
In due course, Mike wrote to WFB — as one did. And WFB wrote him back — as he did.
• Mike loved astronomy, but he majored in that other love, English. His favorite poet is Yeats. Mike is smitten with words, as writers tend to be. He is also naturally humorous — and does not disdain puns.
Some years ago, Truman Lamb was succeeded by Joel Pigg in a key agricultural position. A number of headlines suggest themselves. Mike Brown chose “Pigg Replaces Lamb as County Agent, No Kidding.”
He tells me a story, related to humor. One night, he was very low and doing some laundry. The Carol Burnett Show came on. And he laughed and laughed. “I would like to meet Carol Burnett someday to tell her what she already knows: what a gift she has, and how important it is to people. It’s important to laugh.”
• Mike started at the Rockdale Reporter on this wise: In 1973, he called up the paper and said, “Would you like a story about Comet Kohoutek?” The lady on the other end of the line said, “What the hell is that?” It was the hottest thing in the sky, named after Lubos Kohoutek, a Czech astronomer. Mike wrote the story. Then he did further freelancing for the paper.
In 1974, Rockdale marked its centenary with a two-week-long party. The Reporter hired Mike on a part-time basis to cover this party. When it was over, they hired him full time. He has been at the paper ever since. He became its editor in 1998.
When you start out at a community newspaper, you do everything — including those fundamentals, birth notices and obituaries. The former used to be called “stork reports,” Mike notes. “That was so long ago, the people who had the babies were married.”
The truth is, Mike still does everything, or virtually everything: editing, of course, and writing and picture-taking — the works.
• For over a century, the paper has been in the same hands — those of the Cooke family, which owns it. Mike apprenticed under J. W. “Bill” Cooke, the grandson of the first Cooke owner. “He taught me everything I know,” says Mike, “so you can blame him.”
• The Reporter once had a motto that went, “The only newspaper in the world that cares about Rockdale.” There is potency in that motto. Who cares about your city-council meetings and funerals and school sports and ice-cream socials except your local paper, if you have one?
I’m looking at a headline on the front page of the Reporter that says, “Legion plans turkey shoot for Sunday.” (“Food and drinks will be available at 11 a.m. with shooting starting at noon.”) On the front page of the sports section, I’m told that Rockdale High’s soccer team — the boys team — has had a “historic season.”
There is one letter to the editor, in which the writer, Billy Eugene Strelsky, responds to a column concerning black diamond watermelons and yellow catfish. He also takes the opportunity to correct a quotation — a Biblical quotation — from a previous letter of his. “I tried to quote this from memory, and I got it wrong. I do apologize for getting God’s Holy Word wrong.”
Mr. Strelsky would make a good journalist himself — correction is important.
The Rockdale Reporter contains serious news, all too. Indeed, the front page of the edition I’m looking at tells of a man on Death Row. Years ago, he attended Rockdale High.
“We’ve had three murders in the last two years,” Mike Brown tells me. One murder was of a child. The accused is a person “transitioning” from male to female. When Mike writes about the case, and refers to the accused, he avoids pronouns altogether.
• The Reporter persists, and so does Rockdale, but times are not easy — for either the paper or the town. “Great things happen here,” is the city motto. Yet Rockdale has had the misfortune of losing its two biggest employers in the space of ten years: a smelting facility and a power plant. The paper is thinner than it was, with fewer ads.
When Mike talks to students, he gives them a quiz: “What is news?” They come up with various answers, some of them quite good. Mike then quips, “The news in a newspaper is the stuff around the ads.” Without them, no newspaper.
• I ask Mike, “How many people work at the Reporter?” “About half of us,” he quips. The real answer is eight or so — depending on how you count (and not all of these are full time). I ask Mike, “Do you feel you’re the last of the Mohicans, the end of the line?” He calls up a memory of his grandmother.
“She lived in Kansas City, and she lived to be 97. When she found out that I was working for a newspaper, she said, ‘I’m so glad. Newspapers kept going right through the Depression.’ No matter how poor her family was, they always took the Kansas City Times and the afternoon paper, the Kansas City Star. They couldn’t do without them. So, I’m hanging in there with my late grandmother.”
• Whatever the future may be, Mike Brown has had a very rewarding, deeply satisfying career, he says. The best part about it has been getting to know a variety of people — “people I never would have met but for this job.”
• He is very patriotic, but not in a jingo way. Far from it. Indeed, he says it’s not for him to call himself a patriot. He gives me a story. “When my dad and I built that telescope, during my sophomore year, I told a friend of mine, ‘I’m an astronomer.’ My friend said, ‘It takes more than that.’”
For some 20 years, Mike gave a Fourth of July speech at a large picnic. One time, he got a compliment from a lady he had known for years — the mother of friends of his. Beaming, she grasped his hand and said, “Mike Brown, until tonight, I never knew you had any sense.”
• Undoubtedly, he has reported many stories that have meant a lot to him. Asked to cite one, he names a story from 2004. In December of that year, he went to Fort Hood, 70 miles away, where soldiers were returning from Iraq. One of them was a teacher at Rockdale High, Art Free.
“There was no formal ceremony,” Mike wrote. The soldiers filed into a gym and their commander told them, “I have but one order for you: Dismissed!”
“Then all heaven broke loose,” wrote Mike. “A screaming, crying wave of families roared out of the bleachers and met an oncoming wave of soldiers. The first wave included Lt. Col. Free’s wife, Susan; their children, Jere, Patti, and Erin; and his parents, Woody and Joan.”
Farther down in his story, Mike wrote, “Couple by couple, family by family, the gym emptied. I wandered out into the night toward my van, watching the happy families depart. But here and there would be one soldier alone.” And Mike felt for them deeply.
It’s hard to get through this article dry-eyed (I can tell you). Let us hope that Mike Brown is not the last of the Mohicans. Let us hope that there will be many more like him, whatever our newspapers are in the future. But if he is the last — he’s a hell of a Mohican.