Sunday, June 4, 2006
Ace Reporter Geraldine Perkins Never Misses a Beat on the Local Beat
By Toby Smith
Journal Staff Writer
CORONA Every Monday afternoon, Geraldine Perkins curls up in a recliner in her living room here, pulls a blanket across her legs and dictates notes from memory to her daughter, who sits in front of a computer 10 feet away.
The notes eventually become entries in Perkins' weekly newspaper column:
There is a rumor going around that there will be excellent posole at the Spring Fling Saturday ...
E.J. and Tootie Fouratt, Whitesboro, TX, stopped in for a brief visit ...
A big bull snake, with head held high, fully five feet in length, was going down the road Friday ...
When Sherrill Bradford finishes typing an item, she reads it back to her mother, who often requests alterations.
"The snake was not skinny," says Perkins, a frail, smooth-skinned woman. "Rand told me so."
The two women discuss the snake. Finally, Bradford types in "not skinny," because her mother is, after all, the journalist.
Each week, as it has for more than three decades, Perkins' column, "Corona News," appears in the Lincoln County News, published in Carrizozo, 45 miles south.
Years ago such community journalism was a staple in rural weeklies over-the-back-fence jottings about neighbors and events in outlying hamlets.
In today's high-tech culture, many county correspondents like Geraldine Perkins have gone the way of the butter churner.
At age 98, blind, nearly deaf and fighting the wake of a stroke, Perkins, a self-taught reporter who refuses a byline and does most of her interviewing by telephone, hangs on.
At 3:50 p.m. each Monday, Bradford, 65, gets up from her computer and hurries out the door of the stucco house on U.S. 54 that she shares with her mother, to attend choir practice at the Corona Presbyterian Church, where she plays the piano. A couple of hours later, Bradford returns. After the TV news, "Jeopardy" and a bite to eat, there is more dictating, more typing, more arguing.
Natalie Ann Brunson is on the hurting list with four broken ribs.
Don't you want to say "laid up?" asks Bradford.
"What?" says her mother.
Ruth Davidson went to Lordsburg to help her uncle Fred Lackey celebrate his 97th birthday. There was plenty of cake and ice cream for everyone and fruit.
"Don't you need a comma somewhere in there?"
By about 10 p.m. the column is finished, and another "Corona News" is e-mailed to Ruth Hammond, co-publisher of the Lincoln County News.
The following day, the process begins anew only now in the kitchen, alongside the pickle jar and shelves of figurines. Perkins is on the phone, taking notes.
As Bradford listens, she often takes her own notes, because she usually can't read her mother's.
All week the two women compile scribblings who's in the hospital, who's celebrating an anniversary, whose nephew got married.
There's no money in this job; only a free subscription to the Lincoln County News. So why do it?
Says Perkins: "Because I want to keep Corona on the map."
With only about 200 people, and with a chunk of its Main Street boarded up, Corona is wasting away.
But it's people like Perkins, a resident of Corona since 1916 and the granddaughter of the the town's founder, who keep it alive.
Denise Byrd, who runs the senior citizens' center, says the column is "good for people who no longer have kids in the school but who want to stay in touch with what is happening."
Corona schools all 110 pupils are the engine of "Corona News." Graduations, rodeo, sports, 4-H they're column regulars, along with names aplenty.
People typically call Perkins with news items, but she often phones her sources. Suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, Perkins can't see the numbers on her telephone, but she can "feel" them.
"We talk on the phone every day," says Byrd. "Right off, she always asks me the same question: 'What do you know?' ''
For most folks, "What do you know?" generates weather talk.
Still no rain as of Monday morning, but a few report broomweed in full bloom. In other areas, there are no broomweed to bloom ...
A quarter inch rain was behind all those Monday smiles, our first in more than six months.
Sensitivity for readers
A county correspondent, Perkins long ago learned, isn't a gossip or an investigator.
"She asks people if they want to be in the column," says Sharon Hefker, a cousin. "And if they don't, she won't use their names."
In the same manner, Perkins is careful never to write about someone who is planning to travel to, say, Portales for the weekend until they return.
"Back in the 1960s," says Hefker, "everybody in town left their doors unlocked. Not anymore."
Indeed, theft is considered the town's No. 1 crime problem.
"They cleaned out rancher Bob Hutchins' place," offers Bradford. "Even took all his dog food."
In many columns "What do you know?" becomes who is on the "hurting list." There's a reason. Cattle ranches decorate Corona, and accidents regularly happen on ranches. People fall off horses and ladders and snap legs and hips; they slash arms on fences.
Kay Sultemeier was helping with the cattle work Sunday morning when two cows engaged in a butting contest. One knocked Kay off her 4-wheeler and the machine fell on top of her. She was knocked out for about 25 minutes, and Melvin took her to Roswell where she spent the day in ER for X-rays and other tests ... a scanner picked up news of the accident which was reported in Carrizozo churches. Then Corona telephones started ringing. She was still in pain Thursday.
A way with words
As a young woman, Perkins wanted to be a surgeon. She was pre-med at the University of New Mexico when her eyesight began giving her trouble. After graduation in 1927, she taught school for a bit. "Teaching," she says, "made me turn to drugs."
She bought a Corona drugstore in 1929 and boned up enough to pass the state pharmacy exam, one of the first women to do so. She closed the drugstore in 1973, when she could no longer read prescriptions.
After Perkins' husband, Archie, died in 1994, Bradford moved home to help her mother which included assisting with the column.
It wasn't long before Bradford learned her mother didn't like semicolons in lists or prepositions at the end of sentences. "If I hear another 'Where's it at?' '' Perkins says, "I'll scream."
She's fond of exclamation points, however, for they go with her role as the town's chief booster, particularly of young people.
Way to go Jordan!
Has she ever had to run a correction?
The question causes Perkins to frown in the direction of the voice who asked it. "You mean, did I ever say somebody killed somebody and they didn't?"
Big shoes to fill
Nobody believes her, but Perkins frequently says, "I lost a lot of marbles lately." Still, down at the Lincoln County News, Ruth Hammond worries what will happen when Perkins no longer asks "What do you know?"
When Margaret Rench, who contributed a column from Capitan, died, it took years before Hammond could find a replacement.
"We're a little hick town," says Lee Mulkey, former mayor of Corona and a longtime businessman. "If Geraldine didn't do what she does, no one else would."
Indeed, Perkins' daughter doesn't want to do it. "I'm not a word person," Bradford says. "That's why I play the piano. I wouldn't know what questions to ask."
Of course, there really is only one question.