Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cheechako worthy of newsie’s talents

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

For 58-year-old Mable Smith, 1961 was the year of a fortuitous intersection — when fledgling ambition (to be a real journalist) crossed paths with fledgling opportunity (a still wet-behind-the-ears peninsula newspaper).

For Smith, it was the beginning of a time that her daughter-in-law, Betty Smith of Soldotna, would later call “unquestionably the best of her life.”

The previous decade had been rough on Mable. In 1950 in Oklahoma, her husband died in a heavy-equipment accident, leaving Smith in dire financial straits and requiring her, at the age of 47, to earn a living on her own.

She had begun, but never completed, journalism training at the University of Oklahoma in the 1920s, so she sought newspaper work, and found a job in 1951 on a weekly paper that started her out at $18 a week.

Over time, her strong work ethic and attention to detail raised her salary to $65 a week. Then she moved on to other weekly and daily newspapers in Oklahoma and New Mexico.

But she was frustrated, according to Betty Smith, “with being stuck with society, or ‘light’ news.” Mable knew she could do better than that. She wanted to cover real news — government, politics, controversy.

She moved to Alaska in 1958 to be closer to her son’s family, which had homesteaded in the Soldotna area. At first she lived in Anchorage, working in a library. In 1961 she applied for a peninsula homestead of her own and planned for the move south.

As luck would have it, another opportunity was hatching for her only a few miles away in Kenai.

On Friday, Oct. 30, 1959, in a concrete-block building near the bluff on Main Street, Loren and Dorothy Stewart launched the central peninsula’s first newspaper, The Kenai Peninsula Cheechako, later to become The Cheechako News.

Under the masthead of Volume 1, Number 1, was a subheading: “News From the Oil Center of Alaska.” Beneath that were two articles bearing large headlines concerning the progress under way since the Swanson River oil discovery in 1957 and the recent arrival of statehood: “Gas Service in Kenai by 1960 Is Possibility” and “Soldotna Bank Open For Business.”

Also on the front page that day was a quarter-page advertisement for Archer’s grocery store and filling station in Kenai and a photograph of a young girl, with a caption that offered a free three-month Cheechako subscription to the first person to correctly identify her.

Inside was Loren Stewart’s first editorial, which, in contrast to the progressive themes on page one, began this way: “The Kenai Peninsula Cheechako is one ‘voice in the wilderness’ that would have liked to have seen the Territory remain as it was.”
Stewart’s opening salvo was, essentially, a lament for things past and passing, but its ending was more upbeat. He noted the inevitability of progress, and said that, once it arrived, few would desire to return to the way things once were. He mentioned paved roads and electricity among the benefits of progress.

Loren and Dorothy Stewart’s little 10-cent weekly paper, wrought on a linotype machine that assembled lines of copy from a molten lead alloy, brought a steady diet of community information and news to the central peninsula. No longer did area residents have to rely solely on word-of-mouth or the limited radio broadcasts available from Anchorage.

From the Kenai office, and, after 1961, from the office in Ridgeway, the Stewarts and their small, dedicated staff made a difference in the lives of peninsula residents. For Smith, The Cheechako News was an opportunity to make a difference, too.

Before Smith came down to the peninsula to live, she came down to visit. During that visit she interviewed with Loren Stewart, who offered her a job — a chance, at last, to be a real reporter, and a chance to cover hard news.

It was exactly what she had been waiting for. There was just one minor problem: “She had to learn to drive before she could come to the homestead,” said Betty Smith. Mable’s hard-won new career would require her to drive back and forth to work.

“She took driving lessons in Anchorage, but she was never a very comfortable driver,” Betty said. “I don’t think she ever got out of second gear. I think the only person slower was Mae Ciechanski.”

It was said that Mable and Mae could drive down a dry gravel road and never raise dust.
Still, Smith was fast enough to pursue the news. A few years later, she was named editor of the Cheechako, and her name (as Mable “Scoop” Smith) was given top billing in a list of employees.

But Smith expected more. In a 1965 letter to the Alaska Press Women, she said she felt restricted by “limited staff,” and added that she had “no time to rewrite or polish, (and the) material often shows it — never satisfied with it.”

Yule Chaffin, Alaska nonfiction author and member of the Alaska Press Women, read Smith’s letter in 1965 and disagreed: “I am constantly amazed at the amount of informative material that Mable gathers for her paper — and in spite of what she says, I find it well written.”

Smith was certainly dedicated.

“She left early (for work) and came home late,” Betty Smith said. “I can remember Loren finally forcing her to go home from work when she was so sick that she could hardly hold her head up, but she was still going to get that paper out.”

Under the leadership of Smith and the Stewarts, the Cheechako was in its heyday throughout the 1960s and into the early ’70s, when competition from Anchorage dailies and the Peninsula Clarion began to spell its doom.

When Smith retired in 1974, Betty Smith said of her newspaper tenure, “Those years allowed her to do work she loved and attain a position in a society that recognized and appreciated her as an individual.”

Smith died of a heart-related ailment three years later.

The end of her beloved Cheechako News was also at hand.

Katherine Parker, who joined the paper in the early 1970s, said that the Stewarts sold the Cheechako shortly after its 25th anniversary in 1984. The new owners brought in computers for the first time and renamed the paper The Soldotna Sun, but it closed up shop suddenly in March 1986.

“I remember I was really shocked when I came back — we’d been in Hawaii — and here they were all getting prepared to close everything down,” Parker said.

Mable Smith and The Cheechako News had found each other and prospered. And suddenly both of them were gone. But they had each left an indelible mark on the history of the Kenai Peninsula.

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