RIDGWAY – “This just in: journalism is not dead. It is alive and kicking in small towns across America….”
With that, Emmy-winning correspondent Judy Muller opens her new book, Emus Loose in Egnar. Muller may be best known locally as a correspondent and occasional commentator on NPR. She has also worked for ABC, CBS, and PBS, and teaches now at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The back flap of her book says she “resides in Los Angeles, California, and Norwood, Colorado. She prefers Norwood.”
Norwood is Muller’s start point for the book, which takes an appreciative look at small-town weekly newspapers and how they not only celebrate the details of everyday life – births, death, loves found and lost, escaped emus – but also stand up for what’s right in ways the “new” media won’t or can’t.
Storytelling is what Muller calls it. And storytelling by the Norwood Post, she says, is what saved her adopted hometown from a “big mistake” a few years back.
It seems an English teacher at Norwood High School had assigned Bless Me Ultima, by Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya. The book had won numerous awards and was on Laura Bush’s suggested reading list for young people. “But an outraged parent,” Muller writes, “a member of a conservative Christian church, thought the book contained inappropriate language and pagan values. The school superintendent, Bob Conder, responded by gathering all copies of the book and handing them over to the parent for disposal in the town dump. He did this, by the way, without ever talking to the teacher, the other parents, or the students themselves. In fact, he never even read the book.”
When the Post published the story, a relative flood of letters to the editor decried Conder’s actions. (Book burning stories being irresistible, this one was picked up by the AP and went national.) When students decided to protest with a sit-in, Post editor Margo Roberts brought them pizza.
The outcry, in print and in person, caused Conder to apologize. He even offered to buy more copies of the book with his own money. And when, a few months later he attempted to have the same English teacher fired, the Post was on the story again. “Half the town,” Muller writes, “turned out for that school board meeting . . . and the board members, feeling the heat of the majority and suddenly made aware that they were, in fact, elected officials rejected the superintendent’s recommendation . . . Instead, Conder was the one who would soon leave his position.”
Muller follows a score of similarly heartwarming stories across the country, from the Concrete Herald in Concrete, Wash., to the Canadian Record of Canadian, Tex., to Jim Stiles’ Canyon Country Zephyr (Monticello, Ut.), to the Dove Creek (Colo.) Press, which broke Muller’s title story.
This one appears in the chapter on police blotters, which Muller begins: “Let’s face it: the police blotter is the best stuff in the paper, the place we turn to first, the place where we learn what’s really going on in town.”
She begins this story by explaining a little bit about Egnar, Colo., where it all went down. It seems the first settlers there wanted to call the town Range, but the name was already taken, “so they had to be content with spelling it backwards.” (Muller makes another charming revelation earlier in the book. Her sister-in-law Susie Mansfield refers to Norwood as “The Wood of Nor.”)
Egnar is too small to have its own paper, so the story appeared in the Press’s “Sheriff’s Roundup” column. A local rancher had lost control of his emu herd, and six-foot-tall, prehistoric looking birds gamboled through fields and back yards for three weeks until they were all finally corralled again.
Muller will sign copies of Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns at Cimarron Books and Coffee in Ridgway, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, August 4. The event will also feature new work by watercolorist Meredith Nemirov. For more information call Cimarron at 626-5858.