A Centenarian Columnist and Willie

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Mattie Dellinger and I first met 30 years ago. I had just begun running the San Augustine Rambler newspaper, a trial-by-fire plunge into country newspapering at the callow age of 26. Mattie was a writer and columnist for the Center paper, 18 miles up the road. We printed there every Tuesday night. In 1982, Mattie was a spry 71 year-old who would quickly let you know how the cow ate the cabbage, her clear blue eyes gazing out from oversized glasses. Mattie stood about five-feet and probably didn’t weigh 100 pounds even after a fine Sunday dinner on the grounds. She clearly knew everybody in her native Shelby County and more than half in neighboring San Augustine County — where I was running the number-two newspaper in a town that could barely support one weekly, let alone two.

We got along well in the five years I stayed in San Augustine. I learned what I know most about community journalism from folks like Mattie and Sam Malone, who founded the Rambler and ran the print shop next door. The year after I left San Augustine, Mattie got crossways with the Center paper and walked down the street to start a radio call-in show on the local radio station, called “Mattie’s Party Line.” The show quickly became popular far beyond its limited reach on the airwaves.  Local folks called in to talk about whatever struck their fancy. Politics generally were off limits, though a Texas Monthly article from 1992 reports that Mattie allowed Ann Richards to come on and play her ukulele when she was running for governor. Soon Mattie was gathering attention from Texas Monthly, the Baltimore Sun, and other media outlets. She held her own with reporters, judging from what I read. I figured she would.

Mattie holds strong opinions. She once wrote a letter to Willie Nelson saying she couldn’t stand his music. I never figured out why, but that’s Mattie. The Red-Headed Stranger wrote back and said he was going to come to Center to change her mind. Willie kept his word, and they have been friends since. Willie even put on a concert in Center for her. If you go to Willie’s website, you will find a page devoted to Mattie.

I called Mattie a few weeks ago. She answered on the second ring, her voice strong. I got to thinking about her after a fellow church member mentioned she had recently received a letter from Mattie. We used to keep up with each other regularly, but it has been several years since we have been in touch, so we were past due to catch up.

She apologized for not hearing as well as she used to.

“You know I’m 101 now,” she said. I promised to speak louder. Mattie still lives by herself, and though she has to stay on oxygen all the time and can’t talk long because it makes her short of breath, her mind is sharp and spirits strong. Heck, she is still working. She had to give up the radio show but is back at the newspaper, writing a weekly column called “Mattie’s Party Line.” Mattie still draws a paycheck at 101. Now that’s something.

Mattie said Willie called her when she turned 100. For her 101st birthday, he sent her a copy of his latest book, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a couple of cassettes, and two packages of Hawaiian coffee.

“We’re pretty close,” she said. “He says he’s coming to see me soon.”

Mattie and I agreed to exchange copies of columns. Her packet arrived a few days later, in an envelope with three “Liberty Forever” stamps as postage and ink-stamped “In God We Trust.” Even at 101, her cursive handwriting is neater than mine. She sent a letter on blue tablet paper to explain she writes her column by hand. Her daughter Dixie then types it on a computer and prints out a copy. Mattie proofs it before Dixie emails it to the paper.

Besides obituaries, I figure Mattie’s column is the most popular piece in the paper. She starts with the week’s birthdays in Shelby County, then delves into historical tidbits, such as nostalgia such as killing chickens in the backyard before you could easily buy frozen chickens in the supermarket.

In the issue that came out the week of Veterans Day, Mattie recalled being a young child when the inaugural Nov. 11 Armistice arrived in 1918, at the end of what then was called the Great War. She wrote, “I don’t recall much about it, only the church bells were ringing, the saw mill and planer whistled, the ice plants blew their loud whistles and continued for a long time, and people were shouting with happiness.”

She also sent along her business card: “Mattie Dellinger — Serving Shelby County and celebrating 100 years in Center, Texas. On the back she wrote, “God Bless You.”

And God Bless You, Mattie.

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