It was spring in 1948 — World War II had ended less than three years earlier, Harry S. Truman was in his first term as president, and the venerable Andy Griffith show was still a dozen years from its debut — when a 17-year-old high school senior walked into the Mount Airy News office.
That teen-ager was named Eleanor Greenwood, and she was there to begin what was essentially a high school internship, writing a weekly column aimed at local teens.
Later this month Eleanor Powell (nee Greenwood) will be leaving The Mount Airy News, retiring 64 years after that first day on the job.
Recently she recalled her career and the first weeks and months working at the newspaper — then a weekly publication that rolled off the press each Friday under the watchful eye of Publisher W.M. Johnson.
While today’s newspaper industry is highly specialized, with virtually every function — ad sales, the business office, classifieds, reporting and editing, press room operations among them — separated, in those days Powell said she did a little bit of everything, and had to learn quickly.
“Within a month I started waiting on customers, writing community news, want ads, taking subscriptions, shooting pictures with a great big camera with a great big flashbulb, I did advertising, I approved the ads. Sometimes I stayed up all night to get the paper out.”
Perhaps one of the reasons she adapted so quickly was the fact that Powell, today known around the newsroom as Miss Ellie, wasn’t intimidated by anything and always brought a bit of impish delight to the job.
“I didn’t know to be nervous,” she said of that first day on the job. It was a good thing she wasn’t easily put off, because Powell found herself in the middle of a controversy pretty soon after going to work.
“I wrote an item about this boy and girl in high school slipping off to South Carolina to get married,” she said. “I even had the girl’s picture in the paper.”
She ended the column by explaining it was an April Fool’s Day joke. Only problem was, most folks didn’t read to the last line, and soon the teen elopement was big news around town. “Oh, the mother, she was furious,” Powell said, laughing as she recalled the furor.
Powell said she had never intended to make the newspaper a career, but that it happened was no surprise to her.
“I loved it,” she said of those early days with the paper. “I always loved newspapers. When I was little I used to spread them out on the floor and look at them and wonder how they could sell that newspaper for a nickel. I always read it when I was little.”
She was also persuaded to remain in Mount Airy by the arrival of Pete Powell, who had moved to Mount Airy as part of his work in the restaurant business.
“I was supposed to have gone off to college, but he came to town and he was just so cute,” she said, smiling at the recollection. “I thought I better hang around town and marry him or someone else would.”
In 1949 the couple wed, though she remained at The Mount Airy News until the birth of her first child, Kathy, in 1952. Powell decided to give up her job and remain home raising Kathy and their next two children, Kay and Garland.
Returning to The News
When the youngest went to kindergarten, in 1963, Powell returned to The Mount Airy News, and aside from what turned out to be a two-week retirement in 2007, she’s worked at the community newspaper ever since.
Along the way she’s seen just about everything, including first-hand coverage of at least two murder cases, a near-riot among Hell’s Angels bikers who got into a brawl while in Surry County and a murder-suicide involving a law enforcement officer.
She’s also been smack-dab in the middle of some of the biggest events in the city’s history. Anyone who was alive at the time can most likely recall the flood of 1979, when unprecedented heavy rains sent local rivers and creeks rolling over their banks and caused an estimated $45 million in damage in Mount Airy.
Powell’s daughter, Kay, was a nurse at Surry Senior Center at the time (now Golden Living Center), and fast-rising waters sent nurses and doctors there scrambling to get their patients to safe shelter.
Powell’s aunt, Mami Greenwood, lived at the center, so she went to get her out.
“We got across the bridge because my aunt was over there,” she said. “My daughter and a doctor had tied the beds together and were rolling them out of the building.” When they saw that Powell was there, she was recruited for part of the evacuation. “They put all the drugs in my car,” she said with a laugh. So there she was, in the pitch black of night, flood waters on her heels, her aunt in one seat, another center resident she knew as Mrs. Harrison, her sister, Estelle, also there, and the rest of car packed full of pharmaceuticals.
They couldn’t get back across the bridge into town, so they had to circle around and attempt coming in from a different direction, which by then was also blocked by flood waters. Eventually, she managed to find a roadway near Toast that wasn’t covered with water.
The first thing she did was drive to the home of Alma Owens, the sister of Mrs. Harrison, arriving around 2 o’clock in the morning. “I took her to the door and I said ‘Alma, here’s your sister.’ When I was getting ready to leave Mrs. Harrison turned to me and said ‘That’s the best time I’ve ever had.’”
Thankfully, a good bit of the rest of her career wasn’t quite as pulse-pounding as that night, but giving Mrs. Harrison not only a ride to safety, but inspiring a bit of fun in the process, is indicative of how Powell has run her career, and life.
“Making people happy,” she said of the greatest joy from her time at The Mount Airy News. “I don’t really have one or two memories that stand out, but that’s the one thing that I’ve really enjoyed, making people happy.”
She’s had plenty of opportunities to do that. For the past 40 years she’s been writing her cooking column, which appears each Wednesday in the Mount Airy News, and for more than two dozen years she’s overseen the production of Surry Scene, a weekly section that is inserted in the Thursday Mount Airy News and sent to non-subscriber households in the county.
The section includes a listing of local residents’ birthdays, a column by Powell, and photos galore — everything from family reunions and church gatherings to pictures of local residents dressed up for Halloween and visits by groups to area senior citizen homes.
Surry Scene is what she’s perhaps best known for in recent years, and certainly is one of the most popular features of The Mount Airy News.
“People love it,” she said of the weekly section. “That’s how people keep up with each other. People don’t have time to visit, but they do enjoy reading that and getting to know their neighbors, keeping up with the children.”
No place like home
Because her husband had been a pilot, she and her family were able to do quite a bit of traveling — they made their way to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, Europe, and South America, among other destinations.
While the traveling was a joy, she said, there was nothing like returning to her beloved Mount Airy.
“There’s no place like Mayberry,” she said, a wistful tone in her voice. “Listen, when you’re away, you really learn to appreciate home.”
That was never more evident during a particularly painful period in her life when her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack.
“It was Aug. 26, 1979,” she said. “I can never say enough about all the wonderful friends who helped me through that. You can’t live without friends.”
She also turned to what she knew best to help deal with her loss — writing. She penned a column entitled “Pete’s Last Flight,” and signed the end of the piece “His copilot, Eleanore.”
She wrote it in part as a way to verbalize what she was feeling, and in part to honor his memory. The N.C. Press Women’s Association was so taken with the piece that the group awarded her first place in feature writing for it, one of several awards Powell has won throughout her career.
Working at a community newspaper as long as Powell has not only makes her an institution in the community, but gives her a certain standing within the paper itself.
Gary Lawrence, who served as publisher from 2007 until taking over company-wide management of production and printing operations for Mount Airy News’ parent firm Civitas Publishing earlier this year, had the misfortune of moving to Mount Airy within a few days of Powell’s first retirement.
“When I first arrived in Mount Airy, every place I went, people would say ‘Where’s Miss Eleanor’ or ‘You better get Miss Eleanor back,’” Lawrence said. “I called her when she was at the beach and discussed the conditions of her return to the paper. Once we resolved the compensation issue, I said to her, ‘Great, I’ll see you around 8 a.m. Monday morning.’ She responded, ‘Oh, I don’t come in until 9 a.m.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, whatever you say.’ Sometimes you just have to know your audience.”
Lawrence, who understood the importance Powell had in the community, decided to let folks know immediately that she soon would be back.
“The week or so before she returned, I had these 2 X 2 ads made up with her photo and a caption that just said, ‘Miss Eleanor returns on (whatever her return date was).’ We ran one on every page of the paper for the full 10 days or so before she returned. When she came in the first day she looked at me and said, ‘Good Lord, I’ve had people calling me solid for over a week now and I think my picture has been in the paper more in that time than it has in all the time I’ve worked here; can’t you get it out? It’s embarrassing.’
“Once again I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, whatever you say.’ Seems like that phrase has worked well for both of us for over five years now. She often tells me I’m one of her favorite publishers of her career; if so it isn’t hard to see why, is it?”
Sandy Hurley, who has served as general manager at The News for two years, said Powell’s reputation extends beyond the confines of Surry County.
“Even before I came to this area … I knew of Miss Eleanor and the fine work she did. So many times, in editorial meetings, we had talked about the true society editor — Mrs. Eleanor Powell. Rarely did you see her name on the recipe, or face in the picture; because she knows the best reflection of a community’s social picture, is the people. Many, many beautiful smiling faces have been featured on the pages of our paper over the years, and now on our web site as well, because of Miss Ellie.”
On to the next chapter
Mount Airy and Surry County’s loss, however, will be her family’s gain.
“They are all so happy that I am finally retired. They are thrilled to death. They keep saying they can’t believe that Mom is retiring,” she said. She said she intends to spend more time with them, her three grandchildren, and her great-grandson.
Powell also plans to spend more time with her new husband, Clarence Hines, who she married in April.
“I’ve known Clarence since we were in kindergarten,” she said. “He and I used to play in the same sandbox together.” Eventually they grew up and went their own ways, but reconnected a couple of years ago at a class reunion, and were wed in April. She said they will split their time between Mount Airy and Florida.
Before she departs, though, Powell was adamant about leaving a message for the folks she has covered over the past six decades.
“I have enjoyed all my years down here … This is the most wonderful place in the whole wide world, the nicest people, it’s just been very rewarding to be with these people each day. They are all loving and kind, they’re down to earth … they are the salt of the earth and I’m going to miss seeing them. I told somebody when I go to heaven I hope they have a Barney’s and a Pandowdys there.”
Many folks, no doubt, think the same of Powell, but few can voice that admiration better than Lawrence, her most recent publisher.
”If class were an Olympic event, Miss Eleanor would have more gold medals than Michael Phelps. I’ll miss her personally and professionally and wish her great love and God’s richest blessings.”
The Mount Airy News will be holding a drop-in for the community to visit with Miss Ellie on Thursday from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.