Countless awards were handed out July 15 during the inaugural Brownwood Bulletin Best of Brown County gala, and among them was the first Harriette Graves Person of the Year Award.
The headline should not be that I was the one chosen to receive it. While I am profoundly appreciative of the recognition, the headline should instead read that the Bulletin has established an annual award in the name of Harriette Graves.
Like some 500 people at the Brownwood Coliseum, I didn’t know what to expect. Most knew they were finalists in online voting for multiple categories, so it was a festive occasion.
I didn’t plan to go due to a prior commitment, but former Bulletin co-workers insisted I would enjoy the elegant dinner and Coffey Anderson concert. It was truly a first-class experience.
Harriette, who passed away in 2002, became a Bulletin reporter in 1966, joining the staff after submitting freelance stories for several years. When I joined the staff in 1969, Harriette helped show me the ropes. She must have regarded this Howard Payne sophomore like one of the abandoned dogs and cats for which she helped find homes through the years.
Words can’t adequately describe what Harriette meant to me — personally and professionally — so I’ll simply say we were family.
Words also cannot adequately describe her memorable persona. You had to know her. Harriette is one of the few true “Brownwood characters” in the mold of her contemporaries Groner Pitts, Cecil Holman and Rodger Sweeney. That dates me, I know.
This dates me even more: Several times, I was tempted to submit an article about her for “My Most Memorable Character” in Reader’s Digest magazine.
Her writing style was distinctive; her interviewing process, unconventional. Instead of taking notes and writing her story later, Harriette would plop a person down in the infamous chair next to her desk, begin talking energetically, and type the story as she went — frequently rephrasing the person’s quotations and asking if that sounded OK for print. When the interview ended, her story was almost ready to turn in.
Harriette’s conversational technique extracted compelling tales from local people living ordinary lives, so they came across as celebrities when viewed through Harriette’s trademark bejeweled eyeglasses. Likewise, the “Harriette treatment” made distinguished Congressmen, business moguls, and even a future U.S. president seem like your unassuming next-door neighbor.
Not having a driver’s license would handcuff most reporters, but Harriette knew how to work the telephone — and how to bum a ride when needed.
Harriette understood a newspaper’s job is to hold up a mirror so readers can see a reflection of their community — blemishes and all. She also knew a newspaper must celebrate the best things viewed in that mirror, and join efforts to fix the things that are not. If the honor bestowed means I’ve followed in her path, I’m content.
The award’s description says its winners will possess some of the attributes associated with Harriette — things like passion for community, creative arts, education, love of pets, public health and safety, and patriotism. I know others living here who would be more fitting recipients, so it’s humbling to be the first.
I will be forever thankful, and especially grateful that it happened now. The honoree will be chosen by popular vote going forward, and media people don’t win many of those.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.