‘Precise’ Pettit gave tough test
“Precise” is the best word I can think of to describe Mary Pettit.
She was a retired Fairfield High School English teacher who also served as advisor for the student newspaper, the Troy Banner.
Even late in the afternoon she looked like she just walked out of the beauty shop. Every detail of her appearance was meticulously tended to.
Mary passed away a few years ago.
The Friday before this past Fourth of July weekend, it was hard not to think about our first visit at The Ledger.
My first day at The Ledger was July 3, 1991. A few days later, Mary politely waited outside my office to talk to the new publisher.
It didn’t take too long to determine the reason for her visit. My worthiness to sit in the publisher’s chair was being tested.
“It’s very nice to meet you Jeff,” she started. “I’d just like to help make you aware of what this paper means to Fairfield.”
By the time she was done doing most of the talking, I knew she was very proud of her years with the Troy Banner and an avid reader of The Ledger. She added a little history lesson about a few of the Ledger newspapermen who preceded me. She talked about Dean Gabbert and Bill Baker with praise and respect.
Her words were polite and well chosen. Her message was crystal clear.
“This is a darn good paper and don’t screw it up,” was my translation.
I can remember mustering a lackluster response. Something like, “I’ve spent a long time proving myself to get this opportunity. And I have no intention of letting down my bosses or Ledger readers.”
Ledger lifestyles editor Julie McCracken slid open the glass partition between our desks when Mary left. Julie worked for Mary at the Troy Banner when she was in high school.
“Welcome to Fairfield,” Julie said. “It looks like you’ve passed the Mary Pettit test. Congratulations.”
In the weeks and months that followed, many of the big names in Ledger history stopped by my office. Gabbert, Baker, Ben Taylor and Mac McWilliams were all soft-spoken and supportive.
“Don’t let the complainers get you down,” said Gabbert. “In my day they told me I’d never measure up to Dean Taylor. You have what it takes. Stay with it.”
I remember thinking I landed in a pretty special place.
In the fall of 1990, Ledger owner Jim McGiffin passed away during a trip in Spain and the paper was put up for sale. My boss at the Evening Journal in Washington told me if our company was successful in buying The Ledger, I’d be moving to Fair-field. The transaction was completed after a few time-consuming snags.
That first summer we closed the Town Crier location in Bill Courtney’s old Dodge and Rambler car dealership behind Behner’s Funeral Home and consolidated the newspaper and shopper operations. After the high school football season, we stopped working on Saturdays and publishing a Saturday afternoon paper.
Mary’s follow-up visits got to be almost like meetings with a teacher discussing a grade. I never let on that my greater encouragement came from the financial successes we were showing. Pleasing her was still important.
About 10 years later, a carrier missed a paper delivery at her house and I stopped by with a Ledger on my way home. She invited me into her living room and talked like I was no longer a student. It was a good feeling.
Thank you Fairfield for 20 fun and rewarding years. It’s gone by quickly.
Jeff Wilson is publisher of The Fairfield Ledger.