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Janet M. Atwell

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A Shining Star
By Janet M. Atwell
Monday, December 18, 2006

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The birth of a local newspaper and the woman that gave it life.
This story includes some contriversial content that is racially motivated.

It was April of 2004 when Curtis Taylor, president of the Neelyville Harvest Fest Committee, (the Committee) started asking Mrs. Janet Atwell to become a member. This Committee hosts many community activities that help the residents of the area. They raise funds for the Volunteer Fire Department and Ambulance service. They purchase materials to winterize homes for those that are financially or physically unable to do it themselves. They offer scholarships to local high school graduates, among many other things.

Neelyville is a rural town in southeast Missouri with a population of under 500. It is a poor community that would suffer without The Committee and its efforts. There is little industry in the area and none in this small community.

Taylor had come to know Janet to be a hardworking, loving, generous and diversely talented person. Mr. Taylor has often been known to state, “Janet is an accomplished painter of signs, landscapes and portraits of children. She is capable of building a house on her own, she raises almost all of the foods that are consumed in her home. She is a writer with excellent organizational skills, she is articulate and easy to get along with.” He was sure that the Committee and the community would benefit from her membership. He was also aware of the fact that Atwell, after living here in Neelyville, for over four years, was still considered an outsider by many, herself as much as anyone. She was a Yankee. A former truck driver that had been raised in Michigan and lived in Chicago, Illinois for 17 years. She had met and married a much younger, local boy who was also driving a truck at the time. It was a culture shock that she appeared to have not overcome.

In September of each year the Committee hosts its largest event, which they call The Neelyville Harvest Festival Celebration. This event is an all day affair that starts with a parade in the morning. There are many activities, craft booths, food vendors, contests and musical entertainment. One of the members of the Committee, Lou McKinnley, a lady with emphysema, was having considerable health issues in 2005 but was unwilling to miss the event. She and her husband host one of the game booths. The husband asked Janet if she would help him during the event. He was afraid that his wife would overexert herself. Mrs. McKinnley, having originated from West Virginia, understood what Janet was going through and a friendship developed. Mr. McKinnley also knew that Lou would listen to Janet, whether she wanted to or not. It was the beginning of something this community had long needed.

Janet attended the October meeting of The Committee, was nominated for membership and voted in before she knew what had hit her. A well planned and executed attack. It was not long before she was involved in many areas of the community. The Nutrition Center located in the City Hall building, hosts meals Monday through Friday. Volunteers primarily man it and Atwell became one of them. She volunteered to repaint the signs that hang outside the City Hall building, she helped refurbish an historical building that was moved to city property, repaired the mayors computer, among many other things.

One day, someone that she barely knew approached her in a local convenience store. This gentleman asked her if she knew what the Mayor was doing about the instillation of county water and whether or not the gravel roads in city limits were ever to be paved. Janet was a bit taken aback by these questions. The water project had long been a topic of the City Council meetings, a solution and plan of development had not only been decided upon but the water installation had already begun. After considerable thought and finding it hard to sleep one Sunday night, Janet sat down at her computer and began a detailed list of things she had learned since becoming involved in community affairs. Reviewing this list she took each item and began writing about it. Ten hours later a mock-up copy of a community newspaper was being spit out of her printer.

At 10 am Monday morning she was working at the Nutrition Center when the Mayor entered his office. She asked him if she could have 10 minutes of his time. She handed him the result of her sleepless night just as someone in the kitchen summoned her. Returning a few minutes later she found Taylor looking over the pages that the Mayor had just read, handing them over as he finished each page. The prototype held several main articles, including one entitled ‘Interview with the Mayor.’ This column covered the details of the county water instillation.

“Well, what do you think?” Janet asked.

“This is a fantastic idea. I really like it.” Mayor Larry Woods stated as Taylor nodded his head. “Sit down there and let’s talk about this a minute. What is your line of thinking with this?”

Janet told him about the encounter at the store as well as a few other incidents when she had been asked about local activities by residents that had noticed her involvement in the city. She explained to them both that she felt a monthly issue of a paper, such as she had presented to them would not only inform the community of the progress taking place and the problems but might actually promote more involvement from the residents in community affairs.

“How will you accomplish it? What I am asking is what do you need to do this, what will it cost to start it up? Also, you have to consider how you will distribute the issues and the long term operation costs. How much will you charge for this paper?”

Janet replied that she thought that selling ads to businesses in and around the community might cover the monthly production costs allowing the paper to be offered free to the public. “The problem is starting it. I believe that I would start with 100 copies of the first issue, printed on letter size paper. In this way the paper will be easy to get and it will have a homespun look. We should know in just a few days how it is received by the people and how many copies we might need in the future. But, I don’t have all the equipment to start. My small printer would not handle this type of job and I hate to make a big purchase like a copy machine before I know the volume we will need to print each month not to mention actual overhead. With the exception of the printer, I need paper, ink for whatever printer I start it with and a few office supplies to keep organized.

It was at this point that Taylor proposed that the newspaper become a part of The Neelyville Harvest Festival Committee. The mayor offered the use of the Nutrition Center’s copy machine to begin the project. Both men stated that they would like to see the first issue distributed on May 1st. It was the second week of April. Taylor stated that the Committee, as sponsor of the newspaper, would purchase the materials needed for the first issue and supplement it afterwards. Janet nodded her head and left the office.

By the Friday of the following week, just one week before the first of May, Janet and Mrs. Reetta Ward, another committee member, spent an afternoon visiting businesses in the area and enough money was contributed in advertisements to fully supply the needs of the first issue.

For the Aug. of 2006 issue 350 copies were printed and distributed to the businesses that had advertised with the publication. The first issue was six pages in length, the 350 copies of the Aug. issue contained 18 and none could be found available within 48 hours of distribution. Also in Aug. the paper generated enough money in advertisement and donations to feature a second issue that was offered at the Sept. festival. Atwell also sends a copy of the newspaper via email to 46 people, and mails hardcopies to 21 former residents of the community, many more are mailed by residents that have relatives living elsewhere. She is still working as a volunteer, however the paper and her freelance work take enough of her time that many jobs she had done regularly in the community have been delegated to others.

Atwell is regularly reminded of things she has written. Her monthly column ‘Janet’s Corner’, where she told stories of the silly things she has done in the Aug. issue awarded her with a lot of laughter and many comments. She had confessed to having killed 99 of the 100 new chicks that she had gotten the previous year by feeding them self rising corn meal the first three days that she had them.

There are readers that rush to acquire the issue as soon as it is released. Some due to the controversy of at least one article. Atwell boldly addressed an ongoing problem in the community where a member used his race as a threat to guarantee that the committee conform to his wishes. He wanted exclusive rights to all forms of barbeque to the extent that he wanted any other vender that offered barbeque sauce as a condiment shut down and evicted from the festival. This member is the leader of a church hosts a food concession at the Sept. event each year. Atwell posted a survey in many online forums detailing the issue as well as the threat and asking that the users answering her questions state their authenticity. Using only the answers of those that were not white, Atwell reported her findings in the August issue of the ’Neelyville Star.’ She printed the responses of many that participated in the survey. She was not surprised by how many of them were appalled at the way this single member was using his race to make such demands. They were stunned that this person could take the words and works of our predecessors, black and white, many of whom died for their works and words and use them for his own purposes and glory. Atwell also mentioned in this particular article that the member in question only attended meetings where the vending of barbeque was among the subjects.

Atwell had made it a practice to print two copies and present them to Mayor Woods and President Taylor before the final print. The mayor asked her, “Are you sure want to open this can of worms? The reason this member has gotten away with this for all these years is not that he and his followers would be missed at the festival but because we are not comfortable with the implications he will make if it is dealt with the way it should be.”

“What you are really saying is, ‘If it was dealt with as though he were a white man and the white members were not made to feel politically incorrect in dealing with this. It amazes me that he has not made more demands using the same tactics in other ways.” Janet replied. The mayor did not have to voice that she had hit on a sore spot, his face said it for him. “This is all on me if it goes wrong. But someone has to speak up. I would do no less if he were white and I really thought that those men that fought and often died for equal rights actually tried to perpetuate the notion that color should not be an issue. For me it isn‘t.” She included a disclaimer at the end of the article that placed full responsibility for the article and anything resulting from it on herself.

It has been decided, since the issue with the survey results was released, that this member would be allowed, in part, the exclusive rights to barbeque that he desired. However, he is not allowed to have exclusive rights to all forms of barbeque. There is to be only one vender of each meat used for barbeque and only one meat per vendor.

Since the start of this community newspaper the membership of the Committee has more than doubled. There are often several members of the public in attendance at council meetings, many come when they have nothing to complain about.

The popularity of ‘Neelyville (Mo) Star’ has been a surprise to the three people that discussed the project that morning in the mayor‘s office especially to Janet. It was not her intention to remain as the primary writer of its content, the printer, artist and distributor. She thought that others, more qualified, would take over the project shortly after that first issue.

Atwell has had almost no formal education. A nurse where Janet was hospitalized for a burst appendix taught her the alphabet phonetically. Janet was playing classical music on an upright baby grand piano by the age of 6. She was eight years old when she, her two siblings and mother were moving her piano. She fell down the flight of stairs they were pushing the piano past. The piano landed on her back. She was unable to walk for almost two years. Despite the predictions of several doctors, her father, who was a professional body builder and the men he trained with, not only kept her muscles from atrophying but made them strong. Whenever possible the nurse from the hospital would send the youngster what books she managed to acquire. Using them she educated herself, even teaching herself how to bowl by reading a book. Michigan did not have a special education program in the 1950’s. It is because of her education that when asked about the paper, she will often state “I am not qualified to be the backbone of any publication and I often fear that in some way I am cheating our readers.” Those that look forward to reading her efforts each month heartily disagree.


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