[Editor’s Note to Readers: Dear reader, we are currently in correspondence with Merlin Music. We received express permission to use the music in our Pryor Creek video from the manager of the artist. However, an outside agency may have purchased the rights to this music and they did not heed our letters for consideration to relinquish their copyright claim. This process has been ongoing for about two months. We hope to restore the video soon. Until then, we are choosing not to replace the video with other music but to go through this process of asserting the rights of artists and entities such as ourselves to collaborate. Thank you, Kelly Roberts, Editor, Red Dirt Chronicles 7/15/2016]
In about four weeks, Paul Lewis, photographer and ad builder at “The Paper” of Mayes County, won’t be in his downtown Pryor Creek office. Rather, he’ll be as close as his pass will allow to the Rocklahoma 2015 festival main stage, cheering on vocal bombast Lzzy Hale, lead singer of the power band Halestorm.
No doubt he’ll have more than her powerful vocals on his mind. Paul will most likely be decision-making about the best way to add a signed poster to his burgeoning memorabilia collection covering every square inch of his walls. And couch. And shelves.
Paul’s museum-like space was the first stop on our guided tour of The Paper’s historical workspace. The office walls sectioned off just enough square feet for the entire staff of three: Paul, who clearly loves rock n’ roll (as well as a variety of other music); Andrea “Andie” Finney who sells their ads and manages the billing; and, Terry Aylward. Aylward “write[s] the stories and [does] all the book work.”
And Aylward was the person we were there to see. Raised in the Kansas City area, he graduated from the University of Missouri school of journalism in 1977 and took the first job he was offered at an entry-level salary of $150 per week. That job was working for “The Daily Times” in Pryor Creek.
For twenty years he worked steadily, many times foregoing his vacation on behalf of the news business. He met his wife in Pryor, raised a family, became a part of the community. Things changed radically, however, as a large outside company bought the Daily (now known as simply The Times) and 50 other newspapers across Oklahoma in 1997.
Overnight, the business environment in which Aylward thrived turned from chasing the news and managing a paper, to meetings…and more meetings. The process became heavy, burdensome.
“Everything [in Pryor] was the same, but in this town of 9,000 people we were always meeting about what we were going to do…instead of just doing it.”
By 1999, Aylward and Lewis left “The Times” and set out on their own with a competitive set of ideas to help launch “The Paper” of Mayes County. They offered free classifieds, free obituaries, and free engagement or wedding announcements. They re-focused on their community stories and resisted filler text of outside or national news.
In other words, they were “sticking it to The Man.” And it’s been working for 16 years.
“So we don’t have any meetings. We don’t have any policies. You know, if I need Paul I just holler, and Andie may answer me because she thinks I’m talking to her, or whatever. That’s the way we…you know, we just…take care of business.”
This business model is all-encompassing. The three of them only take one week of vacation each year, generally during a five-week month in the summer so they can bill for four weeks and keep the cash flow consistent.
Those two pivotal moments, accepting the job in Pryor Creek and starting his own paper, are defining in Aylward’s life. The decisions were both leaps of faith, and commitments to his craft. And through a newspaper man’s lens, he’s witnessed his community processes for almost forty years.
“There’s really no REAL news in a small town,” he said with a chuckle. More seriously, he followed, “The tornado of ’42 was huge, and then there was the Girl Scout murders, [that] happened in Locust Grove which is about 20 miles away. Now the campground’s closed, and I think it’s farmland. But that’s really the only two that would be considered…that ‘the New York Times is coming to cover it.'”
Those two stories were big. Huge, actually. The 1942 tornado took a booming Pryor Creek metropolis down to ruins. Moving directly down main street, the twister took off the second and third levels of many of their buildings, and killed 70 people.
Discussing that tragedy, Aylward later told me through e-mail correspondence that “a tornado has not revisited Pryor since 1942 because an Indian medicine man went west and drove a stake into the ground to split future threats to the north and south. Believe it or not, as you watch the TV news reports of storms heading our way, they always seem to split and strike to the north and south if they strike at all.”
And of course, the Girl Scout murders were so big their mention still solemnifies the faces of Oklahomans today.
Conversations in the offices of The Paper echo slightly. The building itself has many stories. Children used to run to the stoop, then up through the halls as an after school play activity. At one point in history, their building was known as “Robber’s Roost.” Even walking through the halls now feels as if it would be imperative to locate an office there if you moved to Pryor, but at the same time you might expect turn of the century ghosts to treat you with occasional visits.
Settling into our discussion, a few topics were mentioned that help define both Aylward and his job.
Requests to “not print that” – any pressure from the locals?
“You know, we’re always asked to ‘not print that,’ and you can’t. You just have to print it. Especially people who don’t want their name in the paper for when they get a DUI or something…they’re going to lose their job. You just have to say, ‘Look, if you do it, your name’s going to be in the paper.’ I tell ’em , ‘My kids have been in the paper. So, I’m not holding you out.’ And, they know my kids…[then they respond], ‘oh, yeah, I remember…’
And government-wise, sometimes they’ll say, ‘Oh, they don’t need to know all that..’ But it’s a lot better now, that we’ve been on our own. They just accept what we say because they know, ‘these guys…they’re crazy, they don’t have to answer to anybody.’ Down there (at The Times), they can call people, and go over their heads…but here, it’s beautiful, because it’s just us. And Paul and Andi don’t really care about the news part (he chuckles), so it’s just me. And the community has given up trying to get me not to print things.”
Caricatures and/or Characters in Pryor Creek?
Caricatures – “Oh, there’s tons of ’em. The first one that pops into my mind is the mayor. When you see today’s paper…he’s running for re-election. However, he goes down to the park, squirms himself into this little bitty kid’s toy, for a picture just to promote his election…with the ‘new toy.’ He’s unbelievable. He’s in a race for the first time this year with a retired fire chief. [The current mayor’s] philosophy has always been, ‘If the library employee gets a 5% raise, the fireman gets a 5% raise. There’s no difference. And [the fire department] thinks they should get more because they pay union dues…”
Characters – “Carl Curry, another former mayor here…the thing that stands out to me about Carl was, he’s born and raised in Pryor, and he’s the mayor, and the city’s thinking about having ‘Martin Luther King’ as a holiday. Now, he’s a WWII guy…and he breaks the tie of the city council vote to allow our Martin Luther King holiday.
Well, that did not go over very well with his generation. And he said, still today, life-long friends of his don’t speak to him because of that. But he told me the reason he did that was when he was a little kid, he remembers a Troop Train stopping, that railroad’s gone through here forever, stopping and getting out was a total Black platoon. And they double-timed down to ma-whatevers cafe, and they had to go in the back.
And as a little kid, Carl thought, ‘These are OUR soldiers. Why did they have to do that?’ So he said, that’s the picture he had when he voted to break the tie. He kind of righted that wrong of something he saw as a kid he knew wasn’t right. And we still celebrate Martin Luther King holiday today in Pryor Creek.
I think there was a survey in the Tulsa World stating that 90% of Oklahomans believe their community is prejudice one way or another. And then 80% believe that it doesn’t keep everybody from achieving the American Dream. Which is…kind of the comical part of that deal.”
I personally appreciated our discussion with Aylward a great deal. We waxed philosophical about whether or not removing adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities from the community helps or hurts everyone involved. We discussed various areas our EPOTM team was preparing to visit and received pointers on where to investigate. We learned about how Google has poured dollars into their community the way Pryor Creek’s water is pouring over the servers to keep things running smoothly for the internet giant.
I think I wanted his NPR baseball cap. I know I wanted his office space.
“What’s one of the things that makes your team laugh?” I asked.
“Every city council meeting,” he responded with a chuckle.
And we laughed too. Thanks, Terry, for the 50 copies of the The Paper, for your graciousness and tour of your building, and for helping us understand a little better our Pryor Creek point on the map.
All photo credits: Rachel J Apple (except the photo below this line)
Video credit: April Kirby