Mildred Heath — Nation’s Oldest Working Journalist

Odd Jobs, People
on June 8, 2008
Tor Olson Mildred Heath has worked at <i>The Beacon-Observer</i> for 70 years.

Seated at the same oak desk she’s used since 1938, Mildred Heath works the telephone at The Beacon-Observer newspaper in Overton, Neb. (pop. 646), jotting down notes about Alwyn Johnson’s upcoming 90th birthday party and a houseful of visiting grandchildren at the home of Wilma and Alex Bauer.

“Got any news?” asks Heath as she calls one resident after another to inquire about birthdays and baby showers, club happenings and pancake feeds, who’s back from vacation and who’s visiting whom. At 100, Heath has been gathering and writing the news in Overton since she and her late husband, Blair Heath, bought the weekly newspaper 70 years ago.

“She’s just one of those people who’s easy to talk to,” says Gail Johnson, 50, her granddaughter and the newspaper’s typesetter. “She’ll ask the most personal questions, but people don’t mind.”

Heath isn’t interested in any scoops about crime or natural disasters. “The dailies take care of that stuff,” she says. “We take care of the personals. We have boys in the service and away at school, and they really read these things.”

Longtime subscriber Donna Marshall, 78, of nearby Elm Creek (pop. 894), savors the social news about her neighbors. “We all read it,” she says. “And then I send the paper to my kids who live in Washington.”

The hometown buzz in The Beacon-Observer is interspersed among other local news and sports stories written by publisher Norman Taylor, Heath’s son-in-law and Johnson’s father. Taylor, 68, landed in the newspaper business while courting Heath’s daughter, Polly.

“While I was waiting to see her daughter, she put me to work,” he says. “There was no lollygagging.”

“She’s quite the deal,” Taylor adds with affection about his mother-in-law. “She hasn’t ever taken a vacation, at least not since I’ve been here.” That would be 1955.

Heath works six days a week. At 8:20 a.m., in fair weather or foul, she zips to work on her electric scooter and opens up the newspaper office. Between manning the office and the telephone, she sorts mail and files photographs.

While Heath has worked at the Overton newspaper for 70 years, her journalism career actually began 85 years ago when she was 15. Blair, who then was her boyfriend, worked for The Curtis Enterprise in Curtis, Neb. (pop. 832), and the newspaper bought a new Linotype machine.

“We read the manual and learned how to operate the machine together,” Heath recalls. In 1927, the couple married and two years later bought The Farnam Echo in nearby Farnam (pop. 223), and lived in a room at the newspaper office before moving to Overton, where they raised three daughters. Heath has outlived all of her children.

The family’s newspaper business always has been more community-minded than money-minded, says Heath, but the 1930s were the leanest times. “People were hard up,” she recalls. “They’d trade out chickens or garden stuff for ads or their subscriptions.”

During her lifelong career, Heath has witnessed many advances in newspaper technology—from the old hot-lead type days to modern-day computers—and worked in every facet of the business, from selling classified ads to printing handbills.

Shortly before noon each weekday, she locks up the office and drives her scooter to the Overton Community Center for lunch. After a meal last spring, 8-year-old Kelsey Scanlon of Kansas City, Mo., performed some Irish dances for the senior citizens. Kelsey was visiting her great-grandparents Bob and Jean McTygue of Overton.

Heath took out her paper and pen and said to her tablemates, “I’ll need to get something about this for the paper.”

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