THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.
In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.
Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.
by Larry Brody
In addition to Tropical Storm Ike, Fall of 2008 brought another life-changing event.
Betty Barker Smith, the publisher of my home paper, The Baxter Bulletin, stepped down.
She waved good-bye to Gannett Newspapers—blew kisses, actually—and set forth on a new adventure.
Open to everything and anything new.
It’s Betty who gave me the newspaper space in which to tell my tales of life in Paradise. And who encouraged me to make my writing as personal as possible.
Who helped me feel free to discuss the illuminated ordinary that is my life in such a way that all those who read my words would understand that it was their lives as well.
Who acted as the head cheerleader for the Brody Brigade by filling my In Box with e-mails scented like roses, and knowing about a million and a half ways to say, “Hooray!”
I first met Betty in 2002, at a luncheon given by the Arkansas Office for Economic Development. I was new to the state, but that hadn’t kept me from being the featured speaker.
I still remember the first words I said after being introduced by Joe Glass, then the head honcho of the state film office. The first season of The Simple Life TV series was being shot in Arkansas, and Joe extolled the virtues of its star, Paris Hilton, and then gave me the floor.
“I know I’m supposed to be a big Hollywood professional,” I told the crowd, “but I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never heard of Paris Hilton. Don’t have a clue who she is.”
Immediately, a radiantly smiling woman who resembled Barbara Bush (if Mrs. Bush had been 25 years younger and, well, radiantly smiling) began applauding at one of the tables.
And, after I was finished with my talk about how showbiz needed Arkansas (or anyplace real) a lot more than Arkansas needed showbiz (sorry, Joe), that same radiantly smiling woman came up to the dais, shook my hand and handed me her card:
“Betty Barker Smith, Publisher, Gannett Newspapers.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t know who Paris Hilton is either. Welcome to Arkansas. If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know.”
A couple of years later, I did just that.
“I want to write about what it’s like to be an ignorant city boy here in a very smart countryside,” I called Betty and said. “Oh, and also about the magic that fills this countryside and makes it the most powerful place I’ve ever been.”
She didn’t hesitate for a minute. “Promise you’ll tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” she said.
“That’s a tall order,” I said. “The whole truth is a lot to ask of a guy who’s spent most of his life writing the lies we call TV.”
“You can do it,” said Betty. “I know you can.”
And now, almost two hundred weeks later, I’m telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about Miz Betty, my former boss.
(Did I mention any of her flaws? She’s…hmm…let me think a minute. Oh, sure, right. She’s too smart for most rooms she’s in. And too independent. And that smile—c’mon, can anyone really be that much at peace with herself?)
How much do I admire Betty Smith?
Let me put it this way: She came up through the ranks as a single mother at a time when women, single or not, mothers or not, were more often than not the victims of—at best—patronizing smiles and—at worst—the kind of overt discrimination and harassment that leaves us with our mouths agape in a still imperfect today.
How much do I love her?
I’ll put it like this: If by the most catastrophic stroke of misfortune I could ever imagine Gwen the Beautiful hadn’t come into my life all those wonderful years ago, I’d be devoting all the wit, charm, whatever-it-is in my masculine arsenal to sweeping Betty Smith off her feet.
At the end of September, 2008, my friend Betty Smith left the gig she’d loved for about a thousand ageless years and, openly and freely, moved on to her new semi-retired life.
For me, the best thing about this is that I don’t have to say good-bye. Instead, as one semi-retiree to another, I say, “Welcome! If there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know.”