‘I tried to write on a level that my mother would enjoy’
Update: May 28, 2013: KTRE-TV, Lufkin, reports Mattie Dellinger died today at age 101.
By Robert Haught
Editor, The e-Columnist
MARCH 8, 2013 — Mattie Dellinger writes a weekly column for the Shelby County Light and Champion in the East Texas town of Center. She’s been doing it a lot longer than most of us, and she doesn’t plan to quit, although she turned 101 last October. She may be the oldest active columnist in the United States.
For her birthday, her longtime friend Willie Nelson sent her a copy of his book Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, a couple of cassettes, and two packages of Hawaiian coffee.
He’s not the only famous Texan she captivated during her long career in newspaper work and broadcasting. The late former Gov. Ann Richards came on her radio show and played the ukulele while campaigning and they struck up a friendship that lasted many years.
Dixie Dellinger told The e-Columnist her mother started writing for the newspaper when she was 12, reporting news about Baptist church youth meetings.
“She said she always wanted to be a writer,” said Dixie. “Her uncle John McLendon was a noted columnist and reporter in his time and she revered him.
“She started really working for the paper in 1953. There was a time when she got mad at the editor and quit, but she didn’t stay idle for long. The local radio station owner hired her to do a radio show. It became ‘Mattie’s Party Line.'”
Like her column of the same name, the content was typical small town doings and historical tidbits, with some nostalgia mixed in.
One time a caller mentioned going to Branson, Mo., to see Willie Nelson. Mattie responded sharply that she didn’t care for his singing and didn’t like the way he looked. Willie got word of it and made a call-in himself. Before the call ended, he told her that he would make her like him.
Later Willie was doing a concert nearby and he brought his bus, got Mattie and they rode around the town square, both of them waving to folks.
Her radio show lasted 17 years and she went back to writing for the newspaper in 2004. Dixie said, “It is possible that she is more popular now than she was with her radio show because the paper goes out of town.”
An article by Jean Marbella in The Baltimore Sun in 1999 mentioned some of her regular callers: Lamar, “the nursing home resident who calls at the start of just about every show to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to whoever is celebrating that day. Peggy, the woman with the counting obsession who can tell you the number of tiles in her doctor’s office or bricks in the courthouse. John, known on the air as The Lawyer, who loves to tease Miss Mattie about her own obsession — with the National Enquirer. And Bobbie, the UFO sighter.”
Gary Borders, an East Texas journalist for more than 30 years, wrote that he met Mattie when he had his paper, the San Augustine Rambler, printed in Center. “In 1982, Mattie was a spry 71-year-old who would quickly let you know how the cow ate the cabbage. Mattie stood about 5 feet and probably didn’t weigh 100 pounds even after a fine Sunday dinner on the grounds. She clearly knew everybody in her native Shelby County and more than half in neighboring San Augustine County.”
Dixie Dellinger said, “My friends tell me that they save her columns in a scrapbook for their children to keep for the history she tells about Center. She knows people, their ancestors, where they lived and where old buildings used to be. She also puts in humorous items.”
Lufkin station KTRE-TV in a 2008 program referred to her as the “official town historian” and said Mattie, then 96, “likes to mow her own lawn, play the slot machines and keep people laughing.”
A profile in Texas Monthly in 1992 said she also enjoyed horse racing. The magazine said that “with no journalistic training, she wrote by instinct.” Mattie was quoted as saying: “I’ve always tried to write on a certain level. I knew my mother would read my columns and stories, so I tried to write on a level that my mother would enjoy. The editors said that was a good idea. Don’t use two-bit words when nickel words would do.”
The plucky centenarian has spent her entire life in Center, Texas, a town of about 5,000 near the Louisiana line.
After graduation from high school in 1929, during the Depression, she got a job in a drug store where she met and later married L.L. Dellinger, a pharmacist. They ran a grocery store and she became a “stringer” for several large newspapers on the side.
In many ways Mattie Dellinger’s life parallels that of Harriette Leidich of Bennington, Vt., who was profiled in The e-Columnist in April 2012 when she celebrated her 100th birthday. At that time she was believed to be the oldest columnist.
Ms. Leidich and her first husband, George Lerrigo, also were married in the Depression years. Daughter of a Nebraska newspaperman, she had been writing a column since she was 14. In 1936 the couple acquired a newspaper in Overbrook, Kan., and with old equipment did all the work themselves. She wrote two books about her life’s experiences.
Mattie Dellinger was widowed in 1966 and lives by herself. Dixie, a former microbiologist in Dallas, came home to run a Christmas tree farm.
Note: A new NSNC member, Terri Lacher, alerted us about Mattie.