Pat Reese Chesley, the daughter of former Mount Dora Topic editor Mabel Norris Reese, died this week of long-standing complications from COPD. She was 74.
Pat and I had several conversations last summer by email and phone as I was researching my piece on her mother’s stint at the Topic in the 1950s. She wasn’t in great health back then — she was on an oxygen tank for the COPD. Gravity seemed effortful, a labor of love.
Pat was game to talk about her mother, even though her memories of growing up in Mount Dora were not fond. Imagine being the kid of such a controversial and outspoken figure. Mabel Norris Reese’s standoffs with Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall were legendary, and their longstanding fight over whether the Platt children were “white enough” to attend Mount Dora’s white school surely must have bubbled over into some tough moments for Pat in class and playground. When you’re just trying to fit in.
Pat told me that while she deeply respected her mother’s work, she felt that she played a hard and distant second to it in her mother’s affections. “If it meant getting a good story, she would have traded me for it in a heartbeat,” she said once.
The controversies which made her mother’s career obviously had a lasting affect on the kid, who grew up, left to attend the University of Florida, and then tended her wounds teaching elementary school in Daytona Beach for decades where by Facebook accounts she was a beloved teacher.
Late in life Pat was a devoted volunteer for My Angel With Paws, an organization which provides service dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities. Pat was also a devoted Facebook progressive, sharing posts with a civil-rights ferocity that would surely have made her mother Mabel smile.
Pat had no siblings but is survived by her daughter Cindy (who is also a teacher) and several grandchildren.
Recently while researching through some old issues of the Mount Dora Topic on microfilm, I came across the following “Musings” column by by Mabel. I had thought to send it to Pat, but in lieu of ever being able to do that now, I post it here.
Context: It’s October 1955, and as the Platt case continues to simmer in school and court and racist outback. (The following spring, two bombs would be thrown into the Reese’s front yard while they were away.) The Topic and Reese are beginning to receive recognition from fellow journalists, and Reese printed many the Letters to the Editor in support of her stand following stories that appear in Newsweek and Life. (Whether to affirm her work or simply to fill up bare column inches, only Pat could have answered.) This comes just in time, as a rival Mount Dora Herald newspaper, started the previous summer, is taking away significant business.
Pat — or Punky, as she is nicknamed — is now in high school. As part of National Newspaper Week, the Topic had sponsored an essay-writing contest on why newspapers are important. (The winning entry from Jo Brown, a tenth grader at Mount Dora High, went on to win the state-wide contest as well.)
In this column, Reese laments that her daughter Punky (her nickname) was ineligible to participate, saying that the girl deserved to win because she understood newspapers better than anyone else in town.
It gives us a look at a mother-daughter relationship in a world that was mostly foreign to women in a small town that didn’t seem to care much for either.
It’s also a wonderful, in-the-trenches look at local newspapering from a time we may never find again. It’s been decades since I last heard the presses rolling from my stockroom in the production center of The Orlando Sentinel, probably ten since I’ve devoted myself to reading a paper newspaper except on microfilm.
For the sad woman whom I got to know very late in her life who always thought her mother’s job was more important to her mother than herself, I offer the following. Behind the editor, there was a mother who perhaps understood more than her daughter realized the cost to others of believing too deeply in your work.
Farewell, Pat, you made a lot of schoolkids and doggies happy.
— David (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Mabel Norris Reese
Mount Dora Topic, Oct. 6, 1955
There was one high school student not eligible to enter the essay contest offered by the Topic as part of the Florida Press Association’s state-wide observance of National Newspaper Week.
She lives and breathes newspaper, week after week. Simply because she had no choice of parents, she is forced by the accident of birth to have ink in her blood and so this might have given her an advantage over the other students in the contest. From the moment she entered the first grade through this week of being put through the paces to see if she’s an enduring Freshie in high school, the Topic has had to be in her thoughts constantly simply because fate so willed it that way.
She knows well the way the Topic is born; the pains of its labor, the love for its first ink-perfumed issue that slides out of the folder each week. She joins in the hunt for the deviltry of gremlins that had so cleverly concealed “typos” through the proofreading until the moment they stand out in gleeful relief in the finished paper. And she’s good at finding them too; or at finding a misspelled name, a wrong date or a slip of grammar, and so can say: “Hey, Mom — you goofed.”
On those Wednesday nights, she yawns through the boredom of waiting for the forms to be opened on the press and corrections made — knowing full well that when we all drag tiredly home and there take another look at the new weekly baby, one of us will be saying, “Oh no — ! Look at that typo …” as a gremlin more clever than his fellows chuckles over how cleverly he has hidden another error.
She knows the disappointments and the anxiety that can attend press day, when after solid days of preparing copy, there comes the moment of a devastating slip which can happen in the “back room.” Last week’s Wednesday, for example. On that press day, she waited through after-school hours and for a long-postponed dinner while the makeup was completed — work she sometimes aids as she hunts for column rule pieces the right size to fill out the line, or inserts the lead between the lines of type in the form so the page can become secure for the final lockup. It’s slow and tedious work and unappealing to a youngster after its initial mastering, and so she no longer begs for the job, but does homework to the staccato voice of the linotype instead of her record player at home.
At long last, the final form was ready for the press, and the end was in sight. She came back to the press room, happy in the thought that tonight the baby was going to be born early enough for her to earn money as a wrapping hand — at folding and pasting out-of-town papers for their mailing — and that she could still get home in time to see her favorite Wednesday television show.
She was on hand when there was a sudden explosion in the vicinity of the press. Not a mechanical explosion, thank goodness — but the explosion of temperament as it was discovered the form had not been locked in the press, and so there was an accident. The proof sheet revealed it — it came forth half printed, and so there were marks of the big roller’s grippers down across the two pages of type, pictures and masthead.
Nearly two hours later, that type had been resent, the picture’s cut repaired, the masthead replaced, and so at last the press could run. But by then, it was too late for her to begin the mailing job for which she earns money’ it was too late for the TV show. She had to go home to bed; I had to go with her to set the alarm for the pre-dawn hour to come back and do the last phases of the mailing.
She was not eligible for the contest for another reason too. She has grown up on a conversational diet of the freedom of the press. She knows, first hand, what it means. she was there wen the cross flamed at an effort to intimidate the Topic last summer; she has answered the phone to take an anonymous message meant to annoy and irritate and possibly silence a newspaper.
On the other hand, she knows its satisfactions; its triumphs of truth and fearlessness; its quiet joy of steadfastness; its pride in service. She “feels “ these things as they quicken her ink-filled blood, even though her only part in them has been in enduring lonely evenings while parents work, or in foregoing the fun of a family Summer vacation ever since her school life began, or in accepting the fact that production costs prohibit the buying of a new peaches and cream trimmed automobile.
I like to make up for the loneliness whenever I can. Recently, as a gesture in this direction, I gave her one of the Topic’s prize-winning checks to spend for anything she wanted. And you know what she did? — she went right out and bought me a gift that took practically the whole check.
She did it, I think, because deep in her heart, she wanted to express, in return, her understanding and respect for the newspaper world.