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Texas | Columns | "Wandering"

Memories of
Preston L. Pendergrass

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

Preston L. Pendergrass, World War II veteran, former teacher and experienced newsman from Tennessee, arrived at The Baytown Sun in 1954, and, at first, we news roomies didn't know what to make of him. And for sure, he didn't know what to make of us.

That first day, saying nary a word, he quietly started to work doing what copy editors do, catching mistakes, editing and rewriting. In the margins he added commentary.

At times he would put the blood-red marker aside and type a story critique on a blank sheet of copy paper - a Journalism 101 memo, if you will. He would sign it with his initials PLP.

Frequently he would remind a writer that verbs must agree with subjects that a vital difference exists between its and it's and that there and their are spelled differently because they're not the same word.

Advancing from copy editor to managing editor and ultimately to executive editor, Preston knew every rule of spelling and grammar in the book, and when an error occurred, he caught it.

After his first, studious week here, the Tennessee newsman began to warm up to this Texas news crew. Pretty soon the new guy was like an old friend, someone we enjoyed chatting with (after deadline, of course) and someone we could trust to lend a helping hand if we needed him. I could cite examples - like the time he made sure a reporter's children got their Christmas toys out of lay-away in a local store or when a sports editor was stranded in his car that broke down on the highway and, thanks to Preston, help was on the way.

I admired the way he always looked out for the crippled man who sold pencils on the post office steps. He made sure the man always had transportation to and from his work on the steps.

Preston and I had only one falling-out the whole time we worked together. On deadline, I was driving him crazy, griping about a headline I didn't like, and finally he yelled at me (only time, ever) and grabbed a story out of my hand to take to the composing room. Hours later, lifestyle editor Martha Reed handed me a box of candy that Preston had asked her to buy for me. He was sorry for yelling at me and grabbing the story from my hand. To be fair, I should have bought him a box of candy. I could be sort of a pest.

Preston's mantra was "tell it like it is" and many people didn't know how to handle that. Like, when people complained about their unflattering photos in the paper, he would inform them: "The camera doesn't lie."

Not everyone knew how to take his bluntness. One reporter, in fact, resigned after a brief stint in the newsroom because she said Preston intimidated her. He made her so nervous that she broke out in a rash. If she'd stayed longer, she would have learned that the "intimidator" really was a great guy with a soft heart. Kind of like Mr. Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore show.

One time I was fussing about my feet hurting, and Preston said, "You've gotten too fat. That's why your feet hurt." I didn't develop a rash or resign over the comment because he was mighty right. I had gotten too fat.

The last conversation I had with Preston, when he was at St. Luke's Hospital in Houston, I remarked that his mind was still sharp as ever, even at his age.

Again, telling it like it was, he replied, "I know it."


© Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist
"Wandering" January 16, 2019 column


Wanda Orton's "Wandering"

  • Kids 1-2-19
  • Cousins 9-9-18
  • Like Zelig, Ashbel Smith was everywhere 4-3-18
  • Summer of '52 at The Baytown Sun 2-3-18
  • The cat who came in from the cold 1-14-18

    See more »

  • More Columns | People
    Wanda Orton's "Wandering"

  • Kids 1-2-19
  • Cousins 9-9-18
  • Like Zelig, Ashbel Smith was everywhere 4-3-18
  • Summer of '52 at The Baytown Sun 2-3-18
  • The cat who came in from the cold 1-14-18

    See more »


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