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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Faces & Places: The Coger Family: A newspaper legacy

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

(Photo)
Claude (Bill) Coger, editor of the Sharp County Record around 1896. He was the youngest editor in Arkansas.
Written history in the form of news is something that has been recorded for nearly 135 years in Arkansas. At the root of the humble beginnings of the Areawide Record, the paper published weekly by Areawide Media, was a very young man named Claude (Bill) Coger.

The family's original Evening Shade home was built around 1850 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently vacant. Three generations of the Coger family worked in the newspaper business all over the United States including at Newsweek magazine in New York with Sharp County being the original base and the beginning of the family's newspaper legacy.

Coger was the son of M.B. and Minnie Coger. Coger was one of the earliest settlers to Evening Shade according to historian accounts. In 1896, Claude (Bill) became the youngest newspaper editor and publisher in the state of Arkansas at the age of 17. The Sharp County Record was based out of Evening Shade from 1877-1976, according to records obtained from The Library of Congress.

Coger eventually owned the Sharp County Record and continued to be editor and publisher for 23 years until his retirement in 1919, at which time he sold the Record to O.L. Shaver and bought The Hardy Herald. He later operated weekly papers in both Melbourne and Heber Springs.

Coger died in 1928, leaving behind a legacy and a reputation that would touch thousands of lives through the stories in his papers that have been recorded as a part of history.

The Coger family tradition of working with the various local papers did not end with Coger's retirement. As his son Claude Jr. and grandson Fred followed in his footsteps working for numerous papers in the area including The Melbourne Times, a Heber Springs weekly paper, the Northwest Arkansas Times and the Newport Independent.

In 2000, an aging Fred Coger, who retired in 1996 from Newsweek magazine in New York was interviewed in Pennsylvania as part of an oral history project for the Arkansas Center for Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas Library in Fayetteville. During Fred's interview, he spoke a lot about his grandfather, his father and his own career working for the Arkansas Gazette during the segregation period and the famous Central High School crisis in 1956-57, a place which he lived very close to during this time frame.

Coger told of his grandfather's reputation for crisp, incisive and no nonsense news coverage of his community. Fred said his father Claude Jr. had him helping his grandfather set type in print shops in Heber Springs and Melbourne while he was still in high school. His father was the editor of the weekly Melbourne paper. Fred said, " I would set type, I would run the press and also write some things from time to time." He explained his job at the Heber Springs paper was where his grandfather got him started in business as a carrier for the Gazette, a paper at which he would eventually spend years as a writer.

Fred told of a very historical event recorded in the weekly Melbourne Times while he was in high school around 1943 that contrasted with the coverage of the much larger Arkansas Gazette paper.

He said his family's next-door neighbor, then Izard County Sheriff Lawrence Harber, was shot down with a shotgun as he was attempting to serve a warrant on a "uneducated hillbilly out in the sticks." Because the county was so small, naturally the murder trial drew a lot of local attention, but was also covered by the press from other larger cities including Little Rock, ones who weren't as sensitive to the death as the hometown readers. He said at this time it was becoming popular for the press to cover not only the "who, what, where and when, but also the why." The trial coverage went on for days and his father even ran a special edition after the guilty verdict of murderer Rupert Byler. The problem was that the larger city's press coverage attempted to explain the "why" in a far deeper fashion than the small town was used to, including his father. They tried to blame the murder on such things as social deprivation, poverty and lack of education. Although the reporting techniques were very valid, the locals found it an insult to their community; many even thought it was condoning the killing of a well known man that was very liked.

Ken said his father finally wrote a letter to the editor of the Gazette which was published, resulting in him being fired as the local correspondent to the state newspaper. He said even today this can be the result of reporting controversial news and writing it with a controversial twist. But, Ken said this was a part of the integrity his father put into everything he printed.

He spoke very highly of his father and said despite the long hours running weekly papers in both Melbourne and Heber Springs, he found time to organize very good high school bands in both cities and was the director of both bands at different times. Fred said he was remembered as much for that as the quality papers he put out.

Claude Jr. also campaigned and became mayor of Melbourne, a position he held for two years. His son said the reason he wanted to be mayor was because he felt compassionate about the city's need for a hospital, water works and a fire department and proudly said, "Melbourne got all three and I am proud of that."

Fred attended school at Arkansas College (now Lyon) in Batesville. He said his father gave up his job as editor of the Melbourne paper and the family moved to Fayetteville so he could live at home and attend the University of Arkansas and later served in the United States Army. While in Fayetteville, his father worked as a linotype operator for the Northwest Arkansas Times. Fred said his father enjoyed his job working in this capacity and was said to have found it much less stressful.

While working there, Claude Jr was diagnosed with tuberculosis and forced to live in a sanatorium at Booneville. During this time, there was no drugs for the highly contagious disease and those carrying it were hospitalized until it was determined they were not a threat to society.

After spending three years in the sanatorium, Claude Jr. was able to come back to work at Fayetteville for a short time after which flare ups forced him to undergo surgery to remove a portion of the diseased lung. His parents then moved to New Mexico to take advantage of the dry climate and hopefully help with the tuberculosis. He worked there for a few years before moving to Phoenix, where the family lived until his death in 1963. During this time Fred worked as a copy editor for the Phoenix Gazette from 1959-1963 during the Cuban missile crisis.

He moved to Philadelphia following his father's death and worked on the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, then to New York where he worked for Newsweek magazine until his retirement in 1996.

After Claude Jr's death, Lillian moved back to Sharp County, a place her grandson said she considered home no matter where she lived. Lillian lived in Sharp County for numerous years working as a clerk at the county health department in Ash Flat and played organ for the Spring River Presbyterian Church in Hardy. Fred said this was one of the most important things to her. After retirement, Lillian lived in Ash Flat until her health forced her to move to New Jersey to live with Fred and his wife. Lillian died at the age of 91.

The Coger family has definitely left their mark on journalist nationwide and who knows, perhaps one of Fred's daughters may pass on the tradition to their children. Their family's original home is located on Main Street in Evening Shade.



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