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On the Schmitt List: 50 years of storytelling comes to a close
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On the Schmitt List: 50 years of storytelling comes to a close

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This Friday, I will bring my 50-year newspaper career to a close. I have had the pleasure of working at 11 newspapers across several states, serving as publisher for 10. The longest time spent at single newspaper has been here at The Daily Nonpareil, just a couple months short of 20 years.

Tom Schmitt

Tom Schmitt

In the spring of 1970, I was a green-behind-the-ears 18-year-old who was a couple months from graduating high school. I didn’t have a full-time job, any idea where to find one or a car to drive to work if I landed a job. I also didn’t have money for college and my crystal ball was clear, there were no scholarships in my future.

The first three summers during my high school years, I worked at a local nursey where I spent most of my time climbing large Elm trees, dragging a thick hose up the tree, so I could spray for insects that were believed to be killing the trees. While my future was unclear, I was certain I didn’t want to turn that summer job into a career.

Late one afternoon, I found myself walking to a café and, as I was about to pass by the office for one of the town’s two newspapers, I saw a sign promoting a subscription contest. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the top prize was a brand new 1970 Chevy Nova. The car was a three-speed stick shift with an AM radio, plastic seats and rubber floor mats. By today’s standards it wasn’t much of a car, but it looked great to me and I decided on the spot to try and win the car.

I was still cruising around town on a bike, and — like the Nova — my bike was quite basic. It was a simple, an old-fashioned one-speed.

Unfortunately, despite my desire, I didn’t win the car. I finished the contest in second place, but the experience gave me an idea.

When the contest was over, I approached the publisher of the newspaper, Marie Stewart, and suggested to her that she should hire me to sell advertising. She didn’t immediately agree but, after a two-hour conversation, she suggested I come back in two weeks to further discuss the idea.

Marie was a nurse, who became the editor and publisher of The Farmington (Missouri) Press after a fire at her home a few years earlier took the lives of her husband and one of her sons. In order to keep the family business going, she gave up nursing and assumed leadership of the newspaper.

As Marie asked, I returned in two weeks, and then two weeks after that, and for several additional every-other-week meetings until I finally landed the job in August, three months after the contest had ended.

A couple years later, Marie sold the newspaper to a man from Iowa — Wit Ledbetter. Shortly after, Wit became my boss and my job began to grow into a career.

Wit was the ultimate newspaperman. A national award-winning writer and photographer, Wit taught me the importance of storytelling. To Wit, everything a newspaper published was to be a story.

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According to Wit, advertisements were important stories. Ads were to informed readers as to what was for sale, what service was available and where special offerings might be found. Wit criticized a badly designed ad as much as a poorly written news story. According to Wit, advertisements had to tell readers who, what, where, when and the how, just as a good news story is supposed to do.

Five years after buying the newspaper, Wit sold it to Ben Smith, the owner of a small chain of community newspapers.

Within a couple of years, Ben named me publisher of a small weekly newspaper and, in doing so, told me I would be responsible for writing a weekly column.

Writing certainly wasn’t my strong suite. My spelling was bad and my punctuation was worse. But, Ben told me that as an ad designer and salesman, I had become a fairly good storyteller; and that the best columns, particularly in small communities, were columns that simply told readers good stories. And he reminded me I could rely on editors to clean up my messy writing.

So, I started writing a weekly column. Many of my columns became a reflection of our family’s life, an open book for everyone to read.

The title, “On The Schmitt List” came a few years later.

I’ve been writing a column, off and on, mostly on, for more than 40 years — telling stories about family, friends, unique individuals, communities, projects and more.

But I didn’t limit storytelling to my column. I learned to use the technique in public speaking and in training new employees. My employees will tell you, much to their chagrin at times, that I have a story for nearly every situation. But I learned a long time ago that while people don’t always remember facts and figures, they will nearly always remember a good story.

Some years back, I read a magazine article that encouraged people to describe themselves in one word. After numerous attempts, the word I settled upon was “storyteller.” After all, telling stories is what I love to do.

Before closing out this story, perhaps the last of the “On The Schmitt List” offerings, I want to take a moment to thank the hundreds of people who have made living in Council Bluffs and publishing The Nonpareil an enjoyable and rewarding 20-year experience; not only for me but also for my family. The list of names is too long to include here but I am grateful to each and every person who touched our lives.

Since announcing my upcoming retirement, people have been asking me what I plan to do next. Besides continuing to live in Council Bluffs and having more time to enjoy my family, I don’t have any big plans.

Perhaps, in the spring I’ll find an old one-speed bike to occasionally take me places. And maybe, just maybe, occasionally, I’ll tell a story.

— Tom Schmitt is the publisher and president of The Daily Nonpareil.

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