Politics fascinated Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder her entire life. Writing in her memoir, Salty Old Editor, Schexnayder remembered her grandfather buying a radio to listen to presidential candidate Al Smith’s campaign speech.
The written word also fascinated her. A 7th grade project on writing a newspaper “forever marked” her as a newswoman, she wrote in her 2012 book about her life.
Schexnayder, of Little Rock and formerly of Dumas, passed away Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. She was two weeks shy of her 97th birthday.
She was the longer-living half of a newspaper power couple. Her husband Melvin died in 2007. Both worked long hours to publish the Dumas Clarion and raise a family in the Delta community they moved to as young newspaper owners in 1954. They quickly put their small newspaper on the map, winning awards from the Arkansas Press Association.
Though she is well-known for serving 14 years in the Arkansas House of Representatives, we remember her as a life-long member in Arkansas Press Women. Schexnayder served as APW president in 1955, and received the national Communicator of Achievement Award in 1970 at the National Federation of Press Women conference. She later served as president of NFPW in 1977.
Schexnayder participated in nearly every journalism organization – Society of Professional Journalists, Arkansas Press Association, and National Newspaper Association, becoming the first female leader in many of the previously male-dominated groups over the 44 years she owned the Dumas Clarion.
Schexnayder was preceded in death by long-time Dumas Clarion Publisher Terry Hawkins, an assistant who eventually took over newspaper operations and continued on as publisher for the new owners when she sold the newspaper in 1998. Hawkins, who became one of the first male members of APW along with Melvin Schexnayder in 1977, died in February 2019.
Long retired, Schexnayder kept in touch with her journalism friends and became a treasure for younger generations.
In a 2019 article written by Aprille Hanson in Arkansas Catholic, Schexnayder said some of her best advice for women pursuing careers in journalism and politics is “have a tough skin” and “never abandon your beliefs.”
“Don’t expect it to be easy; expect it to be rewarding when you really work at it and go prepared. Always go prepared. When you’re prepared it’s harder to be shot down, it really is,” she said.
Schexnayder was inducted into the Arkansas Women Hall of Fame in 2019 and delivered an outstanding acceptance speech.
In her Hall of Fame speech, she told the crowd she was “speaking out on behalf of freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly.”
“We have to guard freedom of the press because it’s a keystone of democracy,” she said.
She admitted “it’s very hurtful to me” to see society’s distrust in the media, adding “there is news; there is no false news. False in news are plain lies.”
APW had planned to honor Schexnayder and founding member Dorothy Stuck at a June 2020 reception of the National Federation of Press Women, which had chosen to host its national conference in Little Rock for the first time since 1988. The pandemic quickly put those plans on hold.
In an April phone conversation with APW President Kristin Netterstrom Higgins, Schexnayder said canceling the 2020 conference was the right decision during the pandemic. Schexnayder, who lost her vision from macular degeneration, said she could not see well enough to even work on an iPad so she was unable to attend APW’s virtual awards ceremony.
Instead, she recorded a greeting for all her press women friends to hear:
“I went to my first NFPW national conference in New Orleans in 1956 and I had been looking forward to this year. I’m so sorry we’ve had to move it another year. But I want to say to all my friends out there who have been press women for years, I miss you, I love you and I hope you are well and that’s the best I can do right now.”
Schexnayder started 2020 off strong but health problems other than her eyesight slowed her down. She entered hospice over the summer and was able to visit with family again with visiting restrictions no longer applying. She is survived by three children – John, Sarah and Steve – and their spouses, many grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
We will share information about any services when they are released later in 2021. Read her obituary.