By Jack Cawthon|
There are rumors afloat of the death of the West Virginia Hillbilly and, unlike those swirling around Mark Twain while he was still very much alive, such rumors may not be exaggerated.
There is some thinking, also, that under Oregon’s euthanasia law, should it apply to newspapers, the fatal injection should have been administered in 1996 when Jim Comstock passed on to that great pressroom in the sky.
Jim Comstock was the Hillbilly. He was also West Virginia as he turned our seeming simplicity into sophistication, which he with a wink would deny, and he grew greater even than the legends surrounding him, many of them self-perpetuated.
I became aware of Comstock while I was still a budding student, almost nipped in the bud, at Glenville State College. Glenville publisher Linn Hickman had, some would say unwisely, turned over the Glenville Pathfinder, a weekly newspaper, to me and I felt I was on my way to becoming another Horace Greeley. I soon became hoarse crying in the Gilmer County wilderness.
One of those who heard my cries was none other than Jim Comstock and I still remember the thrill and exhilaration when he picked up some of my youthful prattle and reprinted it in his Nicholas County News Leader.
He and Bronson McClung had established the News Leader in 1946 shortly after both had returned from military service. From the start, it was obvious it would be no ordinary weekly newspaper but one far different from anything seen in West Virginia’s concentric journalism circles.
To say Comstock was a genius is like saying Albert Einstein was good at math. Perhaps that is why few people in his home community understood him as the News Leader achieved its greatest attention outside the community and soon gained a national audience when Comstock was reprinted widely around the country.
In 1956 I had pretty well worn down the resistance of some professors at Glenville State who felt I might be better confined as a professional student than loosed upon the world. However, as all good things come to an end, I was due to graduate.
However, in that fateful summer I received a call from Jim that he and Bronson, the practical partner who also had genius but in realms of such trivial pursuits as keeping a newspaper running with ads and financial acumen, would be coming to Glenville to meet with me. A visit to see me? I had been threatened by visits from others, but mostly they wanted to see me because of something I had written and I often detected a veiled threat of violence so as to be out of sight should they arrive. Fortunately, I had no office as such and I could be far out of reach most of the time with Linn Hickman, who did maintain an office, taking the brunt of my critics.
On the fateful day the duo appeared they bought me a meal at the Conrad Hotel and laid out plans for a new publication tentatively called the West Virginia Hillbilly. I was offered a job as its editor, which I still attribute as much to Bronson as Jim, as Bronson had liked my down to earth appraisals of the college educated. (Comstock was later to award him the first diploma in the College of Hard Knocks, another brainstorm of his that is still going strong.)
I had visited the News Leader shop in Richwood a few times and I always left exhausted just by observing the two owners in action. They never stood still. As I talked with them they were setting type, closing forms, melting down lead, all while conversing. I felt I could never stand the pace as I preferred using my brain while it rested on a fixed base.
I had, surprisingly, been declared a teacher candidate by a fine teacher-training institution and I had an adviser who felt I would make an excellent contribution to the profession. And, wonders of wonders, it paid better than most newspaper jobs. Ah, the pratfalls of fate!
I was soon lost in the 50s both night and day, and no one heard from me for a good, although debatable, 25 years later after I again emerged from academia with head bloodied and brain altered by eclectic shock, set once more upon the unsuspecting world by the college bored. To say I no longer possessed the fire of youth would be like saying the boilers on the Titanic were dampened by water.
But Comstock was still there strong with Hillbilly. The Second Coming was old hat to him as he had sold and bought back Hillbilly enough times until even the trumpeter grew weary. No one else could make a go of it.
I began sending him tidbits not unlike my old Pathfinder writings and tried to treat the intervening 25 years as a Rip Van Winkle dream. Lo, as great writers are apt to say, one day I picked up the paper and there was a column heading over my stuff. I was in company beyond my raising certainly with L. T. Anderson, Jim Slade, ABC-TV science reporter who Comstock called during a major space flight-how did the get the number, Slade always pondered?-to report for Hillbilly, Ken Hechler, Shirley Campbell Young and a host of others of a similar standing.
Patterning after Jack Paar and Dan Rather, I tried quitting a few times, but when I received more than enough cards and letters praising my efforts my ego would be appeased until it needed massaged again as all writers and other egoists can understand.
So, I kept going almost to the last, but unlike the brave band on the Titanic which continued to play, when I felt the water lapping at my feet I jumped ship, although I deny reports that I dressed as a woman.
Among my prized possessions now are framed Hillbillys, one the very first press run as a sample in 1956 and which carries no date but does have personal notations from Comstock to me; a copy in 1996 when Jim celebrated his 85th birthday with a gala party and which I had Jim and Bronson autograph (“To Jack, from one of the GIANTS”) Jim wrote in reference to what I had once called him and Bronson; and the one in which Sandy McCauley, the new owner, had run my front page tribute to Jim when he died later in 1996.
The end may have come for Hillbilly, and, sadly to say, there are few who morn its passing. However, Jim Comstock still lives on in The Best of Hillbilly, a book of some of his best writings and which can still be found in paperback in most bookstores, although the hard back is rare. Some day there may be researchers exploring this publishing venture and trying to analyze its content. For me, I can’t explain the publication or the brains behind it. I’m just happy, and honored, to have been a part of it.