Retiring for the second time, Donna Hunt seeks her third act chronicling hometown history

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Mar 1, 2020

Donna Hunt

At 84, Donna Hunt has wrapped up the first two acts of an amazing career. Yet, she believes she still has more to give to Denison, Texas, her hometown, where she was born, raised and carved out her niche as a local journalist at The Sherman Democrat, The Denison Herald and later the Herald Democrat, after the two small daily newspapers merged.

Hunt has covered tragic accidents, politics, sports, civic organizations and life events. She even had an opportunity to yell “stop the presses,” as The Denison Herald churned out its November 22, 1963, edition when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, just 75 miles away.

“I have received a few threats on my life, was sued a couple of times — not for something I had written — and witnessed a few things I would just as soon have missed, such as a couple of airplane crashes with pilots still inside,” she wrote in her final column for the Herald Democrat on Jan. 2, 2020.

Hunt began her newspaper career in the mid-1950s as a proofreader and a teletypesetter operator at The Sherman Democrat.

She was there for a year before Denison Herald editor Claud Easterly invited her to work for him doing the same thing. Living in Denison 10 miles away, she was much closer to The Herald, so she jumped at the chance. Hunt still recalls on the day she started working there, the assistant to the society editor resigned, so she stepped up and filled in. This temporary assignment became her full–time job, and she went about her business, gathering society news.

“We just made the rounds in Denison every day, gathering local news about who was visiting, who had family reunions, who had babies and other local news,” she said. “Back then, we even called the hospital daily to find out who had been admitted and put that in the newspaper.”

In the newspaper’s offices, the production department was upstairs from news.

“There was a pully system installed. We would put our copy in a bucket and punch a button to send it upstairs to be typeset,” she said. “When production sent us something to change or edit, they would send the bucket down to us. If we needed to communicate, we had to go upstairs to production.”

Hunt remembers well the days when something newsworthy happened in town, and the residents would flock to The Herald’s offices to learn more because they couldn’t wait until it was printed in the newspaper the next day.

Eventually, Hunt was promoted to society editor, and her title later changed to women’s editor.

“Then I was named city editor, and later executive editor, a position I held for 10 years,” she said. She was the first female editor of the newspaper and the first female in many of her roles on various civic boards and at newspaper conferences.

Denison lies in north Texas along the Red River, where it hugs the Oklahoma state line. According to the U.S. Census, the town’s population is 24,380.
Denison is best known as the birthplace of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Hunt enacted her first retirement in 1994, two years before The Denison Herald merged with The Sherman Democrat. She became manager of the Eisenhower Birthplace State Park, a position she held for six years. When she returned to journalism in 2000, she returned to a different newspaper.

On July 23, 2019, the Herald Democrat published a column by Hunt detailing the history of the newspapers that covered Denison even before it was officially established as a town. Denison was described as a “city that did things,” Hunt reported. And many small newspapers came and went as the area grew and developed.

The Denison Herald was founded in 1889 and was independently owned until 1940, when Harte Hanks purchased it. The Sherman Democrat was started in 1879 and eventually landed in the hands of Donrey Media.

Harte Hanks owned The Denison Herald until 1988 when it was sold to Donrey, and in 1996, the two newspapers merged to form The Herald Democrat. Donrey eventually sold the newspaper to Stephens Media Group. Today, The Herald Democrat is a Gatehouse newspaper. Its print circulation is about 18,000.

“When I worked for the newspapers, competition between them was fierce. The towns are only 10 miles apart, and the publishers used to put a lot of pressure on their own staffs to be the first to get a big story,” Hunt said. “But I knew eventually The Denison Herald would merge with the Sherman Democrat.”

The second chapter of Hunt’s newspaper career lasted 20 years. After joining The Herald Democrat as a correspondent, she wrote one or two columns a week, mostly about local history, and over time, they added up. She reckons she wrote well over 2,050 columns and can’t begin to remember the number of awards she has won.

Hunt and her friend, Mavis Bryant, have collaborated on four books, including “My Life in Print,” a memoir detailing Hunt’s professional, community and personal life, published in 2015.

Last year, the Town of Denison declared Jan. 21, 2019, as Donna Hunt Day, and according to Hunt, it was the second time she had a day named in her honor. The first time was in 1994, marking her first retirement.

Hunt, who attended college at North Texas University, doesn’t have a formal journalism education. Over the years, she honed her talent through dedication, hard work and countless journalism workshops and training sessions. She has been a longtime member and leader in the National Federation of Press Women, a professional association of women in journalism. In 1989, she was named Communicator of Achievement by the Press Women of Texas and went on to NFPW to receive the National Communicator of Achievement award that same year.

She says having a day named in her honor made her feel good. “It shows the city council recognizes my contributions and they value me,” she said. According to Hunt, the council acknowledged that she demonstrated the highest professional quality and career achievement to the NFPW and served as the first female editor of The Denison Herald. The honor also recognized her service to the journalism profession and the community.
Hunt credits the newspapers themselves for her career success.

“Newspapers have cut back, and people have lost their jobs over the years. I’m fortunate that the two papers in my county came together and made one paper,” she said. “We were able to keep enough people to cover the news the way it should be covered.”

Still, she is nostalgic for the days before the internet, when media put a premium on reporting the news timely and accurately.

“I remember going back to the office after town council meetings and writing the stories for the next day’s newspaper,” she said. “Today, there’s no urgency for print, and if news happens on a Friday night, it doesn’t come out in the print newspaper until Tuesday.”

She is also not a fan of digital news. She and her husband take two newspapers — The Dallas News and The Herald Democrat. And even though both newspapers are smaller than in years gone by, she still loves to hold them in her hands. She believes that in the modern delivery of news and information, the complete story is lacking in much of the coverage.

“Older people seem to appreciate the standard version of news, but younger readers prefer their news in small bites — and in that case, whether through TV or online, they don’t get all the facts and sometimes don’t get the facts right,” she said.

But she is optimistic about the future and believes journalism will continue in some form. She hopes there will always be news coverage that is timely and fair.
Hunt, now freshly retired for the second time in her career, is pondering her third act. Brian Hander, a local Denison councilman, is a fellow history buff who recently restored a historic home and is working on restoring a historic building to serve as a research center. That’s where Hunt wants to donate her papers and columns chronicling Dennison’s history.

She penned a fond farewell to her readers in her final column and marked her dedication to the town through the history she has covered over the last 20 years.
“I hope that history is my legacy for the people of Denison, and if my plans for all the research material, books and copies of my stories and columns materialize, I think Denison will be proud. I know I will be.”

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