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Longtime Mount Airy News reporter and former Lifestyles editor-in-chief Eleanor Powell will be laid to rest today in a service scheduled for 2 p.m. in Mount Airy.
Powell died last week at the age of 90.
Powell, known affectionately to her former colleagues at The News as Miss Ellie, said in a 2012 interview that it was a high school internship she started at the age of 17 that had put on her life’s work.
As a high school student, she began working part-time at the newspaper, typing community news and releases, and writing a weekly column aimed at teenagers.
“I entered the building when I was 17 and never left,” she laughed in 2012, when she was just days away from retirement. .
She left the newspaper before this retreat – twice. She married Joe “Pete” Powell in 1949, and after working with The News for a few more years she and her husband started a family, so Miss Ellie took a few years to raise her three children, returning to The News when the youngest of the three was old enough to start school.
In 2007, after working at the newspaper for 47 of the previous 59 years, she retired.
It didn’t last long. Less than a month later, she was ousted from retirement by then-publisher Gary Lawrence. She has joined the staff, returning to her former role as editor-in-chief of Lifestyles as well as editor-in-chief of the popular weekly publication Surry Scene, a key milestone during a tumultuous time in The News’ history.
Lawrence, who was a vice president of Heartland Publications operating out of the Middlesboro Daily News in Middlesboro, Ky., Recalled this period on Monday. Heartland had recently purchased the Mount Airy News, along with several other North Carolina newspapers, and many Mount Airy News staff left their jobs without notice.
Miss Ellie had chosen to retire during the ownership transition. Lawrence came to Mount Airy, initially on a temporary basis, to take over the direction of the newspaper in light of the walkout.
“While managing to publish a newspaper with only a handful of employees and trying to find people to fill the vacancies, I managed to reach out to a few people in the community and seek advice from the remaining staff,” he said. Lawrence said. “There is no doubt that the most frequent and forceful response I got from all of this advice was, ‘You have to bring Eleanor Powell back’ in the journal. People love her and the stories she presents to the community.
Lawrence contacted Powell, who was at the beach and was in no mood for a chat after hearing rumors spread by former staff about “how the new owners were going to cut people, cut benefits, cut this and that, ”Lawrence said.
He was able to convince her to sit down and speak with him upon his return to Mount Airy – by that time Lawrence had been appointed editor of The News, while retaining his role as vice president of the company.
An hour-long meeting managed to convince Powell that the rumors were just that – rumors with no truth to them, so Lawrence asked him to consider returning to The News.
“Fully understanding the situation, and in concert with exactly how savvy she really was, she described her salary, working conditions and other guarantees to support the newspaper, the employees and the community.
Lawrence said his response to each was a simple “Yes, ma’am.”
After realizing she was okay with returning, Lawrence said he wanted to close the deal. “Okay, we’ll put an ad in tomorrow’s paper, I’ll see you at 8 am Monday morning.” His line was “Oh no, I don’t show up until 10 am and I don’t start until a week on Monday”, and once again I had nowhere to go but “Yes, ma’am”.
Upon her return, Lawrence said he had grown in her respect for her as a person and a journalist.
“I would never diminish the contributions of anyone who stayed at the journal and worked their tails for the next six months saying she was the only reason we … survived that time, but I firmly believe that she played a key role in stabilizing the rumor. “Bad, new owners” like “not so bad after all”.
“From a personal point of view, I came to love her, to cherish our time together and my admiration for her grew. She was a force of nature and while I’m sad she’s gone, I bet all I’ve got, she’ll likely cover a board meeting of significant importance in her new home community.
The stabilizing force that Miss Ellie brought back to the newsroom continued for half a decade, until she last retired in December 2012.
“I did almost everything there was to do here,” she said at the time. Shortly after starting her internship, she found herself a regular member of the staff, doing whatever was necessary to produce the document. Shortly before her retirement in 2012, Powell said she covered city council meetings, breaking news, taking pictures of auto wrecks and other current events, and writing hundreds if not thousands of articles and columns over the years. She said she had even been known to sell an ad or take a subscription order at different points in her career.
For much of her time at The News, Powell was editor-in-chief of Lifestyles, writing a weekly cooking column, a weekly article for Surry Scene, covering weddings, engagements and much of the newspaper’s social news. . For most of the weeks of his tenure, Surry Scene was filled with social events and feature films. The journal also compiled an annual cookbook containing recipes and cooking features that she had written over the past year.
“Before coming to Mount Airy, I had heard of Ms. Ellie before,” said current editor Sandra Hurley, who was managing director when Powell retired in 2012. “In conversations about editorial teams, the Society’s writer at Mount Airy was cited as an example of how the job should be done. She was gracious, she was involved in the community, and most of all she wanted to share the stories of life in her city.
“There were many times an event couldn’t move forward until Eleanor Powell said she was done getting all the photos she needed. She was like a butterfly in the audience, bringing smiles to many, as she walked around the room, taking pictures, taking names and asking questions. Civic clubs, schools and faith groups knew how to keep Ms. Ellie on their contact list and her work with Surry Scene over the years has recorded good deeds and life events so our readers can share those joys.
During his career, his writing has won awards from the North Carolina Press Association, the NC State Food and Nutrition program, the NC Lions, and other organizations.
While Powell was an accomplished journalist, this was hardly her only impact on the community. She was a founding and life member for 60 years of the Modern Gardeners Garden Club, serving on several occasions as president, vice-president of the club and chair of the publicity committee.
Because of her expertise and experience in the garden club movement, she was appointed to the Mount Airy Appearance Commission, where she served many terms in that organization.
“She will be truly missed, and she was loved by so many people, especially her friends here at the Mount Airy News,” Hurley said.
His funeral service will be held at Central United Methodist Church, 1909 N. Main Street, Mount Airy on Wednesday at 2 p.m. with Rev. Danny Miller and Rev. Kennette Thomas officiating. Interment will follow at Oakdale Cemetery. Family will receive friends from 1 p.m. to service time in the hall adjacent to the church’s family life center. Due to public health concerns, participants are asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing.