Bulldawg Illustrated continues its series, featuring long-time UGA personalities of the Fourth Estate. There are many who are published authors along with network television superstars. Our final installment of the season spotlights Darien’s (Georgia) Kathleen Russell, who is the owner of the Darien News and current president of the Georgia Press Association. Russell and publishers like her pride themselves on being watchdogs for their community.
When Kathleen Russell became president of the Georgia Press Association, she had this to say about her lifelong commitment to the Darien News: “Local journalism is the backbone of every community, and it is the mission of the GPA to strengthen the role we play in supporting the facts and truth to the people of Georgia.” That certainly is a noteworthy preachment.
Nothing could excite her more than to learn that an industry or small business has chosen Darien as their home address, enhancing the economic status for the seat of McIntosh County, but she believes she owes her constituency more.
She is pleased to publish photos and accounts of weddings; it is a big deal when the local 4-H Club has a member who distinguishes himself or herself in a way that warrants award winning recognition. Small town editors are eager to publish those stories. You catch the biggest fish on the Altamaha River, and Kathleen is eager to print your photo with your catch on the front page of her newspaper. Fishing is that important in those parts.
Community papers are as much a fabric of small towns across America as the stately courthouses which dominate the main square of the town. The paper is the much appreciated town crier for the communities they serve.
Recently when I talked to her, she was downright euphoric that there is a new boutique hotel in town, “Oaks on the River.” She was emotionally moved to extol the virtues of the latest business to set up shop in Darien. “Oh boy, oh boy,” she said: “What an asset that is to our community. We have an opportunity to attract visitors to our neck of the woods to enjoy the last frontier on the Atlantic seaboard which is what McIntosh County is.”
Before the conversation ended, she lamented the downturn in the shrimping industry, hurting for the families who simply can no longer afford the cost of insurance, fuel, and other basics to stay in business. Some soldier on, and Kathleen will be there with her photographer for the Blessing of the Fleet, an annual celebration for the opening of shrimping season next March. Kathleen cares about her community.
While Kathleen is an advocate of all that is good for Darien, she will not tolerate anything sinister or underhanded with a public official who is bent on lining his pockets. If you have a business that might pollute the Altamaha River, you’ll have the biggest adversary, who has ever learned to type, ready to spit in your eye.
You could say that comes naturally in that the peaceful atmosphere that hovers over this town today, which is little more than a stone’s throw from Interstate 95, was once a bastion for clip joints which shook down out-of-state travelers when they passed Darien’s way as they journeyed to Florida.
Because her principled, moral and courageous father, Charles Williamson, wouldn’t shirk into the background and let illegal conduct flourish, Darien’s good triumphed evil. Darien’s underworld had a stranglehold on the area for the longest time, but Charlie Williamson would not back off.
His family was threatened, daily harassment ensued until her dad escaped on a shrimp boat to the Dry Tortugas awaiting a certain local judge to leave office. All this time, Kathleen, her brother and her mother hid out with friends.
It is hard to imagine such a situation in today’s idyllic Darien, but it is a fact that an unscrupulous hell was a way of life along yesteryear’s US. 17 where slot machines, prostitution, graft and corruption prevailed.
Eventually the criminal element burned the family newspaper to the ground, but with the help of Dink Nesmith, who owned the Jesup Sentinel, Kathleen’s family kept right on publishing their paper.
When Kathleen was graduated from the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia, she returned home to join her family in publishing the Darien News.
She slept with a loaded shotgun in the bed beside her.
Thankfully not many weekly publishers and editors have gone through her experience, but it tells you something about the importance of newspapers in our society and what they have meant to communities across our country. If you know the rest of Kathleen’s story, you have to wonder why her father did not win the Pulitzer Prize. For sure he deserved it.
Another takeaway from her story is that if you belong to the element who likes to kick the media, then ask yourself what it would be like if we did not have the editor watchdogs who look after our communities’ best interests, those who ignore the threats and underhandedness—even risking their lives—to do what is right for the communities they serve.
I’m going to do my part to make Kathleen smile. I am going to rent a room at “Oaks on the River,” as soon as I can get there, order a fried shrimp platter at B and J’s Steaks and Seafood Restaurant, and paddle the Altamaha River. Also, I plan to be there next spring for the Blessing of the Fleet.
While I am on the river, I will bow in memory of Charlie Williamson and say aloud, “Thank you.”
It’s Thanksgiving and I’m thankful for journalism and community and weekly newspaper editors.