When I came to Paragould on June 21, 1995, I wasn’t looking for a job as a journalist. I wasn’t even looking for a job as a newsman.

I was just looking for a job.

And after 26 years (in one form or another) of news gathering, I am retiring at the end of this month. I still enjoy the work, but I turned 70 back in September. It’s time to go.

As I look back on the years I’ve gathered news, I have memories that will stay with me forever. And I’d’ve had none of them but for the opportunities provided me by both the old Northeast Arkansas Tribune and this Paragould Daily Press. (Plus a few in the interim from the Dexter, Mo. Daily Statesman, truth be told.)

Back then, all I knew about news writing was how to spell “AP.” But I like to think I learned quickly enough to do a decent job.

I remember the Farm Family of the Year special sections, going all the way back to my first one, Ron Pigue’s family in 1995. Even more than that, I remember being told to go to the selection meeting at which he and his family were chosen – with a week and a half on the job!

I remember Mark Brawner (then Cooperative Extension Agency staff chair) taking nominees (a total of six that year) and then asking the nominators to say a few words about their nominees. Thereafter we were to rank-order the nominees in terms of who we thought should receive the award.

To my astonishment, those I’d chosen matched those the committee chose, right down the line. (What did I do right?)

I remember my first fatal wreck, in 1996. Not because of any gore (totally absent) but because of the care and gentleness the ambulance crew showed toward the victim. Even now I see the same professionalism and care being shown for accident and other victims, living and otherwise, among medical, fire, police and sheriff’s department personnel. Well done!

I remember the almost total freedom of action I got in what to cover, both at the Tribune and here at the Daily Press. That’s why you saw stuff here that got little in-depth coverage elsewhere, like the 2019 visit of The Wall That Heals. The support for the effort from the Greene County community in general and its leaders in particular to bring the Wall here brought tears to the eyes of this Vietnam-era veteran: maybe the Air Force never saw fit to send me over there, and maybe our side didn’t win. But I think our efforts there were just one campaign in the larger Cold War, which we won in the end. And the outpouring of this community sure looked like a heartfelt “Thank you” to me. I was proud to cover it.

I’m grateful for the assistance I got from just about every source I contacted in the course of my coverage since I started. After experiencing some initial reluctance to talk to the media, I eventually wound up on a first-name basis with most of them, typified by the following exchange of salutations:

Me: Hey, bwoah! (you can call folks “boy” when you’re older than all of them!)

Greene County judge Rusty McMillon: Gah-REE!

I remember with gratitude the compliments I’ve gotten on my work. I remember (for example) then-mayor Mike Gaskill: “You know, he can take three minutes of information, and get five stories out of it!” Thanks, Mike!

I remember when the Greene County Tech school board voted (to my immense gratification) to add the Air Force Junior ROTC program back in 1996:

Member Danny Breckenridge: We need this program!

Chair Dennis Ellington: I’ll take that as a motion to approve ...

Imagine my surprise to meet once again the program’s first instructor, Lt. Col. (ret.) Curt Betebenner. We’d been stationed together at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, from 1977-79 as first lieutenants. My men and I fixed the F-4s he and his fellow pilots flew.

I remember our National Guardsmen returning from Iraq in September 2007. One of my very liberal colleagues exclaimed that the outpouring of joyous emotions upon their return to the Armory “almost made me feel conservative.” “Patriotism is non-partisan,” I gently reminded her.

I remember returning to The Daily Press five years ago, astonished by the total turnaround in local party politics. The people hadn’t changed, but the party with which most had identified for decades had. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” said then-JP candidate Ronnie Wood in quoting Ronald Reagan to exemplify the change, “the Democratic Party left me.”

Alas, there are far too many good memories for available space, let alone all the columns I’d’ve written had time been available. (Talk about a target-rich environment!)

So I bid you all farewell. And to my conservative friends, I’m gonna steal from their context the reported last words of Count Alfred von Schlieffen: Keep the right wing strong!

Gary Exelby retires Dec. 31 from The Daily Press. Thereafter he can be reached at garyxlb@yahoo.com.

Gary Exelby retires Dec. 31 from The Daily Press. Thereafter he can be reached at garyxlb@yahoo.com.

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