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Goodbye Edith

Published December 17. 2011 09:01AM

I was introduced to her years ago at a newspaper conference in Harrisburg.

Friend and co-worker Pattie Mihalik said, "Donnie, I want you to meet my friend Edith." I was impressed from the start.

Edith Hughes lived in Monroeville and worked for Gateway Publishing - executive editor in charge of newspapers and magazines in western Pennsylvania. At a personal level, she was a petite, mature woman who dressed impeccably and wore fancy jewelry. Professionally, she pursued perfection.

Edith was a 1951 journalism grad of the University of Pittsburgh, from the old school. She began writing at age 15 and had spent a lifetime in the field. Edith believed in the power of community journalism and devoted herself to the idea that accuracy and details are important. She expected a high level in terms of quality. In other words, Edith felt that newspaper stories shouldn't merely be acceptable. They had to be excellent.

Over the years, Edith, Pattie and I sat together at conferences, seminars and dinner presentations. We'd discuss newspaper writing, invariably arriving at the big question: 'What makes a story excellent?'

In pursuit of the answer, Edith was active with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and encouraged her staff to attend improvement seminars. She asked Pattie and me to address the writers and editors at those seminars. Actually, Pattie had been doing it for many years. I was a newcomer, and humbled to be asked to contribute.

In my opinon, Edith was the grand dame of journalism in the west. I figured she'd inherited that title after the passing of legendary Huntingdon writer Jo Biddle McMeen.

Edith was fussy about everything - even at dinner. If the food didn't meet her standards, she'd send it back. Edith always knew what she wanted and what she expected. For example, she insisted that male journalists wear a necktie, always.

She was an advocate for statewide writing competition. She felt that writing awards were a barometer to measure and sustain a high level of journalism. But there is never room for egos. And there is no such thing as resting on your laurels. Readers can toss away a daily newspaper at the end of the day. A journalist's best work goes into the trash. Of course, today's Internet has changed that fact.

"You're only as good as your next story," Edith always said. Truer words were never spoken.

Edith and I continued to meet regularly, even after Pattie retired and moved away. We'd meet at State College or Gettysburg or Harrisburg. I continued to speak at Edith's statewide seminars, too. At one point, she was honored with a lifetime achievement award. She deserved it. She constantly motivated others. I saw it firsthand when my mother died and I intended to stop writing. Edith wouldn't hear of it. She implored me to stay the course. She wouldn't take no for an answer.

In the past few years, Edith improved upon her flawless appearance. We were together in State College in May. She looked better than ever - a stylish new hairdo, and a new, more glamorous visage. She seemed to glow and radiate - and I told her so. I made a big fuss and she blushed. At almost 80, Edith was at her peak, and I believe she knew it.

Oddly, I hadn't heard from her since then. No more emails. Several days ago I learned why. Edith is gone. She passed away in September. Edith died from complications of a sudden stroke. According to an obit, she had worked right up until the end, assigning newspaper stories from her hospital bed. I can just picture her doing it.

The loss of Edith Hughes is a blow to Pennsylvania journalism. We just can't replace that kind of commitment.

How I wish I could talk to her one more time. I had told her how special she looked, but never told her how special she was.

I don't know what happens after we leave here. But whatever it is, Edith is ready.

Edith is always ready for the next story, whatever that story might be. And she'll make sure it's the best.

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