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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A journalist who shouldn't be forgotten

Saturday, March 4, 2006

Sixty years ago Saturday marked the beginning of permanent changes in Shelbyville journalism.

On March 4, 1946, sales of both the Bedford County Times and Shelbyville Gazette were announced.

The Times was purchased by Franklin and Johnnie Yates, whose family owned what became the Times-Gazette until two years ago. Most readers are probably familiar with Franklin Yates' many journalistic achievements.

But Bill Surber, then only 24, who became editor of the Gazette when it was bought by his parents, seems to have been forgotten.

Surber transformed the Gazette in all aspects, from writing to photography. One wonders what he could have done with today's technology.

His columns were so well-written that you get a real feel for 1940s Shelbyville. Here's how Surber saw the city after dark, from the Gazette of Sept. 19, 1946.


Shelbyville at night

The square drains itself after 10 o'clock.

Late movie goers and drug store patrons make up the last file of cars that wind away from the courthouse.

Here and there on the outskirts, a juke joint still spouts jive time with the jangle of a hillbilly band and the twang of a sharp guitar. The music cuts the silent, black night air that winds in under flashy neon lights.

Even this last nocturnal serenade disappears and blacks out shortly after midnight.

A walk around the square reveals long, silent lines of parked automobiles (giving light to the conjecture that half our population must live downtown). The store fronts are gaily lighted and display their wares to an empty street.

The clock atop the courthouse strikes the hour regularly, echoing and re-echoing with a hollow voice through a sleeping town.

A scraping noise is heard as sweepers from the City Hall take up their long, midnight to six vigil. The shadows of their brooms are grotesque against the pavement.

Silently, at regular intervals, a black car moves slowly around the square, up side streets and down alleys -- the police are on constant patrol.

An occasional out-of-town van clamors noisily up the Main Street grade. Now and then a taxi motor turns over angrily and a yellow light disappears on an infrequent call.

Only rarely does a pedestrian appear, making his way slowly against the shadow of the buildings.

As daylight peeps through the veil of night, the first commercial vehicles appear. With a bang the Nashville papers flop from a pick-up onto the corner by the Dixie Hotel. Morning newsboys appear on bicycles.

Early-morning restaurants fill with ham-and-eggers. The sweepers retreat wearily into the City Hall.

The town clock strikes six.

Shelbyville is awake.


The Gazette of those days seems much more "in touch" with Shelbyville, from a 2006 perspective, compared to the sedate Times. And they were progressive, going daily in November 1947, three months.

But the Gazette's days were numbered. Advertisers were allegedly complaining Bedford County was too small to support two newspapers.

So a merger took place in February 1948. Yates became publisher of the Times-Gazette with Surber as editor.

Little of the Gazette appeared in the new paper. The Times-Gazette was basically the Times with a new name. Even the Times' Old English-style nameplate, used since its 1886 founding, remained -- until 2005.

Within two months of the merger Surber, who I've always suspected must have been totally frustrated at the chain of events, was gone. He returned to the T-G for awhile about two years later and was managing editor of the Nashville Banner in the 1960s before dying relatively young in 1971.

The T-G appears to have developed modern versions of the Gazette's old elements within the past few years. Even the Times-Gazette's new nameplate bears a definite, yet totally unplanned, resemblance to the Gazette's.

I think Surber, whose work deserves recognition it apparently didn't get, would be proud of today's T-G. In a manner of speaking, the Gazette is back.

David Melson is a Times-Gazette copy editor/staff writer. Comments welcome: dmelson@t-g.com.

David Melson
On the Loose