The hardest working reporter I never met
I recently cracked open the journalism scrapbook I’ve kept over the past quarter decade and sorted through the old, yellowed, news clips inside.
While sifting through numerous work-related memories, I happened upon an obituary story I wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram back in 1990.
The story revolved around an Erath County man named Autis McMahan.
I was a college student looking for newspaper writing work in the area at the time. Autis McMahan was a recently-deceased reporter. He had just died at age 79 from what hospital officials vaguely described as a “progressive illness.” I remember Mr. McMahan well – although I never met him.
I never shook the man’s hand. Nor did I ever hear his voice.
But honestly? Learning and writing about McMahan’s interesting history as a journalist left an indelible impression on me.
It inspired me. It supercharged my resolve to be the best reporter possible.
For someone whose influence on my life has lasted so long, Autis McMahan’s story ended quite a long time ago. He died on Jan. 18, 1990.
I doubt you’ll find Mr. McMahan’s name searching Google, Facebook or Twitter.
Unless you’re searching through an old Tarleton State University yearbook, you won’t be able to find that much about him at all —other than he worked as a full-time professor of business administration at TSU for over 40 years.
But Autis McMahan was a journalism legend in his day.
In some people’s estimation, he was one of the most vigorous newspaper reporters his particular area of Texas has ever produced.
For at least 30 years, he was known as “Mr. Fort Worth Star-Telegram of Erath County.”
So how did I end up writing about him?
I was his job replacement - the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s brand new Erath County correspondent. My very first assignment was to pen Autis McMahan’s obituary.
The research and reporting this assignment entailed was basically a crash course in McMahan’s storied history.
In 1958, Autis McMahan wrote one of his first news stories - about sonic boom damage in Hamilton, Hico, Dublin and Stephenville.
In addition to the many stories he wrote, Autis McMahan also offered tips to the S-T about news that was happening outside his bailiwick. These were things like fatal accidents. Kidnappings. Plane crashes. And robberies.
One of McMahan’s biggest strengths as a journalist was that he never felt confined to any geographic region. Editors say McMahan often volunteered for assignments well out of his coverage area.
Mr. McMahan gave Star-Telegram editors one particular tip about a plane crash in East Texas.
Having this information allowed the Star-Telegram to assign photographers and reporters to the scene within minutes. This was pretty impressive work covering a breaking news story that took place in the days before Internet or email.
McMahan constantly asked his Star Telegram editors to let him push the envelope and travel to new and exciting places with his coverage.
“Do you want me to go? I think I can make it if you want me to,” McMahan was typically known to say when offering tips about news developments. Autis McMahan did not receive a lot of financial compensation for his work. But the praise and respect he commanded from some of the most respected editors I knew really blew my mind.
The late Phil Record - a truly “old-school” Star-Telegram associate executive editor - was always a hard man to impress. But he had nothing but praise for Autis McMahan.
“Autis was one of the most active correspondents the Star-Telegram ever had,” Mr. Record told me in 1990. “It was people like Autis who helped build the Star-Telegram’s reputation as the voice of West Texas.”
Record told me that Autis McMahan’s enthusiasm was virtually without limit. He chased stories less like the senior citizen he actually was and more like a cub reporter in his early 20s.
At the time of my assignment to write Autis’ obit, I was in my junior year at Tarleton State University in Stephenville. I was a full-time student, a staff writer for the school newspaper The J-TAC, and a stringer for the Stephenville Empire Tribune.
I had precious few journalism heroes at the time.
On a different note, I have noticed that death can come into play in a very influential way when you’re learning something that will stay with you your entire life.
I had a weird brush with death in regard to a religion editor I worked with at the Galveston County Daily News the summer of 1990. (At the time, I was still in college and a summer journalism intern there.)
One day, as my internship there was just beginning, the managing editor of the Galveston County Daily News assigned me to help out this religion editor and write religion stories and features for his page.
But the very evening I received that assignment, the very worst possible thing happened: The religion editor died at home in his sleep. No warning at all.
The very next day, I inherited all the Galveston County Daily News religion editor’s writing responsibilities, which basically changed the entire scope of my internship.
Death changed things. Just like writing about Autis McMahan changed me.
The Autis McMahan obit story I wrote ended up running on Page 21 of the Star-Telegram’s Jan. 19, 1990, edition. And it was an honor to have my byline on the story.
Again, I never met Autis McMahan.
But I will always treasure and be inspired by the hard-charging manner in which he chased news stories.
I lament the absence of McMahan’s journalistic presence from the World Wide Web.
Had the Internet as we know it now existed back when he first started reporting, I can’t help but think Autis McMahan’s news bylines would have been EVERYWHERE.
Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally ran in the Glen Rose Reporter on Aug. 10, 2016 – during the period in which Ben Tinsley was its managing editor.
Ben Tinsley – a veteran Texas news reporter with over 25 years experience in the industry – is the Burleson Star’s new managing editor and senior reporter. He can be reached by cell phone, (702) 524-3773 or by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Tinsley can also be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/bentinsley, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ben.tinsley.12 , or https://plus.google.com/+BenTinsley