Longtime Mount Airy News journalist and former lifestyle editor Eleanor Powell will be laid to rest today in a service scheduled for 2 p.m. in Mount Airy.
Powell died last week at the age of 90.
Powell, affectionately known as Miss Ellie by her former colleagues at The News, said during a 2012 interview that it was a high school internship that she began at the age of 17 that saw her life’s work .
As a high school graduate, she began working part-time in the newspaper, writing community news and publications, and writing a weekly column aimed at teenagers.
“I went into the building when I was 17 and never left,” she said with a laugh in 2012 when she was only a few days before her retirement.
She left the paper before this retirement – on two separate occasions. She married Joe “Pete” Powell in 1949, and after working with The News for several years, she and her husband raised a family. Miss Ellie took a few years off to raise her three children and returned to The News when the youngest of the three was old enough to go to school.
She retired in 2007 after having worked for the newspaper for 47 of the past 59 years.
It didn’t take long. Less than a month later, she had been talked out of retirement by then-publisher Gary Lawrence. She returned to the staff and took on her old cloak as Lifestyles editor and editor of the popular weekly Surry Scene, an important step in a tumultuous time in The News history.
Lawrence, Vice President of Heartland Publications for the Middlesboro Daily News in Middlesboro, Kentucky, recalled that time Monday. Heartland recently bought Mount Airy News along with several other North Carolina newspapers, and many of the Mount Airy News employees quit their jobs without notice.
Miss Ellie had chosen to retire during the change of ownership. Lawrence first came to Mount Airy temporarily to take over the running of the newspaper in the face of the strike.
“While I somehow managed to get a newspaper out with just a handful of employees and find people to fill vacancies, I managed to contact a few people in the community and seek advice from the remaining employees,” said Lawrence. “Without question, the most frequent and urgent response I received from all the advice was, ‘You need to put Eleanor Powell back in the paper.’ People love her and the stories she presents to the community. “
Lawrence reached out to Powell, who was on the beach and in no mood to chat after hearing rumors from former employees “how the new owners are cutting people, cutting benefits, cutting this and that,” said Lawrence.
He managed to convince her to sit down and speak to him on their return to Mount Airy – by which point Lawrence had been named editor of The News while he continued his duties as vice president of the company.
An hour-long meeting convinced Powell that the rumors were simply rumors that were not true to her. So Lawrence asked her to consider returning to The News.
“Understanding the situation fully and exactly how accomplished she really was, she outlined her salary, working conditions, and other guarantees of support for the paper, staff, and the community.”
Lawrence said his answer to each was a simple, “Yes, ma’am.”
After finding that she was okay with returning, Lawrence said he wanted to close the deal. “Okay, then we’ll put an announcement in tomorrow’s paper. I’ll see you on Monday morning at 8 a.m. She replied, “Oh no, I won’t show up until 10am and won’t start for a week from Monday.” And again I had no choice but to say “Yes, ma’am”.
When she returned, Lawrence said that his respect for her as a person and a journalist had grown.
“I would never cut the posts of everyone who stayed in the paper and worked their way off the next six months by saying it was the only reason we … survived this period, but I firmly believe that she was a key figure in stabilizing the rumor “bad guys, new owners” rather than “not so bad after all”.
“From a personal point of view, I loved her, cherished our time together and my admiration for her grew immensely. She was a force of nature, and while I am sad that she left, I would bet that she is likely reporting on a council meeting of significant importance in her new home ward. “
The stabilizing power that brought Miss Ellie back to the newsroom lasted for half a decade until she last retired in December 2012.
“I’ve done almost everything there is to do here,” she said at the time. Shortly after starting her internship, she was a permanent employee and did everything possible to produce the paper. Just before her retirement in 2012, Powell said she covered city council meetings, breaking news, photos of car wrecks and other news events, and wrote hundreds, maybe thousands of articles and columns over the years. She said she was even known to sell an ad or take a subscription order at various times throughout her career.
For much of her time at The News, Powell served as a lifestyle editor and wrote a weekly cooking column, a weekly feature article for Surry Scene that covered weddings, engagements and much of the newspaper’s social news. For most of the weeks during her tenure, Surry Scene was full of social and feature events. The newspaper also put together an annual cookbook that included recipes and cooking features it had written over the past year.
“Before I came to Mount Airy, I had heard from Ms. Ellie,” said current editor Sandra Hurley, who was general manager at the time of Powell’s 2012 retirement. “In discussions with editorial teams, the Mount Airy Society writer was cited as an example of how the work should be done. She was gracious, she was involved in the community and most of all, she wanted to share the stories of life in her city.
“There have been many times that an event didn’t move forward until Eleanor Powell said she was done getting all the pictures she needed. She was like a butterfly in the audience and smiled at many as she walked across the room, taking pictures, making names and asking questions. Civic clubs, schools, and church groups knew they could keep Ms. Ellie on their contact list and their work with Surry Scene over the years to record the good deeds and life events for our readers to share in those joys. “
Throughout her career, her writing has been recognized by the North Carolina Press Association, the NC State Food and Nutrition Program, the NC Lions, and other organizations.
While Powell was an accomplished journalist, that was hardly her only influence on the community. She was a founding member and a 60-year-old founding member of the Modern Gardeners Garden Club and served at various times as president, vice president, and chair of the club’s advertising committee.
Because of her expertise and experience in the Garden Club movement, she was appointed to the Mount Airy Appearance Commission, where she served numerous terms on that body.
“She will truly be missed and loved by so many, especially her friends here at The Mount Airy News,” said Hurley.
Her funeral service is on Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Central United Methodist Church on 1909 N. Main Street, Mount Airy. Rev. Danny Miller and Rev. Kennette Thomas to officiate. The burial takes place in Oakdale Cemetery. The family welcomes friends in the lobby next to the Church’s Family Life Center from 1:00 p.m. until the service hour. For public health reasons, participants are asked to wear a mask and practice social distancing.