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Kansas' oldest newspaper columnist gets news the 'yackadoodle' way [The Wichita Eagle :: BC-SRS-OLDEST-COLUMNIST:WI]

PROTECTION, Kan. - In a world where newspapers and reporters are often cussed and discussed, a 102-year-old Kansan quietly goes about the business of gathering news.

Meet Bonnie Brown, a Protection woman who many think is Kansas' oldest newspaper columnist.

"Do you know of anyone older?" asks Susan Edmonston, editor of the Protection Press, where "Bonnie's Blog" is published each week.

Brown's method of journalism doesn't involve Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook or Twitter.

"I don't want anything to do with computers," she says adamantly.

Instead, her style is done the old-fashioned way - with shoe leather and an inquiring mind as she walks from point to point in Protection each day gathering news.

"I wonder if any of you out there get tired of seeing me and reading my blog but you know strange as it may seem I have enjoyed the time since 2009. Hope things keep me able to do what I do."

Brown used to drive a car. She gave that up at age 98.

Her daughter, Vi Trummel of Wichita, says before her 4-foot, 5-inch tall mother stopped driving, it was not unusual to see the car on the streets of Protection.

"You'd see the car going but it looked like was nobody in it," Trummel said. "But there she would be, peeking over the steering wheel."

Brown said, "If nobody was around, I was out north of town putting the gas to her."

Located in southwestern Kansas near the Oklahoma border, Protection - with its 500 residents - is about 150 miles west of Wichita.

The town was founded in 1884 and supposedly named for a protective tariff favored in that year's presidential election. It made international news in 1955 and 1956 when it became the first town in the world to have each of its residents take the Salk vaccine for polio.

But for the most part, national and international news doesn't come from Protection. The Protection Press relies solely on local news and with locals, such as Brown, who tell the stories of small town life.

"We think we are so connected nowadays with phones, television, computers and all the digital communication," said Dave Webb, a Protection resident who contributes his own column each week.

"There is only one place you can get local news about Protection. It's not on the internet or broadcast station or radio. It's in the columns of the Protection Press."

Brown began writing for the Protection Press in 2009 when another columnist moved away. As each week's handwritten column of about four pages is handed in, Edmonston, the editor, said she makes few if any changes.

"Bonnie's Blog" focuses on a mix of tales, musings and happenings. It's down-to-earth, hometown talk.

"People get a kick out of reading a column of what this 102 year-old does during the week," Webb said. "She is busier than I am."

In the eight years she has been writing the column, Brown said she has only missed deadline once, due to illness.

"I am still on foot; not fast, but doing. Have even got some elastic in my clothes so I can wear them once again. Gee, I am a little ole slow lady and get slower every day. Oh well, such is the way we age."

Her column style - of reporting on who was in Protection, who went to visit who, what so-and-so is doing now - is a style of journalism that began to disappear in daily, and then weekly newspapers, in the 1970s and 1980s.

"It's a daily diary of what's happening around town," Webb said. "That kind of history isn't preserved anywhere else. People don't keep up journals, diaries and handwritten letters anymore."

GROWING UP BONNIE

Bonnie McGee was born Feb. 21, 1915, in Dilworth, Minn. A few years later, her family was living in Omaha.

"My mother died, and I was only 3. It left me and my sister who was younger," she said.

"After my mother died, (my father) had a wife but for some reason that didn't work. So he decided to leave us girls with family there but forgot to pay the bill. That family called my grandparents, and they sent a cousin up to bring us down to Oklahoma."

She grew up on a farm near Buffalo, Okla. She said she took care of the horses and chickens and milked the cows.

"I did just what every farm girl did," Brown said.

On Nov. 30, 1933 - during the height of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl storms - she married Rufus Brown. The couple were married 52 years until his death in 1986.

"He was a good-looking young man," she said.

Bonnie Brown always worked hard, as a waitress at Ruby's Cafe, Kathy's Cafe, Sam's Cafe and Don's Place in Protection. She knows everyone in town. And they know her.

"Well, Maxine Herd and I are now both 102. Wonderful that two Protection ladies hit this age.

"We gals still do our games; some are a mite early in the mornings but we are up and about so guess we don't bother anyone."

She remains a fabulous cook, canning jams and jellies each year, baking pies and preparing succulent feasts for family and friends.

She talks about her height - or lack of it. Every so often she has to take the elastic up in her pants, she says, due to shrinkage.

Brown wakes each morning at 4 a.m. and fixes her breakfast of sausage, eggs, toast and fruit. She showers, dresses and is ready to play games.

On Mondays and Fridays, from 6:30 to 10 a.m., it's dominoes. On other days, it is Rummikub and bingo.

"I spent so many years working in the cafe and my hour to start was 6 in the morning," Brown said. "You don't get over that because your body is used to getting up.

"If you can't sleep, you might as well get up."

WRITING

Bonnie's blog is an eclectic mix of populism.

"We visit. We yackadoodle," she said of her newsgathering style. "I look for things I know people might be interested in."

When it comes to writing her blog, Brown writes everything down on a notepad with pen. She has the dramatic flair of Jimmy Fallon writing thank you notes - writing and saying the words out loud.

"I just write whatever comes in my mind," Brown says. "It may take me awhile. I just piddle and think maybe this will work."

"Our Bingo players from the Court enjoyed the evening and Billie Riner and Susan Edmonston also made it," she wrote on Feb. 19, 2015. "We did miss Faye and our Coldwater gals. Sunday found Mary Holler, Edith Whitford, Elveta Keller and I headed to the Mardi Gras dinner and we didn't win any of the prizes but by golly we tried."

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(c)2017 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at www.kansas.com

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