Back in the early days of The Shinbone Star, Gaynell Terrell sent me some photographs from around where she was living at the time. I don’t know if she took the pictures herself or got them from a friend, but as the newest staff member of our virtual newspaper, she thought we needed someplace solid to hang our hats.
The reality is, the reports you read on our site come from living rooms in New Jersey, Florida, Washington state, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, Canada, and until recently, Louisiana. I’m the only link between one old newsroom in Texas and another old newsroom in New Jersey, which means a lot of the people I drafted to help at The Shinbone Star have never met one another.
Last night we walked out of our virtual newsroom and into our virtual bar, where we raised glasses of whiskey — some virtual, some not — to honor one of our own. We had just learned that Gaynell Terrell — lately known as Bluebird — had filed her last report.
Truth is, it’s hard to write an obituary for Gaynell. Sure, I could call up some internet stories and copy meaningless facts, like how she was about to turn 62, that her sister died just a couple weeks ago, and that she’s survived by an elderly father and uncle. But none of that does anything to address how I feel about her, and doesn’t begin to tell you what I think you ought to know.
Shinbone Star colleague Deborah Quinn Hensel understands:
“I was a 39-year-old intern at The Houston Post, probably trying too hard to do as well or better than some of the interns a little more than half my age. I remember running around from the copy desk to my desk, trying to answer all of Jay Dorman’s piercing questions. I was wearing this little silver pinkie ring that had a tiny ball-shaped bell on it. It didn’t “ring” per se — but it had a very high-pitched tinkling noise. I swear, I must have been so used to it on my hand all the time that I tuned it out and didn’t realize what an irritant it must have been. Gaynell’s superpower was her hearing. And she must have been under stress and on a deadline, because she screamed out ‘Whoever’s ringing that damn bell better stop right now.’ Honestly, it took me about two minutes to realize it was me. But that was my first introduction to Gaynell, and when it was over, a bunch of people came up and told me privately they’d all had their moments with her. But in the end, you have to respect that about her. She took no crap and pulled no punches. My kind of gal.”
That’s a real story with real grit from a real newsroom — nothing virtual about it — and it gets us closer to what Gaynell meant to us. Newsrooms have attitudes, and our Bluebird had it in spades.
How many times did I panic when Donald Trump had done something particularly despicable, nobody on the staff was inclined to lift a finger, and Gaynell would message me, “Alright dammit, I’m doing it … again!”
There were weeks when she carried us, but there was more to it than that, it was her fire and love for what we were doing that made me feel younger and motivated to try harder. Quit? Close down The Shinbone Star? Perish the thought! Here was someone who, by god, thought our little enterprise mattered, and even thanked me for giving her the opportunity to work for free. She loved the fact that she and the rest of our crew of ex-journalists had a venue to express our opinions and to feel that we were still in the game. We weren’t contributing much, perhaps, but at least we were doing something!
More than any photograph of a rustic typewriter or a frontier newsroom, it was Gaynell by the sheer force of her will who took our virtual newsroom and turned it into a real one.
Shinbone colleague Mastatalka never met Gaynell in real life, but remembers the time he dared to edit one of her carefully crafted stories and received this message from her:
“Hi. I am not making a big deal of this. But. I am not a fan of quick, choppy paragraphs. If you chop them up, I’ll have to start writing complicated sentences without a period. a la ee cummings Seriously, can we compromise somewhere here? I’ll be super aware of paragraph length if you’ll give me a little leeway. (You’re entitled to call me a damn writer.)”
You usually don’t get that kind of fire from someone who’s toiling for free, but there was something about Donald Trump that made Gaynell want to overachieve. This was war, and she relished her role in helping to take the sonofabitch down.
Fresh from a tongue-lashing, Mastatalka, to his credit, loved every minute of it. In Gaynell he recognized someone who belonged to the same journalistic fraternity:
“For me I remember her yelling at me about breaking up her paragraphs. It reminded me about why we do this. She threatened to write them longer — I loved that.”
Not everyone loves The Shinbone Star, and I’m not even talking about Republicans. Some journalists say we’re embarrassing ourselves because we ignore journalistic ideals, like keeping ourselves out of our own stories or daring to express an opinion. But Gaynell, who was a better journalist than most of those people ever dreamed of being, was all in. She understood that the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate are under unprecedented attack by an outlaw president, and this is no time for business as usual. Let paid journalists at The New York Times and Washington Post do the heavy lifting, but to Gaynell, that didn’t mean some long-in-the-tooth retirees didn’t still have a role to play. She gave everything she had for as long as she had, and she didn’t do it for money, but because it was the right thing to do. And in the final analysis, what higher journalistic standard can there be?
Shinbone colleague Anne-Marie, who also never stood in the same newsroom with Gaynell, offered these words for someone she came to love and respect:
Beautiful, brave spirit,
You’re taken your flight.
Now it is time to rest.
From your lofty nest, look down on us,
And give us your passion and your strength.
Help us to carry on
Without your song.