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Pioneer Broadcaster Marie Whitehead dies at 88

The former owner of the Cherokeean Herald newspaper and radio stations KTLU-AM and KWRW-FM in Rusk and the widow of state Rep. Emmett H. Whitehead, Marie Hall Whitehead, 88, died Nov. 26, 2016, at her home in Rusk surrounded by family and loved ones.

The funeral will be held at 1:30 pm on Thursday, Dec. 1, at First United Methodist Church in Rusk; visitation will be from 6-8 pm Wednesday at Wallace-Thompson Funeral Home in Rusk.

Mrs. Whitehead and her late husband utilized the print and broadcast media platform they built to support causes benefitting Rusk and Cherokee County for 66 years. They successfully defended Rusk State Hospital when Austin auditors suggested closure in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s – saving almost 1,000 jobs.

She and Mr. Whitehead developed a mission statement for their paper: “A community newspaper is but a mirror, which reflects the community it serves.” That mantra was quickly followed by “local, local, local” regarding the content of the newspaper’s pages and the on-air content of the radio stations.

The Whiteheads moved to Rusk June 1, 1950, when newspaper production was called “hot type.”  In 1955, they were granted a license by the Federal Communications Commission to broadcast the city’s first and only AM radio station, KTLU-AM.  They expanded their media interests in 1981 to include an FM station, KWRW. The stations’ call letters were the initials of their two daughters. In 1992, she and Mr. Whitehead increased the power of the radio station from 3,000 watts to 25,000 watts – making it a regional, multi-county station.

Additional media interests included the purchase of E-Z Vision Cable Company in 1962, one of the pioneer cable television systems in the area. They sold the business in 1988 to what is now SuddenLink Cable.

She and her husband purchased the Alto Herald in 1978.

In 1989, she and Mr. Whitehead merged the Alto Herald and the Rusk Cherokeean newspapers forming what is now the Cherokeean Herald.

She returned to college to complete a degree in communications at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches in 1971.  After receiving her bachelor of arts, she earned a master of arts in 1975 from SFA.  Her 300-page dissertation on the history of the Rusk Cherokeean newspaper became the definitive treatise on establishing the newspaper as the oldest continuously published weekly in Texas. At the time, several other newspapers had claimed to be the oldest weekly.

In 2001, the Texas Historical Commission awarded a state historical marker recognizing the Cherokee County newspaper as the oldest weekly in the state – utilizing her research as the basis for the marker.

In 1952 she implemented an archival project at the newspaper which preserved back issues of the newspaper dating to 1919.  A microfilm project launched in 1952 became the source for digitized archives on the world wide web.  In 2009, her newspaper was the first in Texas to place its complete archives on The Portal to Texas History website.

During her early career at the newspaper in the 1950s, she initiated a column she ghost wrote for her husband, “Roundabout.”

As the community learned her identity as the writer, she changed the name of the column to “Mrs. Roundabout Talks Back,” where she discussed the week’s news of community births, deaths and upcoming events.  That column evolved to “Scene in Passing.”  She always concluded her columns with borrowed quotes and thought-provoking wisdom with the rhetorical question – “-until next week? mw.” 

In the late 1950s, she hosted a daily radio show, “Coffee Time,” dedicated to the comings and goings of local citizens.

In her position as newspaper editor, she connected with readers and often said she felt she was an ex-officio member of every church, club and service organization in Rusk. Mrs. Whitehead served on numerous boards and service organizations.

She was elected to the Rusk Independent School District Board in 1962, and presided when the current high school complex was constructed.  The board had the foresight to acquire more land than needed, anticipating future expansion of the area, which now includes an education complex anchored by the Rusk Intermediate School, Rusk Junior High School and Eagle Stadium.

After her school board term, she was appointed to the Region 7 Education Service Center Board of Directors, one of 20 regional education service centers statewide that participates in the planning, development, coordination, implementation and evaluation of educational programs.

She ran unsuccessfully for District 11 state representative in 1988, a position Mr. Whitehead held from 1972-80.

She was a charter board member of the Texas State Railroad Authority in 2005, a quasi-governmental oversight entity tasked with transitioning the popular tourist attraction from a state agency to private ownership.

Mrs. Whitehead was a charter member of Gateway Community Partners, formerly known as the Sheltered Workshop, in Cherokee County, a state agency dedicated to assisting those with mental and physical challenges.

She was an active member of First United Methodist Church in Rusk, a member of the church council, sang in the choir, played in the hand-bell choir, taught Sunday school for various age groups through the decades, and led youth groups through Methodist Youth Fellowship.

Mrs. Whitehead received numerous awards through her career, including the Rusk Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year in 1975 and the Businesswoman of the Year in 2010. The late East Texas historian Bob Bowman presented her with the Best of East Texas award in 2011.

In 2000, she received a plaque from the Texas Press Association for working 50 years as a journalist.  She served on numerous committees during her association with TPA and its regional chapter, the Texas Gulf Coast Press Association, and the newspaper received numerous awards for excellence.

She also received a statewide award, The Texas Road Hand, from the Texas Department of Transportation for public service promoting highways.

Mrs. Whitehead accepted a leading role in fundraising in 2002-03 when East Texas Medical Center announced plans to build the current medical facility north of Rusk. The city honored the Whiteheads with the Emmett and Marie Whitehead Heritage Park, a tourist information park featuring a train caboose. 

In 2013, she and her daughter Terrie Gonzalez donated hot type printing equipment from the Alto Herald to a printing museum at the Waco Herald Tribune. The print shop equipment is housed in a collection called “The Alto Room.”

She and Mr. Whitehead acquired land near Rusk in 1963 and raised Hereford cattle and quarter horses.

Lily Marie Hall Whitehead was born Aug. 29, 1928, the oldest of four children born to Mae Ellisor Hall Anderson and Wilburn Gibbs Hall of New Waverly.

The service will be officiated by the Rev. John Hawkins (Robinhawk) and the Rev. Bart Reddoch.

Active pallbearers are Charles Hassell, Lester Hughes, Mike Murray, Bob Goldsberry, Johnny Patterson, Quinten Boyd, Walter Session, all of Rusk; and Ferris Fain, Nacogdoches.

Honorary pallbearers are Sam Florian, John Birkelbach, both of Rusk;  Elton McCune, Jim Cromwell, both of Jacksonville; Donnis Baggett, College Station; Dan Kellum, Longview; and Sandy Allen, Baytown.

She is preceded in death by her husband of 54 years Emmett Holman Whitehead, her mother, father and brother Gene.

She is survived by two daughters:  Terrie and son-in-law Robert Gonzalez; and Dr. Wendee Whitehead and her life partner, Anne Matrone, all of Austin; one grandson, Chris Gonzalez and partner Penny Smyser, two granddaughters, Sandra Gonzalez and husband Nelson Sanz, all of Austin; and Lauren E. Gonzalez, Corpus Christi.

She is also survived by two sisters: Bonnye Ivy of Round Rock and Shirley Roberts of Dallas; four nephews and numerous cousins and extended family members.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorials be made to Heritage Center of Cherokee County, P.O. Box 974, Rusk, 75785; or the Rusk Public Library, 207 E. 6th St., Rusk, 75785.

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