Paul Prather

Paul Prather: Reflections on my days of sitting next to outspoken Herald-Leader columnist Merlene Davis

Merlene Davis
Merlene Davis

When I read columnist Merlene Davis' announcement that she was leaving the newspaper this past Friday to take early retirement, I had a bit of trouble processing what she was saying.

I couldn't imagine the Herald-Leader without Merlene. She's been here as far back as I can remember. She's a force of nature. She's an institution.

Merlene's one of those people you think will always be around.

I guess not.

Although I still contribute a weekly column as a free-lancer, I haven't worked on the newspaper's staff since 1997. I email my writings to an editor and probably don't visit the newsroom more than once every year or two, if that.

Thus, except for seeing her in print, I'd kind of lost touch with Merlene.

But from 1990 to 1997, when I worked full-time as the newspaper's religion writer, I sat next to her in the open, and in those days populous, newsroom.

Our desks adjoined. We were crammed in cheek to jowl. She couldn't help but hear all my conversations, no matter how private, and I couldn't help but hear hers.

Sitting beside her was, well — let's just say it was an experience.

I'm pretty sure Merlene never met a subject or a person she didn't have an opinion about. And she wasn't shy about expressing her opinions.

To anyone. Readers. Editors. Publishers. Me. You never had to wonder where Merlene stood.

But she was also funny. I remember when, early on, my wife, Renee, stopped by one afternoon to pick me up for dinner.

"So, you're Paul's wife?" Merlene said.

Renee nodded.

Merlene clasped Renee's hand. "Oh, I am so sorry."

Renee, a bit taken aback, half-smiled. Then she said, "You have no idea."

That quick, they were comrades.

Outnumbered, I slunk off to the restroom.

Over the years, Merlene routinely berated me for being a clueless husband. For being a man. For being clueless about race. For being a redneck. For — well, for existing.

Sometimes, worn down, I'd abandon any defense, shrug and go, "Yes, Merlene. No, Merlene. Whatever you say, Merlene."

Occasionally, she'd ask my opinion about some matter or another.

I'd answer, "Well, I suppose I ought not have any opinion, and if I did have one it would, by definition, be wrong."

She'd nod approvingly. "You're catching on."

Truth is, I learned a lot about her, and a lot from her.

I saw what a loving, conscientious mother and wife she was.

I saw what a devoted Christian she was.

I saw how seriously she took her job as an unofficial voice for Central Kentucky's minorities and underdogs.

I saw her stark, undeniable bravery.

She wrote a lot of columns about overt and systemic racism.

In those days, readers responded to us with old-fashioned letters, the kind with envelopes and stamps.

Merlene probably drew more hate mail than anyone else in the newsroom.

I'd watch her open the latest stack of envelopes: vile drawings, insults, epithets, threats of violence. Basically every day.

"You know," I told her after a particularly nasty batch of correspondence had arrived, "when one of these loonies finally comes stomping through the newsroom to get you with his AK-47 — I'm directly in the line of fire."

She snorted. And set about refueling her journalistic flamethrower for the next column. So much for the line of fire.

She wouldn't back down. Never did.

When you agreed with her and when you didn't, you had to admit the woman had guts. She was tough.

I'll tell you something else about Merlene.

Eight years after I'd left the Herald-Leader's staff, my wife, Renee, died.

At the wake, way over in Mount Sterling, in walked Merlene. She'd come to pay her respects. I've never forgotten that.

Congratulations on your retirement, Merlene. You fought the good fight.

And I suspect that between games of shuffleboard and dominoes, you'll still find some forum for which to refuel that flamethrower.

Long may you wave.