Reva resident Kathleen Hoffman tells all in her eloquently written new book, “Little Papers are Journalism, Too,” about the people, places and situations she encountered in local newspapering 50 years ago in small-town Culpeper.
A reporter, editor and photographer for the Culpeper Star-Exponent and Culpeper News from 1966 to 1984, Hoffman—then Kathleen Crawford—came to town as a 23-year-old recent college graduate of Mary Washington College, launching a career that would present one interesting situation after another in a time very different from today.
Growing up in Albemarle County, Hoffman decided she was going to be a journalist in high school, a choice she made “arbitrarily,” she recalled, when another “cool kid” announced it as their job path.
“My mother wanted me to be a nun,” she said in a recent sit-down interview in the same building, the old Safeway on East Spencer Street, where she worked for the Star-Exponent.
At that time, acceptable professions for women also included teacher, nurse or secretary, said 75-year-old Hoffman. “I did not want to be any of the above.”
So she majored in English, got her degree and started working the beat under her first editor, Bill Diehl, who “was sort of Santa shaped, smoked like a madman, and was easily sent into paroxysm of overwrought but temporary anger, leading to coughing fits from the aforementioned cigars,” Hoffman writes in her book. “But despite a quickly flaring temper and a searing gift for sarcasm, he was a set of paradoxes that added up to a nice man.”
Diehl was definitely a mentor, the author said, and is a big part of her book. Married with five children, the editor had a wife who was “really firm” with him, so he stayed mostly in line, Hoffman said.
“He was a sexist if there ever was one—full of sexist comment and anti-women jokes—but he never treated me as less than equal,” she said. “Thinking back, that was pretty remarkable.”
Like today, Hoffman covered everything going on around town—courts, local government, fires, car accidents, tragedies, history and the frequent quirky occurrences. Case in point, the very first issue of the newspaper she worked on featured a large photo of an Angus bull.
“With him was his owner, Lewis L. Strauss, former chair of the Atomic Energy Commission and friend of Dwight D. Eisenhower,” Hoffman writes. “This is an excellent illustration of a theme that ran through newspapering as practiced in Culpeper: it was a very small town, but odd people and fairly significant happenings kept turning up there. That was partly because the town was only about 60 miles from Washington, and things of national import kept spilling over, and partly just because it seemed to attract oddness.”
Culpeper is a fascinating place, the author said, and the book tells why. The 234-page chronicle followed four years of research and writing after Hoffman retired in 2013 from her second career, spending 21 years with the Association of Social Work Boards in Culpeper. Full of humor, impeccable detail and inside scoop, the book covers the technological and financial changes in the world of media from 1966 to present as well as rantings about the value of the journalism profession.
“In the present day climate of dueling accusations of fake news and apparent corruption on all sides, my conviction is that newspapers do indeed have ethics,” Hoffman writes. “Reporters and editors for the most part aren’t rich, they don’t have jets or gold faucets, but what they have is perhaps outsized belief in the importance of what they do and a conviction that they should do it honestly and properly. I know I did.”
The young reporter knew how to keep her distance.
“In my job, I really was a set of eyes and ears for others, and I didn’t often react on a personal level to what was happening, good or bad,” Hoffman writes. “Part of my detachment, no doubt, was the insensitivity of youth, and part was a determination to do what I was supposed to do even when it was boring or frightening of even grisly – which it sometimes was. I was on hand for each meeting of the Culpeper County Board of Supervisors, every noteworthy traffic accident, and even a horrible incident in the darkness during which cattle were flung off a railway trestle by a speeding train, and my feelings were seldom involved in any of it.”
The young reporter, aptly so, lived in a nearby old home divided into apartments on North Main Street owned by ancestors of the Angus McDonald Green who started the Exponent in 1881. She married a neighbor, Jack Hoffman, in 1968 (to whom she is still married), and spent two years at home caring for their daughter, Jennifer, before returning to life as a small-town journalist.
Hoffman could not stay away, paving the path for the working mothers to come. Holding it all together was certainly a juggling act.
“I went to work at three and Jack got off at five. He went by the sitter’s to pick Jennifer up; I’d come home and cook a quick dinner, and then go back to the office while Jack attended to bath and bedtime. The anxious mother (and I certainly was that) was still around, but I managed to pick up my reporter persona where I had abandoned it,” Hoffman writes. “Again I was pulled firmly into the day-to-day routine and occasional drama of doing what needed to be done to put the paper to bed by midnight – hopefully much later than my child’s bedtime.”
One of the most exciting stories of her career happened early on, in 1967 when American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell was assassinated and they tried to bury him Culpeper National Cemetery because he had served in the military. Locals were not pleased about the burial plans, leading to a standoff at the cemetery gates.
“The Nazi flag was scheduled to wave today over Culpeper National Cemetery, where men who fought Nazi Germany in World War II lie buried … but that won’t happen now,” read the news of the day. The Pentagon had decided they would not allow swastikas to be displayed within the hallowed burial ground, but that did not stop members of the American Nazi Party from showing up to demand otherwise.
“I thought this is the greatest job anybody had,” Hoffman recalled of being called the scene where a general, short of stature, had planted himself in front of the hearse, refusing it entry while a Nazi climbed on top of it. “This is barely 20 years after the end of World War II, and he said, ‘You’re not bringing him in.’ It drew a big crowd for Culpeper.”
From a dead president’s reported Rappahannock County mistress to covering a double murder trial involving sleeping parents and accused adult son to interviewing an Iranian hostage and the first female mail carrier in Culpeper, “Little Papers are Journalism Too” covers it all and then some. An eight-page index includes both familiar and forgotten names and places like Baby Jim’s, Walter Cronkite, Gayheart’s Drug Store, Mary Stevens Jones, T.I. Martin, Walter Potter and the State Theatre, providing context for a fascinating local history of local news and newspapering.
Asked about the title of her book, Hoffman said it still applies.
“Little Papers Are Journalism Too because they are very, very important to their community and the things you need to know as a citizen you would not know without little papers,” she said, adding, “How long little papers will hang on I don’t know.”
Little papers around Culpeper are “second cousins to the Washington Post, which is a world away,” Hoffman said, “but small papers are still doing the same thing.”
Self-published by Author House, “Little Papers Are Journalism Too” is now on sale at the Museum of Culpeper History, and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.