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Fond memories bring new opportunity

I share a unique bond with the good folks at The Demopolis Times. As a former newspaperman, I understand the rare privilege they enjoy in viewing a community and its people from a different perspective, and the tremendous responsibility they bear in returning to the community a reflection of itself.

A journalist covers events ranging from heartbreaking to humorous to heroic – but the most critical element in reporting is always impartiality; the journalist must remain outside the story.

Occasionally a special event unfolds that allows the newspaper person to set aside his or her objectivity – at least to a degree – and enjoy the moment along with the community.

Such was the case in April 1998 – one of the truly great days in Demopolis’ long and splendid history, as well as my own 14-year newspaper career.

On that day, while covering the announcement that New Era Cap Company was coming to Demopolis, I was able to be both reporter and cheerleader.

Demopolis’ ability to land the new industry over stiff competition throughout the South was a success story in itself, and was told and re-told many times in the days and weeks following the announcement.

The event, held at the Demopolis Civic Center, was a grand occasion designed to be more of a celebration than an announcement, and the hoped-for effect was fully achieved.

Mayor Austin Caldwell delivered a few eloquent remarks.

“I’ve never seen the mayor better than he was today,” I later told Jan McDonald, the Times reporter who also covered the event.

Chris Koch, the company’s president and son of its founder, spoke and presented the Demopolis Sports-Plex a $10,000 donation from New Era.

Margaret Baty, who was quite instrumental behind the scenes in landing the new industry, was announced as plant manager to thunderous applause and shouts from former Vanity Fair employees who had worked with her before, and anticipated quickly being snatched back into the facility when the new industry officially opened its doors.

Even then-Governor Fob James came and spoke. In the midst of a re-election bid at the time, he quipped that he was glad he wasn’t running against Margaret.

By design, a New Era banner was unfurled in front of the old Vanity Fair building on Cedar Avenue at the very moment the announcement took place several blocks away.

Indeed, New Era’s arrival in Demopolis was a big deal.

The day was also special for Jane Gross, who remained in the background as others took center stage, no doubt content that – for her – the betterment of Demopolis, its people and quality of life brought more joy than any amount of personal recognition possibly could.

After the event, as the Civic Center crowd and its accompanying buzz slowly dwindled, Jane showed me a piece of paper. It was Gov. James’ hand-written notes he had unintentionally left on the podium after he spoke. She chose to keep the notes as a personal memento of the crowning moment in her tenure as the driving force behind Demopolis’ industrial development.

All those involved that day, including New Era itself, have since traveled quite diverse paths – some joyous, others not.

The way New Era’s stay here is ending would fall under the “not” category. The announcement earlier this week that New Era is closing its Demopolis facility was truly a painful, dark day.

At this moment, though, it’s important to remember that the qualities that set this community apart do not come or go with any entity – they come from within.

Demopolis’ people are driven, resilient and determined, and if I know anything about the community I’ve called home for more than 18 years, Demopolis will endure the pain with faith and courage, and its people will stand beside each other until a new – and brighter – era dawns.

Danny Smith is a former publisher of the Demopolis Times and currently serves as Director of Human Resources at Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital.