THE LEGACY OF MILO WATSON

 

the biggest story on his biggest day

By Ed Kelley, 2003 Inductee 

The day in 1995 Milo Watson received the biggest honor of his career was the same day he missed the biggest story of his career. 

‘Tis true. I know, because I was the messenger who delivered the word to him that the most notorious criminal in Oklahoma history was sitting in jail in Perry, where Watson was publisher, while Watson was being feted 45 miles away by the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. 

The back story:

My start in newspapering came thanks to Watson, who let me write sports stories for the Perry Daily Journal while in high school. He gave me oodles of space and even paid me a little something for my efforts. Later he was kind enough to write a letter on my behalf to the journalism school at the University of Oklahoma. Forever I have been indebted for his interest in me. 

 So, years later, when word came that he was named to the Hall of Fame’s class of 1995, I wanted to repay my debt in a small way. 

Back then the hall’s induction came at an afternoon ceremony and reception. So, I organized a luncheon on April 21 at a nice restaurant on Edmond’s east side, where I met him, his two daughters, his wife, June, and Bob Lee, who was inducted one year later in 1996. Lee was a colleague of mine at The Oklahoman and, more importantly, was a charter member of the Milo Watson Fan Club. That’s because Lee’s dad, Ed, employed a young Watson at the Lee family newspaper in Buffalo, in Harper County. And a young Bobby Lee looked up to Watson the rest of his life. 

When lunch was finished, everyone went their separate ways to the University of central Oklahoma campus for the induction. But first I called the office, as this was the busiest week of my career. So happened that the Murrah building was bombed two days earlier, on April 19. And as managing editor, I owned the coverage. I made the call just to check in, to see if anything was new.  

“Well, you’ll never guess what happened,” said the secretary on the other end of the line. The gist: a man suspected of the bombing, later identified as Timothy McVeigh was being held at the Noble County jail in Perry, my hometown.  

I gunned the engine and got to UCO ahead of Watson and his girls. 

I wanted to be the one to give him the news, right there in the parking lot. On a sunny spring afternoon, I met the now elderly man who gave me my start as he strode toward me. “You’re not going to believe this,” is how I started. 

His knees, no kidding, buckled. 

Fortunately he didn’t fall. 

Fortunately he had trained his staff to proceed without him. Because in that Friday afternoon paper was a short story at the top of the front page—not brimming with details, because there weren’t many at the time. But a story, nevertheless.  

Fortunately the folks in Perry continued to get another couple of years of his leadership before ill health forced him down. All told he spent nearly 55 years at the Journal, all but the first six as publisher. 

As someone who was weaned on his newspaper, I will venture this: That one day in 1995, when he missed out on the biggest story in town since the Land Run, doesn’t begin to overshadow the thousands of great days that Watson was at the helm, firmly guiding the community he informed. And occasionally cajoled. 

And loved, most of all.

Milo Watson died at 83 years old, after his induction in 1998. His wife, Anne, preceded him in death in 1987. According to a story in The Oklahoman he was survived by “two daughters and sons-in-law, Carolyn and Richard Adkins, Fort Gibson, and John and Mary Lee Streller, Newalla; five grandchildren children and 11 great-grandchildren.” 

Milo Watson, Perry Daily Journal publisher, pictured surrounded by his work in his office.

He was the 1967 Oklahoma Press Association president. Photo by Jim Argo. Date unknown.

Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society.