When Sue Riddle Cronkite was a young girl growing up in Holmes County, and tried out for the Ponce De Leon girls basketball team, she got a rude awakening into the rough-and-tumble of the contact sport.
“Wynell Miller twisted her hips and I wound up in the dirt way outside the basketball court,” she said. “I quickly became a cheerleader.”
That was more than 70 years ago, and since that time, Cronkite has blazed a career as a newspaperwoman, and after retirement, as a novelist – a career which she reflected on earlier this month as the featured Women’s History Month speaker at the Apalachicola Margaret Key Public Library.
She’ll be 89 in May, but you would never know it, giving her energy as she shuttles back-and-forth between Geneva, Alabama and her adopted hometown of Apalachicola.
“Every Saturday we went swimming in Ponce de Leon springs,” she told the audience March 11. “That’s why I’m so young.”
To understand the breadth of Cronkite’s career, you have to go back to the years following her graduation in 1951 from Ponce De Leon High School.
She actually was born 100 yards into Geneva County, where her grandmother was working as a midwife. After graduating high school, she took her first newspaper job in 1955 at the Geneva County Reaper, a weekly newspaper published about four miles from the Holmes-Geneva county line.
It was there she went to work writing features, then as a reporter, and rose to be editor and publisher. At age 26, she was one of two female newspaper publishers in the state of Alabama, the other having succeeded to the job on the death of her husband.
She would go on to publish the Graceville News, in Florida’s Jackson County, and in 1961, was hired on as editor of the Ozark, Alabama Southern Star, a 154-year-old weekly that was Alabama’s oldest family-owned newspaper before being bought last year by a company out of Calais, Maine.
Her career continued full-speed ahead, after she bought a second weekly, the Hartford, Alabama News-Herald.
It was as a stringer for the daily Birmingham, Alabama News, that she delved deeply as a newspaper reporter, covering stories of interest throughout the South. She then took a job as a full-time reporter for the venerable daily, covering the south end of Alabama for two years.
After getting married, she relocated to Starke, and went to work for the Florida Times-Union, the oldest daily newspaper in the state, based in Jacksonville, which has long maintained statewide coverage.
In 1969 she returned to the Birmingham News and went to work on the copy desk, which the newspaper boasted marked her as its first female copy editor. She researched the matter and determined that was not in fact accurate, because women during World War II held such jobs, while their husbands, sons and brothers went off to war.
“When the war was over, they went back to being housewives,” she said.
Cronkite recalled the years she spent working in Birmingham, from 1969 to 1982, an eventful 13 years when she climbed the editorial ladder, working as assistant state editor, and assistant opinion page editor, and in 1976 becoming one of only a half-dozen female editorial page writers in the country, the others spread out as far as Columbus, Georgia; Baltimore, Maryland; and San Francisco, California.
After Birmingham’s morning paper closed, and the News moved from the afternoon to the morning, she was at one time the night city editor, a job she didn’t much enjoy.
“You can’t rest when you have to work in the middle of the night,” she said. “Shootings and stabbings would go on and they never would give me enough reporters to cover it.”
When she went on to work the metro beat, she recalled that a fight broke out at the first city meeting she went to cover, and so her story became the lede story on the page.
“I’ll be damned if she goes out to the edge of town and comes back with the number one story of the day,” quipped a friendly male colleague of hers.
Cronkite shared insight into the pay discrepancy that once characterized the hiring of females in the newspaper business and examples of how much the landscape has changed over the years.
“Don’t get me wrong, I really like men,” she told the audience. “As long as they stay in their place.”
After leaving the News, she went to work as managing editor of The Daily Homes, in Talladega, Alabama, and then for the Clearwater Sun and the Rome, Georgia News Tribune, where as managing editor worked to give the paper a new design.
After working for the Decatur, Alabama Daily News, she returned to Dothan, Alabama to be by the side of her ailing mother Dora Mims Riddle Hicks, who spent seven years in a nursing home in Bonifay.
“She was the oldest of 14 children, and I’m the oldest of 46 grandchildren,” Cronkite said. “Grandmother was a Clark. I’m related to nearly everybody in Holmes County and Geneva County.”
On her father’s side she’s related to E. Bert Riddle, a Florida legislator in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, who represented citizens in Holmes County.
She now works out of her office in Geneva behind an old farmhouse where her mother grew up. “I can count eight cousins that live all around this house,” Cronkite said. “My son and seven cousins, I can see their houses.”
On Sunday, she goes to church at the Mims Hill Church, which her grandparents donated land for and built in1964 “because people in the community were meeting in peoples’ houses.”
Cronkite wrapped up her newspaper career with Wiregrass Today, a new daily in Dothan, and when it folded after two years, she started a small publishing company, the New Hope Press, which she reactivated recently. She also wrote for both the Franklin Chronicle and the Apalachicola Times.
Plus she managed, at age 65, to complete her bachelor’s degree at Troy State in 1995.
“All those years I had gone to college but had not had enough for a degree,” Cronkite said. “I had enough for three degrees but hadn’t filled in the holes.”
Among the 20 books New Hope has published over the years are “Heart and History of Holmes County,” by Anna Paget Wells, a history published in 1999; and “Washington – Florida’s 12th County” and “Holmesteading,” each a history written by Pensacola News-Journal reporter E.W. Carswell.
Two of her works are Cronkite’s own novels, “Louette’s Wake” and “White Sheets – When the Hippies met the Klan.”
In “Louette’s Wake,” she spins a comic tale of a woman who decides to throw herself a wake, “because nobody comes to a party but everybody goes to a wake (during a time) when you get old, but you ain’t dead yet.”
She said nine-tenths of what’s in her stories are based on actual events. “I have to be careful with names and places,” Cronkite said.
Part of her mission is to preserve “heirloom language. I’m trying to get people to respect our Wiregrass area language. Most of the people came from Ireland, Scotland or Great Britain around the time of Shakespeare and that’s the language they brought with them.
“Many of the words we still use today,” she said.
After receiving so many good comments on her first novel, she is planning a sequel to “Louette’s Wake.”
She said she’ll hear from readers that “I know Louette was my mother because that’s exactly how she was. That they loved her and she was just like their grandma or their Aunt Ethel. And they’ll ask me ‘Did you know my mother?’
“You have to laugh at yourself, and laugh at other people,” said Cronkite. “God must have had a sense of humor or he wouldn’t have made people.”
To obtain any of the books from New Hope Publishing, email Sue Cronkite at [email protected] or leave a voicemail at (850) 653-6965.