(Editor’s note: Several years ago, when I visited the senior center in Valentine, Nebraska, with my mother-in-law Corrine Pascoe, I met Margaret and Ervin Figert. They had run the Todd County Tribune, a weekly newspaper in Mission, South Dakota, when I lived there. When I explained what I was doing with Circling the News, Margaret subscribed. I received this email on September 2 from Margaret: “Congrats on your 1,000th newsletter, Sue! Material never runs out, does it! Keep up the good work!”)
C.W. and Leona Figert ran the Todd County Tribune for years, with the press located right on Main Street in Mission. Almost every second-grade class looked forward to the field trip that included showing kids how the type was set up, letter by letter, and the smell of the ink strong in the wooden building.
In 1965, they convinced their son Ervin and his wife Margaret, who had graduated with a two-year secretarial science degree, to lease the paper for a year and possibly take it over. (The Tribune was founded in 1921.)
The timing was good. Erv had been teaching and coaching in Kilgore, Nebraska. The school board consolidated Kilgore School District with Cody. Elementary students from both schools were educated at Kilgore while high school students from both schools were taught at Cody.
As a result, Erv and the other Kilgore High School teachers lost their jobs because Cody didn’t need them.
“We responded to Dad and Mom Figert’s request to try leasing the Tribune for a year and then decide if we wanted to buy it,” Margaret said, and after the year’s trial, they took over the operation.
Unlike Erv, Margaret had not grown up on the reservation. “I spent the first 10 years in Mission in a kind of culture shock, as I learned how different and destructive socialism is from capitalism,” the mother of three said. “I was busy doing two full-time jobs — homemaking and reporting. There were no paper diapers until the last one was born.”
When the couple took over the paper, they had a press run of 250, but when they sold the paper in 2003, they were printing 2,000 copies — and an additional 500 for the Mellette County News (in White River, South Dakota), which was under the editorship of Don and Lavonne Evans.
“The Evans printed their weekly newspaper on our press for some time, and it was during their time with us that Lavonne thought she and I should author a community-interest column,” Margaret said. “Her name started with an ‘L’ and mine with an ‘M’ and she smoked L&M cigarettes, so we came up with Smoke Signals, which readers seemed to accept, considering we were located on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation at Mission.”
When a fire on the main street in White River destroyed several businesses including the Mellette County News, the Figerts bought the paper from the Evanses in 1972. “After the Evanses sold the News to us, I stopped writing the column,” Margaret said, “but took it up again in August 1976 and have been writing since then.”
The couple’s first employee was Erv’s mom Leona, and they soon hired more people as the distribution grew. “We had 10 employed one year, but averaged five or six,” Margaret said. “Three of us gals got it out for a while after a couple of guys quit.”
“We hired a long list of high school students to help, primarily with stuffing ad inserts into each paper and with other mailing duties,” Erv said. “We made many lasting friendships during those years, as some students, now grown, remember and greet us yet today.”
Newspapers have a unique set of problems that editors address. Margaret said that some of the toughest aspects of a weekly newspaper are “equipment breakdowns, dishonest employees, no-shows for scheduled interviews and subscribers angry with my editorials.”
The paper was printed in Pierre, South Dakota, at 5:30 a.m. every Wednesday and then addressed and mailed to stores. “By Thursday, the phone was ringing off the hook,” primarily from “people whose names we spelled incorrectly,” Margaret said.
They also spent the day the paper came out doing bookkeeping and scheduling stories and interviews for the following week’s issue.
“We were threatened with lawsuits at least once a month,” Margaret said, “and we were boycotted twice with marchers outdoors on U. S. Highway 18 in front of our office.” Margaret said. “We also received and printed uncomplimentary Letters to the Editor pointing out our mistakes.”
“Readers always liked the stories and articles that made them look good,” Erv said. “They sure let us know, however, when they didn’t agree with something we’d printed!”
The legal organization of Todd County, which was one of the last three unorganized counties in the United States, became a national story as well as a local one.
“We spoke with Associated Press reporters, state legislators, tribal council representatives and county commissioners,” Margaret said. (The other two unorganized counties were also in South Dakota — Washabugh merged with Jackson County and Shannon County was renamed Oglala Lakota County.)
“I remember being surprised at how little tribal news was in the Tribune when Erv and I took over,” Margaret said. “Considering how many more Lakota people than non-Lakota people populated the reservation/county, it seemed reasonable that everyone had a story to tell.”
Those stories resonated with readers, who wanted to hear more about tribal news. When the school district built the new high school, people eagerly kept up with the news. There was also considerable local interest when Lyndon Johnson got Congress to fund tribal programs with his “War on Poverty.”
The two retired editors/publishers told CTN, “People should remember that journalists are humans capable of both great good and great error. Judge us as you’d want to be judged. Forgive us as you’d want to be forgiven. This small bit of advice would probably apply to every person in every occupation — don’t you think?”