Helen McDonald Exum gave me my first assignment as a writer. But she gave me much more than that. She took a chance on me and took me under her wing. Helen Exum taught me a thing or two, and not just about writing.
The lifestyle editor of the Chattanooga Free Press pushed me out of my comfort zone more than once. She sent me to interview Willie Ames from “Eight is Enough,” even though I had never seen the show. I balked, confessing I’d never heard of him, but she clucked her tongue and chirped that I’d be fine. She reassured me he was a person, just like me.
Years later, when I was writing a regular food feature for the paper, she called me to say that I’d be traveling to Orlando to cover a national cooking contest. She told me I’d fly down and stay in a hotel for three nights, and be wined and dined and entertained, all on the newspaper. I did not jump at the chance. I knew that smart, capable, important food writers from all over the country travelled together to these things and were chums. I was intimidated by food writers from Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping and was more than just out of my comfort zone; I was terrified.
Helen listened to me hem and haw and make excuses for a few minutes. I didn’t tell her I was intimidated. Or shy. Or not too sure of myself in my own kitchen, much less with these accomplished superstars. But she knew.
Remember, this was a busy woman under the great pressure of editing a daily newspaper.
“Wait just a minute, Ferris,” she said like she had all the time in the world for me. “I’ve got something I want you to read.”
I heard her shuffling papers and flipping through pages, checking on me every so often to make sure I was still on the phone. I was.
“The Confidence Course,” she said. “You need to order this book. And you need to read it. I want you to read it right now.”
And I ordered it. Right before I went to Orlando for four days. By myself. With writers from big time magazines. My teeth chattered the entire time, but I got to meet Alex Trebek and go to Disney World for a private affair.
Helen Exum did a lot for me.
She supported every project I ever did, featuring my cookbooks on the front page of her lifestyle section. She gave me a regular column, every writer’s dream. And every time I wrote, I pinched myself that she’d taken a chance on me.
She was more than an editor. Instead of correcting mistakes, Helen called me and taught me how to write. “You need to be sensitive,” she said once after I’d written about filling my grocery cart to the brim with junk food for a birthday party for a dozen little boys. “There are plenty of people who can’t afford groceries at all, much less fill a cart with junk food.”
One of the last times I saw her was at the Mountain Mirror Christmas party Lucia and Tommy Hopper hosted. Helen was dressed to the nines and looking as glamorous as ever. My daddy was my escort and was dressed equally festively in his holiday wear, excited to be at a party. Helen was one of his favorites and they hugged like old friends.
They died within nine months of each other. I imagine my dad made sure Helen found all her relatives in heaven, and thanked her for everything she did for me.
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Ferris Robinson is the author of three children’s books, “The Queen Who Banished Bugs,” “The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds,” and “Call Me Arthropod” in her pollinator series. “Making Arrangements” is her first novel. “Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity” is a collection of true tales about man’s best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com and you can download a free pollinator poster there. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror.