It was a hot summer day, and I had spent my lunch hour running errands, returning to work with my bangs plastered to my forehead and my shirt stuck to my back.
“Woo, I’m sweaty!” I exclaimed as I tossed my keys into the desk drawer and collapsed into a chair in the cubicle I shared with Ann Whittinghill.
She cleared her throat and informed me, as only a steel magnolia could, “Horses sweat. Men perspire. Ladies glow.”
I snorted and flapped my shirt away from my body in an effort to dry it out. “Well, I’m sweatin’,” I said.
It wasn’t the first time Mrs. Whittinghill had attempted to instill some level of refinement in my existence.
I’m sure she was distraught at the idea of sharing a workspace with one so uncouth as I, but she accepted me as a cross she was destined to bear with as much forbearance as she could muster.
She corrected my grammar when I spoke.
She circled passages from the AP Stylebook and left copies on my desk when I messed up my writing.
She murmured her contributions to any conversation I had on the telephone. Even though she couldn’t hear the person on the other end, she still had a better answer than any feeble response I might have been offering the caller.
She had begun her career at the Messenger-Inquirer in 1957 — the year before I was born — so Mrs. Whittinghill, the society editor, was already well ensconced by the time I joined the newspaper in 1975.
At age 17, I was the youngest person on the staff, so I called everyone “Mr.” or “Miz.” She was the only one who never invited me to abandon such formality.
(For the record, Keith Lawrence did ask me to drop the “Mr.,” but I never did.)
Mrs. Whittinghill took it upon herself to ensure that anything published in the M-I was in strict compliance with AP style. We also had what was called a local stylebook, an almost sacred list of the few acceptable exceptions to AP style.
Reporters and editors argued fiercely for what should or shouldn’t be allowed as an exception; her voice was always among the loudest.
Me, I just went about my clerical drone day, typing up the wedding, engagement and anniversary announcements, which she oversaw with an eagle eye, never failing to point out that anyone who earned a degree prior to 1998 graduated from Brescia College, not Brescia University; or that “woman” was the only acceptable reference for an adult female. After all, she insisted, we had no way of knowing whether her character qualified her as a “lady.”
She also mandated that married couples should always be listed with the man’s name first — as in, Adam and Eve Smith. That in itself was a huge concession for her, as she really preferred that a couple should be acknowledged as Mr. and Mrs. Adam Smith.
But by then, there were enough other strong-willed and independent women in the newsroom to override her antiquated opinion.
It was fascinating, really, to catch a glimpse of what had been deemed correct and proper by another generation … especially for someone like me, who had grown up without a clue about whether the fork goes on the left or the right (answer: left) or anything else that a lady of her background seemed to instinctively know.
We worked side by side for years, and if ever there were an unequally yoked couple, we were it. But whether she took pity on me, considered me a “project,” or just decided that it behooved her own sense of decorum to try to tame me, she took it upon herself to teach me the things she thought were important.
Some lessons I embraced with enthusiasm. Others I stubbornly resisted.
Either way, I learned.
I learned that whether she liked it or not, I sweat. I have my own name and I use it. If a woman wants to call herself a lady, that’s good enough for me.
Mrs. Whittinghill drove me crazy.
I loved her.