Over the Edge

Already dogged by mental illness, Paul Bear ended his life after a mean-spirited outing by a small-town newspaperman

The Hubbell House appealed to Bear because it was so different from the nomadic, fast-paced lifestyle he said he'd been living for the past few years. "I represented something [Bear] really wanted," says Carmichael. "I liked to call it home and hearth."

Bear's bipolar condition seemed to be under control. For almost two years after Bear first arrived in Winnsboro, Carmichael says he had no indication that his partner suffered from any kind of mental illness. Guests Michael Herrington and Charlie Hardy described Bear as the ideal host. Vacationing in Winnsboro during Valentine's Day weekend in 2003, they said they took to Bear immediately. "Paul was right there out front," says Herrington, remembering their trip one evening from the Fort Worth home he shares with his partner. "He was so bubbly and enthusiastic. He was constantly making jokes."

The four became instant friends, and Herrington and Hardy would end up inviting Bear and Carmichael to their holy union. As a gift, the Fort Worth couple received a weekend's stay at the Hubbell House, and loved every minute of it, Herrington says. Bear was so wrapped up in the thrill of the business that he immediately set about trying to bring even more commerce to the Winnsboro area. The Hubbell House, while well-known, could still use more business, even though theirs was one of the few B&B's that accepted children, Carmichael says. They'd even tried to appeal to gay travelers, placing expensive ads in the Dallas Voice, but Carmichael says it was never effective. Their clientele was still mostly older people, and they were busiest in the spring and fall. Bear, riding high on one of his manic episodes, had a vision. He would embark on another one of his seemingly impossible ventures--and succeed wildly by coordinating a merchant's association that would dramatically heighten Winnsboro's profile as a quaint weekend destination. Carmichael had no way of associating his efforts with a manic high, because Bear continued to keep his condition to himself.

Paul Bear (left) and Tim Carmichael pose for a photo in 2002, the year before the Winnsboro News editorial that would change their lives.
Paul Bear (left) and Tim Carmichael pose for a photo in 2002, the year before the Winnsboro News editorial that would change their lives.
Bear in December 2004, seven months before he killed himself.
Bear in December 2004, seven months before he killed himself.

"It was something he chose to hide from me," says Carmichael, shaking his head in frustration. If he had known, things would have been different. To him, Bear's enthusiasm was just part of the man he loved. In August 2003, Bear said he wanted to create a tourism Web site for Winnsboro that would feature local businesses. Bear hoped they could use $5,000 of the city's hotel and motel taxes to build it, so he approached the city council to make the suggestion.

At the same time, Bear saw something in the weekly Winnsboro News he didn't like. Tom Pendergast, editor and publisher of the local paper, had failed to mention another local B&B's feature article in Texas Highways. Carmichael says the owner of the Oaklea Mansion had gotten on Pendergast's bad side by asking for a tax reduction, something Pendergast felt was out of line for a proper businesswoman. In a letter to the editor, Bear made the dire mistake of calling Pendergast's reporting "selective and biased" for declining to mention the other B&B. What followed would send Bear over the edge for the first time since he'd met Carmichael.

Bear's criticisms were more than familiar to Pendergast. At 73, the retired Associated Press writer considered the Winnsboro News his own personal soapbox. A graduate of the University of West Virginia's journalism school, he'd served as an AP bureau chief in cities such as New Orleans, Los Angeles and St. Louis for more than 30 years, then grew frustrated with the news agency where "it was a cardinal sin to be anything but objective." In 1985, when Pendergast and his wife retired to Winnsboro, her hometown, he bought the News. "We have a very forceful editorial page here," Pendergast said in a phone interview. Others in town saw it a bit differently, calling the page "hateful," "malicious" or "bullying," depending on who'd been on the receiving end of one of his tirades. Most asked not to be identified or even have their professions listed, because they're still afraid of provoking Pendergast.

A local teacher said she was targeted after Pendergast published letters to the editor containing trumped-up accusations of grade bribery that he never bothered to investigate. Becky Poe, the wife of Winnsboro's former city manager, said her husband was eventually forced to resign after Pendergast took up an editorial page crusade against him. The goal, she believes, was simple: The man needed to sell papers. "He just maliciously bashes people because it sells news," she said.

His allies, however, are powerful. State Representative Brian Hughes personally sponsored a resolution commending the Winnsboro News for its dedication to community service. Some prominent city officials would receive no criticism at all from Pendergast, while others, like Poe's husband, couldn't escape him. Local pastors from several denominations would write in to the paper, frequently commending the editor for his conservative moral stances.

So when Bear's letter set off Pendergast, it wasn't exactly unusual. The editor's response, however, was unusually vicious. On the same day he printed Bear's letter chastising the editor for not "fully informing" the citizens of "what really matters to us," Pendergast dedicated his own editorial column to a very personal response. It all hinged on the existence of an Internet personal ad of dubious origin.

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