Bad news town

Page 2 of 3

Worse, the coverage was biased, Combs says. The New York Times reports were particularly terrible, making Whitewright seem a one-horse town where all the people were country bumpkins, she says. "I hate to see these negative things in the paper about us because we really aren't like that." Combs is emphatic: "They just don't portray us right."

Whitewright's image problem may have begun with the mayor's mini-arsenal incident. In 1982, then-mayor Felix Robinson bought four nine-millimeter submachine guns capable of firing in a few seconds nearly as many rounds as there were people living in town. Robinson claimed they were for the protection of the citizens of Whitewright and were essential to Whitewright's one-man police department. The guns would ward against "riot or nuclear attack," he said.

The press came calling. Whitewright was the butt of jokes in the neighboring cities of Sherman and Denison and beyond. Residents had their first experience in ducking news crews. The furor forced Robinson to resign as mayor and a city judge to be fired. The guns themselves were sold to a Dallas gun dealer.

Compared to these uproars, the attention paid to Collie Brown has been positively mild. Goodson says he has received numerous phone calls from across the country and has spoken to at least seven television news crews on the day of Brown's release from prison. But not many of them have milled around the rest of town like the times before, he says.

"I was surprised at all this fuss," the mayor says. "I think it is the age. They all think we are picking on an 86-year-old woman.

"But when that woman is doing something wrong and has known she had done something wrong, that's not picking on an old lady."

Still, the attention was unflattering. Combs talked about a report that aired on a network station from New York that used banjo music in the background. "As if we were hillbillies," she sniffed. "I mean news is news. But don't portray us as ignorant and all these other negative things."

People in town are quick to point out that Whitewright is downright progressive. It was the first town in Grayson County to have a black mayor, Goodson says; it has produced millionaires, including Kay Kimbell, who started the foundation for the permanent art collection at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth; the town has begun a clean-up campaign to get rid of debris in the street, along with tumbled-down houses.

"These people here are real friendly, real open," says Goodson, who spent nearly 30 years in the military before choosing Whitewright for a permanent residence.

The week after her arrest and publicity found Brown still a bit wary of the media. "What, you want my story, too?" she asked this visitor.

She won't talk about the cafe, except to say she's not running it anymore. Instead, she talks about the arthritis that has caused her joints to ache and render her capable of only styling her gun-metal gray hair in a single ponytail on the top of her head.

"I'm feeble now," she says, rubbing her knees. "I'm not sickly, but I can't do like I used to."

She talks about how she arrived in Texas from Chicago on a two-week vacation in the 1940s and just never went back. "Left a good job, too," she says with a chuckle.

Drugs "are messing things up," she says. They've made people meaner, she says, so much so that in the last days of the cafe, she wouldn't even go outside and chat with folks on the front porch for fear of being hurt.

After all that, Brown finally says a little about the cafe.
People just used to come, she says, and she would give them a little something--food, drink, conversation. She used to run the cafe at another place, but moved it into her home when she could no longer afford the rent.

"I've always done for myself," Brown says proudly. "I've always cared for myself."

From her porch, she points across the street to the lot where the shooting that led to her arrest occurred. They fought over drugs, she says. "The shooting had nothing to do with me," she says. The town "can't put that weight on me."

There is a standing order that if she sells alcohol again, she will be sent back to jail, this time for as much as six months. The city's clean-up campaign has targeted Brown's home. She has been slapped with numerous code violations and has until the middle of next month to remedy them or face daily fines.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kaylois Henry