Everybody needs a Dot Steen|Wife, mother Post reporter always willing to work hard

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 11, 2010

She really didn’t want to go to work, waited two weeks before she responded to a call for an interview and on her way up the stairs to the newsroom was deciding what she was going to say in quitting a job she hadn’t even started.

But Dot Steen stayed 15 1/2 years on the staff of The Vicksburg Evening Post, “and I loved it.”

It was in November 1965 when she began her new job. The one she had was being a mother and wife, “taking care of my girls — and Jim — and that was full time.”

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Managing editor Charlie Faulk had asked his sister-in-law, Vivian Faulk, if she knew someone who might fit the bill to do a little of everything at the newspaper, and Vivian, who taught Sunday school with Dot, told her, “You were the only one I could think of.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

She didn’t quit her new job. In fact, on the day of the interview, Charlie Faulk called the house before she got home to tell her she was hired. And she did do a little of everything around the office — writing, taking pictures, doing darkroom work and making photo engravings. She reviewed plays and community concert productions, attended the Lions Club and reported on the programs for 15 years, covered the school news, served as church editor and wrote obits.

“People still remind me of the delights at having their child’s picture in the paper,” she reminisced.

In her quiet manner, she got things done, and Faulk once said he didn’t know what all she did — but things ran smoother when she was there.

She recalled once when a new, young and brash reporter remarked that something wasn’t his job, she told him quickly, “Anything that gets this paper out is your job, my job and anybody else’s job.”

Dot never minded doing what it took.

Highlights of her journalism career were interviewing Bea Richards, the Vicksburg-born actress, and Lady Bird Johnson and daughter Linda.

While most of the staff went to dinner, Dot stayed in the office, taking care of anything that came up. One day, Sheriff Paul Barrett called asking for a reporter to cover a burial in the river. The deceased had been cremated (not a usual occurrence then), and Dot said, “I could just see this casket being lowered into the water.” She thinks it was her best story.

She remembers the thrill of seeing the byline “By Dot Steen” the first time, and of the Associated Press picking up one of her photos and releasing it to papers all over the South. It was of an overturned cattle truck at the intersection of Confederate Avenue and Washington Street. Typical of Dot, she helped round up the cows.

That’s what a country girl would do — whatever came her way. She was born near Shreveport — her father, Hollie H. Segrest, was an oil field worker — but she grew up at Blue Hill in Jefferson County. That was her father’s home, and he returned to it in 1930 when his father died. Dot’s father was a logger and a farmer, raising cattle, pigs, goats, geese and chickens. The family home, which later burned, was built before the Civil War and heated by fireplaces.

“The ice man came twice a week to deliver a block of ice,” Dot said. It was an exciting day when her dad bought a Servel Electrolux refrigerator that ran on kerosene, and she was about 12 when the REA line was put through, “and we had electricity — no more kerosene lamps!”

Centers of society were the school and church with dinners-on-the-grounds during protracted meetings. Dot and her sisters — Thelma, Virginia and Mildred — rode horses a lot, “and learned to swim in Clark’s Creek after the boys scared the snakes away.”

They were kin to half the people in Jefferson and Claiborne counties, she said, “and with four girls in the family we never lacked for company.”

There’s a good family story of how her parents met. Her father knew the brother-in-law and sister of a girl named Mozelle, and he also knew the guy she was dating. Se-grest told him, “If you’re not going to marry her, I am,” and six weeks later he did.

Dot graduated as valedictorian of her class at Red Lick, then went to Hinds. She always loved science and math and took calculus as an elective. Two years later, she transferred to Mississippi State, majoring in bacteriology “because I was going to be a lab technician, but I never got there.” One reason was because she met Jim Steen, just out of the service, attending State as an engineering student.

“The pickin’s had been pretty slim because of the war,” she said. But then the boys came home, “and I found the best one.”

They were married at the Methodist church in Blue Hill on Christmas Eve 1946. They moved to Vicksburg in January 1949, lucky enough to find a good apartment in the old Betty Willis house on Cherry Street. It was an ideal location, Dot said, for they didn’t have a car but could walk everywhere they needed to go — church, grocery store, bank, post office, downtown, the hospital and even the funeral home.

It was years before she learned to drive, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” because of the steep hills, “but I didn’t burn my clutch out like a lot of my friends did.”

Jim and Dot eventually had a home of their own where they raised three girls — Virginia, Dianna and Debbie. Jim worked for the Corps of Engineers, and Dot settled into being a wife and mother. She made all the clothes for her girls and for herself, kept house, raised roses, taught Sunday school at First Baptist Church — “Methodists make the best Baptists,” she said.

Was she a room mother at school?

“Of course! And I loved it. We gave the parties, brought the cupcakes and stuff for the kids and ran the carnivals, like Halloween.”

But life changed when Charlie Faulk called. Dot was happy at home, she said, and had never thought of getting out of the house, though “housework is the hardest work you can do.”

She had written a little bit for the Hindsonian, the college newspaper at Raymond, and was on the staff of the student paper at State, but she had done little in the field of journalism. She and Jim had a small darkroom at home, so she knew a little bit about developing film and printing pictures.

It was on-the-job training at the Post, and Charlie Faulk “was a wonderful boss and a good teacher.” There were no tape recorders for interviews, and each reporter took the pictures to go with the story.

“We didn’t know that was difficult, because that’s the only way it was done,” Dot said. She remembers one of her first stories was about a lady who raised orchids, “and I got there without a pencil. I had an eyebrow pencil in my purse, and that’s what I wrote with.”

Dot retired on her 55th birthday, and for several years she and Jim made extensive trips around North America, starting with a tent and ending with a 29-foot fifth-wheeler, the luxury model. Jim passed away several years ago, and Dot’s travels have been to Italy, Ireland and Scotland, and she has plans for England and France this summer.

She never was athletic, but after taking yoga classes became the instructor when the teacher was transferred. At water aerobics, she often subs as the leader. She’s a volunteer in the Salvation Army auxiliary and has the unique distinction of being the one who processes 60 pounds of cheese each year in preparation for the annual luncheon. At church, she’s been in charge of one function “for so long I can’t remember.” She also joins in making prayer shawls.

No one who ever worked for a newspaper forgets the sounds and smells that were part of the old hot-type process, of the clacking and carrying on, the smoke, the camaraderie, the characters who frequented the office. And Dot remembers the view of the cross atop Holy Trinity, visible and inspiring from the stairwell window.

Several times she went back and substituted, even learning to write a story on the computer, “though I didn’t like it and I didn’t master it.” To her, the newsroom is now “like a tomb. All you hear is beeping.”

I worked with Dot Steen for 10 years, even had a cat named for her, and I learned that every office, every business, needs a Dot Steen.

When I worked at the Old Court House Museum, I would sometimes absentmindedly call Blanche Terry “Dot.” She said she always knew then that I was in a good mood.

Anybody would be who worked with Dot.