Newt Wallace, the 96-year-old publisher emeritus of the Winters Express newspaper, has long considered Friday the 13th a lucky day. He bought his marriage license on a Friday the 13th in 1943 and started hosting get-togethers in Winters each Friday the 13th shortly after he bought the paper there in 1947.
So when Wallace saw a Friday the 13th approaching in November, he figured it was a good time to file his last column after a working life that lasted longer than many people live.
“My body has outlived my mind,” he said Thursday, sitting beside his antique rolltop desk and the 1923 Underwood typewriter on which he writes. “I can’t walk much anymore. I can’t hear. I can’t remember.”
Wallace, who called himself the “world’s oldest paper boy,” delivered his last load of weekly papers by car Wednesday to the rural Yolo County communities of Madison, Capay and Esparto. He addressed all the out-of-town papers to be mailed that day.
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Then he shuffled down to the Buckhorn Steakhouse and traded three newspapers for a beer – another of his longtime traditions.
All of these things are my business. I reckon you could say that I put flesh on the facts.
Newt Wallace, the 96-year-old publisher emeritus of the Winters Express newspaper
The Express planned to host a potluck Friday evening that was not billed as a sendoff for Wallace – just another Friday the 13th and an excuse to clean the office and tap a keg of beer.
“No presentations. No gold watch,” said Charley Wallace, 65, the current publisher of the Winters Express and one of Newt’s five children, three of whom have already retired.
But in a community the size of Winters – with 7,000 people nestled at the base of the Vaca Mountains – news tends to get around by word of mouth faster than the paper can print it. Many have been aware of Newt’s plans for months, and a sizable crowd was expected to attend Friday’s potluck.
Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguilar-Curry said she’d drop in before the big Winters High School football game Friday night.
“They’ll have a very nice turnout, and he’ll be humble and shy,” she said. She planned to bring a six-pack of Olympia as a retirement gift. “It’s a sad day in Winters,” she said, calling it the end of an era.
The Winters Express, circulation 2,000, started in 1884. Newt Wallace was born in 1919 and remembers his grandfather talking about fighting in the Civil War, his children said.
Wallace graduated from Iowa State University and participated in ROTC, but the Army rejected him for service in World War II because of a heart condition that doctors worried might affect his longevity. Instead, he and his wife, Ida Wallace, moved around the country working as civilians on defense projects, including building the ALCAN Highway to Alaska.
After the war, Wallace worked as an editor at small papers in Denison, Iowa, and Upland before buying the Winters Express for $8,500 in 1947. At the time, Winters was known mainly for apricots. Hundreds of rail cars would leave the city loaded with the fruit each spring, Wallace said.
Like many small-town publishers, he reported stories, sold ads, poured molten lead for type, and delivered the paper himself. His wife and children worked alongside him.
“From the time we were 5 years old,” said Newt’s son Polk Wallace.
On printing days, Tuesdays, they’d often work long into the night. Newt’s daughter Lois Brandt remembers her father waking her up late when she was 10 because he needed more help after part of the printing press broke down.
Wallace played a role, from editor to paper boy, in putting out about 3,500 weekly papers over 68 years in Winters. Ask him him about his experiences in journalism, and he invariably mentions one very long day in August 1953.
That was the day officials broke ground on the Monticello Dam, which created Lake Berryessa in the hills above Winters. Wallace said his back was killing him from a herniated disk, but he covered the event, which Gov. Earl Warren attended. It was one of the biggest news events in Winters history.
Wallace rushed his photographic negatives to Woodland to be processed so he could make deadline. He already had a long night ahead of him, setting type and printing the paper. But when he arrived in Woodland, someone told him a wood mill in Winters, one of the city’s main businesses, was on fire.
He sped home to cover it. By then it was early morning and all the gas stations were closed. He begged for a few gallons from the city lot and drove back to Woodland with his latest round of negatives. Then, at about 4 a.m., he was able to get back to Winters to print the paper and hand-carry that week’s issue to the post office by 9 a.m.
In the summer of 1962, Wallace and 24 other editors and publishers from California went to the White House to have lunch with President John F. Kennedy. Wallace was a vice president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association and had been invited by White House press secretary Pierre Salinger to represent the state’s weekly papers.
On that day, he said, Kennedy spoke about some of the troubles facing the nation. Wallace commiserated. “I’m glad you have this job instead of me,” he told the president, according to a news report. Without missing a beat Kennedy said, “This is the first I knew you were a candidate,” Wallace recalled with a chuckle.
Five years later, a film crew with the U.S. Information Agency came to Winters. The agency was making movies to be translated and shipped around the world to show people what life was like in America. It chose Newt Wallace and the Winters Express for a documentary about running one of America’s hundreds of small-town weeklies.
In the film, Wallace explained that news happens everywhere, including in small towns. A woman hits her husband on the head with a cast iron skillet, he said. A rattlesnake is found at the corner of Abbey Street and Railroad Avenue in downtown Winters.
“All of these things are my business,” he told the filmmakers. “I reckon you could say that I put flesh on the facts.”
These days, Newt Wallace and his children reckon he’s devoted the better part of 80 years to journalism. He started delivering papers when he was 10 in his native Oklahoma and stopped doing so on Wednesday as he nears 100. Why did he work so long?
“I had nothing else to do,” he said. “I don’t play golf. Besides, I enjoyed my work.” His wife died on Valentine’s Day in 2011 at age 90.
One of the reasons Charley Wallace has downplayed his father’s retirement is because he and others don’t believe it. “I figure he’ll be back in two weeks,” Charley Wallace said.
Not true, Newt Wallace insisted, though he did say he’d probably go to the office each morning to read the paper and get help with his eye medication.
“I’m through,” he said. “Charley can train somebody else to do all that (delivering and addressing newspapers and such), and he can retire.”