Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder (1923–2020)
Journalist and state politician Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder co-owned the Dumas Clarion newspaper in Dumas (Desha County) with her husband for more than four decades and served in the Arkansas House of Representatives for fourteen years. She was the first woman appointed to the Arkansas Board of Pardons and Parole, and she was the first female president of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce. She was also president of several associations for professional journalists, including the Arkansas Press Women, the Arkansas Press Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the National Newspaper Association.
Charlotte Tillar was born on December 25, 1923, in Tillar (Drew and Desha counties) to Jewell Stephen Tillar and Bertha Terry Tillar. The family moved to McGehee (Desha County) in 1928. Tillar’s father died in 1931, and Tillar, her brother, and her mother moved back to Tillar. Tillar graduated from Tillar High School in 1940 as co-valedictorian and enrolled at Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello) in Monticello (Drew County) that fall at age sixteen. Tillar, who had been editor of her high school newspaper, joined the newspaper staff at Arkansas A&M and became a “stringer” for the McGehee Times, writing local stories for publication. Her only sibling, Julian, who was serving as an army medic during World War II, was killed in 1942.
She began attending Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge in 1943, majoring in sociology and taking journalism courses. She soon began work for the Reveille student newspaper and took a summer job as assistant editor of the McGehee Times. She returned to LSU in the fall, becoming editor of the Reveille. After graduating from LSU in 1944, she began work as editor of the McGehee Times in October 1944.
She married Louisiana native Melvin Schexnayder, who had just been discharged from the army following the end of World War II, on August 18, 1946, in Tillar; they went on to have three children.
The couple returned to Louisiana, where her husband finished his degree on the GI Bill and she enrolled in graduate classes in LSU’s journalism school. After moving to Marshall, Texas, in 1948, she and her husband returned to Arkansas that same year to become editor and advertising manager, respectively, of the McGehee Semi-Weekly Times. The couple purchased the weekly Dumas Clarion, with the help of investors, in 1954.
While much of the news was of local, everyday interest, Schexnayder took an editorial stand on many issues, including supporting the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1957 and weighing in on political, educational, economic, and development issues in Dumas. As a board member of the Dumas Chamber of Commerce, she was chair of the committee that created Dumas’s Ding Dong Days festival in the early 1980s. Governor David Pryor appointed her to Arkansas Board of Pardons and Parole in 1975, as the first woman to serve on the board.
Schexnayder went on to become president of every professional journalism organization of which she was a member. She was elected president of the Arkansas Press Women in 1955. She was the first woman elected to the Little Rock chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and she became its first female president in 1973. She was elected president of the National Federation of Press Women in 1977, and she became the first female president of the Arkansas Press Association in 1981. She was elected treasurer of the National Newspaper Association in 1989 and became the association’s first female president in 1991.
Schexnayder entered state politics in 1984, running unopposed for the state House of Representatives. During her first week in the House in 1985, a fellow legislator advised her that she would be fine if she just sat and listened. She replied, “You obviously don’t know me very well. I’m not a side-line sitter, and I always have plans.” She served in the House until 1999.
A lifelong Democrat, Schexnayder befriended Bill Clinton when he was attorney general and then governor of Arkansas, becoming a “Friend of Bill” during his presidential campaign and attending his 1993 inauguration as a member of the Electoral College. She was once asked by the Comedy Central television network if she had ever dated the president. She replied, “Heavens alive, no. I am old enough to be his mother!”
The Schexnayders sold the Clarion in 1998; Melvin Schexnayder died in 2007. While no longer the “salty old editor”—as she was nicknamed during her newspaper days—Schexnayder remained a part of area civic life. She published a memoir in 2012. In 2019, she was inducted into the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
Schexnayder died on December 11, 2020.
In April 2022, it was announced that the Arkansas Press Women had donated $3,000 (which had been provided by various organizations in Dumas and the APW) to the Arkansas Newspaper Foundation in Schexnayder’s name to fund an internship at the Clarion.
For additional information:
Eley, Ashton. “Dumas Newspaper Publisher, Lawmaker Schexnayder Dies.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 14, 2020, pp. 1B, 6B.
Hanson, Aprille. “Dumas Trailblazer Inducted into Women’s Hall of Fame.” Arkansas Catholic, October 24, 2019. Online at https://www.arkansas-catholic.org/news/article/6246/Dumas-trailblazer-inducted-into-Womens-Hall-of-Fame (accessed October 12, 2021).
Nelson, Rex. “The Salty Old Editor.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 20, 2012, p. 11B.
Obituary of Charlotte Tillar Schexnayder. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 15, 2020, p. 2B.
Schexnayder, Charlotte. “Legacies & Lunch.” April 2, 2014. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas. Video online at Butler Center AV/AR Audio Video Collection. Charlotte Schexnayder Lecture (accessed October 12, 2021).
———. Salty Old Editor: An Adventure in Ink. Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2012.
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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