With 60 years spent in the newspaper business at 20 different publications in five states, Larry Bowers has had a front seat in the industry’s ebb and flow, the ups and downs.
Like covering an airline disaster as a reporter for The Maryville Daily Times. The plane went down in Newport, and racing to the scene was then-Editor Dean Stone, Bowers and another reporter, Bob Miller. They rushed out that evening, beating the first responders to the crash site.
The year was 1964 and the United Airlines plane was en route from Philadelphia to Huntsville, Alabama, with stops scheduled for Washington, D.C., and Knoxville. There were no survivors among the 39 passengers and flight crew.
“That was my first major tragedy,” said Bowers, who is now 78 and working at the Cleveland (Tennessee) Daily Banner.
It was at the Blount County newspaper that Bowers got his start in journalism, first as a freehand artist creating advertisements. A short time later, he moved to the newspaper’s photography department, where he burned plates. Then it was off to the newsroom as a reporter.
“I was the cub reporter when I started in the newsroom,” Bowers said. “I handled public notices, DUIs and real estate transfers for awhile. Later, they moved me to covering school boards and other stuff.”
But it wasn’t long before he moved over to covering sports, becoming sports editor at The Daily Times in the late 1960s, staying for about 15 years.
It was a time when the county high schools had girls basketball teams which soared above most of the others. Porter, Walland and Friendsville were the teams to beat, he said.
Townsend was always in the mix as well, along with the large county high school, Everett. Girls played half-court style.
“Back then, Alcoa and Maryville were not major factors in high school girls sports,” Bowers said.
Covering small town life
His career has taken him to Gatlinburg; Farragut; Morristown; Chattanooga; Kings Mountain, North Carolina; Del Rio, Texas; and Wynn, Arkansas. A couple of years were spent in Key West, Florida. Each small town was an opportunity to learn and grow as a journalist, he said.
“I have enjoyed journalism — community journalism,” Bowers said.
Back in March, Bowers received high accolades for his decades of service, winning the John Seigenthaler Making Kids Count Media Award. He was selected for his newspaper work that helped children and brought awareness to issues affecting youth. Last year’s winner was Dolly Parton.
Bowers received the honor in Nashville, with family at his side. The award is presented by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
The late Seigenthaler, a journalist, was born in Nashville and started out at The Tennessean in Nashville, where he was born.
He enjoyed a long career and was the founding editorial director for USA Today. He died in 2014 after gaining national notoriety as a fierce defender of the First Amendment.
Over the years, Bowers has written stories about the dangers of tobacco and covered many a school board meeting. His work as a sports reporter also factored into the decision to bestow the honor on him.
Some of his favorite stories include the series he wrote about his 1981 visit to the White House and interviews with several of President Jimmy Carter’s cabinet members, as well as the feature he wrote on a 2-year-old boy who could read. Bowers has won awards for best humor column and single-best editorial in the state of Tennessee.
And while Bowers has been away from Maryville for a while, he did return recently to attend his Maryville High School Class of 1959 reunion. His son Robby lives in the community.
Old friend Alexander
One of his claims to fame is being a schoolmate with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, at MHS. Bowers and Alexander played on the MHS basketball team. Alexander, Bowers said, was his backup.
Alexander might dispute it, his friend added.
Bowers also loves to tell a story about Alexander and not getting too full of oneself.
It seems Alexander had pulled off at a gas station on East Lamar Alexander Parkway and handed his credit card to the young clerk.
She looked at his name and then asked, “Did they name you after this highway?”
Ross Perot, the self-made billionaire who ran for president, died this week at the age of 89. Bowers was on a board with him in West Texas.
He also got to know Dolly Parton when he worked in Sevier County.
After years of reporting and managing newsrooms, Bowers’ job at The Daily Banner has him writing obituaries. He said at his age, it’s only fitting.
He said he has retired two or three times from the Cleveland newspaper, but “they keep hiring me back.”
And as the obituaries roll in, Bowers understands an even greater fate affecting today’s newspapers, large or small. It is the older generation who are the subscribers.
“We are losing six to 10 subscribers a day,” he said. “The older generation is dying out and the younger generation is not subscribing. With social media, it’s different.”
It’s gotten so critical that The Daily Banner had to lay off four people at the beginning of June.
“That is the first time in 165 years that this paper ever laid anyone off,” Bowers said.
Huge technological strides and a changing mindset of the younger generation are what have mostly caused the decline in readership, he said.
“My father worked at ALCOA and would come home after work and read every word in The Maryville/Alcoa Daily Times,” Bowers said. “People don’t do that today and those readers are rapidly leaving us. Today, it’s smartphones, iPads and tablets taking over for newspapers.”
Bowers came back to Maryville briefly in 1997 after his mother died but he left for the Cleveland job in October of the same year and stayed. He said over the years, he thought about making Blount County his home again, but it wasn’t in the cards.
Not about the money
He knew he would never get rich in the business and he’s OK with that, or just learned how to adapt after 60 years. Money wasn’t why he chose the life.
“I have enjoyed the newspaper business,” he said. “I have worked hard and put in a lot of hours, thousands that I was never paid for. I don’t mind getting up early and working late. That’s how it was. Young reporters don’t realize how it was back then.”
He laughs and says maybe he should have cozied up to Perot, who could have given him a hefty sum. Or, his choices could have been bank robbery or fraud, he jokes.
“I am sure there is money out there somewhere, but I haven’t found it in journalism yet.”