Local History – October 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” October 2009.


Like A Bottle Cast On The Shore
By Lauren Coodley

While today, women make important contributions to newspapers and local magazines such as this one, newspaperwomen in the Forties and Fifties, like Phyllis King, were unusual. Phyllis King was one of the few pioneer journalists who kept her job after World War II. Liz Reyna, King’s daughter, writes of her mother:

“Phyllis King Thompson was a newspaper reporter from the l940’s through the early Sixties, mostly in Napa, her birthplace. Her great grandfather, a Methodist minister, had come here in the l880’s after serving as a chaplain for the Union Army in the Civil War and as a circuit riding minister in California’s mining towns. Her grandfather, Judge Percy King, presided over Napa courts from Prohibition through World War II. Her father, Percy King Jr, was also a judge in the l950’s, and her Aunt “Babe” (Elizabeth King Robinson) was Napa’s first woman lawyer.”

Phyllis, born in l924, graduated from Napa High in 1942, attended Stanford, then moved to Marysville and worked on a daily paper during World War II. The public relations officer at nearby Camp Beale was Carl F. Beuoy, whom she would contact for camp news and would later marry.   After the war ended, the couple moved to the Midwest where they both sought work in journalism. Their two children were born in l947 and l948.

“After my mother separated from my dad, she moved back to Napa. We lived at the ranch at 2230 Big Ranch Road for a while, then moved to downtown Napa where we lived in an old Victorian on Second Street.  This is where most of my mom’s newspaper career took place. She was a versatile reporter, covering everything from what was then called ‘women’s news’, to politics, major news stories, travel, and scientific advances. She had a terrific sense of humor, a very quick mind, knew everyone in town, and was a very social person. She had reddish-brown hair, gorgeous and naturally wavy, was always slim and enjoyed up-to-date styles.”

Reyna describes how her mother simultaneously worked in a “man’s world,” as it was then frankly labeled, and also managed to “wallpaper several tall rooms in her old Victorian with only the help of two young children.” Reyna remembers watching her mother sitting at her typewriter, either at home or at the Napa Register office, with the phone cradled on her shoulder, getting information on some breaking news and pounding away at her keyboard at the same time:

“Within moments the story would roll out of the typewriter, a finished product requiring only minor edits before it would appear in the next day’s paper. She worked a full day at the Register, then came home to write Napa stories for the Sacramento Bee and the Oakland Tribune. By 9 p.m., we would drive down to the bus depot to send the stories off for the morning’s editions.”

Phyllis King herself gives a vivid account of what it was like to work for a local paper in the Forties. She describes working with Register editor Arthur MacKay “in the days when reporters used folded over half sheets of copy paper to be held easily in the left hand…before they donned horned rimmed glasses and bought clipboards.”

“Mac’s predecessor was a fellow by the name of George Peck… When George arrived in Napa, about l94l, the newsroom stretched some l5 by l2 feet, room enough for him, a reporter, and the society editor plus the morgue. The society editor had a constant flow of people in to inform her of “club happenings” (It wasn’t proper to have “social functions” during the war.)

Back in those days, people in town hung out at the Plaza Hotel bar. George used to get together there every night with the lawyers, courthouse personnel, and other interested townsfolk. One night he became deeply engrossed in conversation with a group…until he decided maybe he couldn’t make it to his rooming house three blocks away. He went to the phones and called an ambulance!”

King recounts how newspapers were produced during the War years: “In order to catch the mail, the paper had to turn from an evening to a morning publication, so the society editor handled things during the day, with the reporter and editor coming in late in the afternoon.” The publisher and composing room foreman got the paper out in the morning.

Recently, Richard Rodriguez noted that “Newspapers are about something much more intimate, something more local, something more flavored than merely news. I say “merely news,” by which I mean that there is some other aspect of the drama of our lives that newspapers used to be attentive to.”  Liz Reyna writes:

“Mom died too early, at 49, more than 30 years ago.  Her stories offered glimpses into other simpler times: when Napa’s population was only l3,000, before Berryessa Valley was flooded, when a new house was $ll,000, and the Uptown Theatre was showing Teenage Rebel. As the years pass, her old stories from high school and her many newspaper clippings, are becoming brittle and yellowed with age… like a bottle cast on the shore, they bring us back something of the person Mom was.”

Phyllis King’s writing transports us to old Napa, where everyone gathered at the downtown Plaza Hotel Bar, a time when everyone read the daily newspaper, which held those l3,000 souls together in community– the world that Phyllis King chronicled with such delight.

Notes: Phyllis King’s children are Liz Reyna of Rohnert Park, Phillip Beuoy of Santa Ynez and Laura Reed of Napa.
Thanks to Paula Amen Schmitt for editing; to Richard Rodriguez for “The Death of the San Francisco Chronicle,”
http://www.newamericamedia.org, Jun 6, 2009

Last month’s essay Fighting Fires should have been credited to Paula Amen Schmitt with Lauren Coodley.



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