The Shelby County Chamber of Commerce’s brochure touts 21 points of interest in Center (population: 5,827), ranging from the courthouse bandstand and the 1928 icehouse to the old Methodist church cemetery and Bealls department store. It is somehow surprising that Mattie’s Party Line isn’t on the list. But then, it doesn’t need to be. Everyone knows how to find the East Texas poultry-and-plywood town’s most popular radio talk show: It airs Tuesdays through Fridays right after the three o’clock news and agri-weather, on both 930 AM and 102.3 FM. Started four years ago by Mattie Dellinger, now eighty, the hour-long show has become radio’s equivalent of the courthouse square and has made its chatty hostess Center’s biggest celebrity.
Party Line is a surrealistically random blend of call-in chitchat, trivia challenges, local history, and Mattie’s fey comments (“Richard Nixon, my favorite ex-president, was on Larry King last night”). As a compelling, occasionally wacky Our Town— meeting in an ingenuous broadcast format, it lies somewhere between Greater Tuna and lesser Talknet. It also serves, coincidentally, as a source of civic identity and self-esteem. “When people ask us where Center is,” says Mattie, “we tell them it’s all covered in the call letters of our two radio stations. KDET—that’s ‘Knee-Deep East Texas.’ KLCR means ‘Lake Country Radio.’ Oh, and we’re also the center of the universe.”
Slight and starchy, Mattie seems to look with some won-der from behind big, trendy rimless glasses. (She says her favorite adjectives for herself are “cheerful” and “vague.”) Her voice is high-pitched and relentlessly happy but can turn shrill when something has just astounded her. Her radio strengths include an instinct for the enticing non sequitur and a talent as a conversationalist on local lore: She is not so much a town historian as an eyewitness to de-cades of Center life and a curator of eccentric stories about the town ghosts.
“I was just thinking about you yesterday,” regular caller Joe Louis Jones tells her on a recent show, “and I wanted to ask you if you remember who George Dry was.”
“Hmmm. Now, George Dry, I remember him. He lived to be nearly a hundred years old, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, George Dry and Mizz Dry. They lived on Railroad Avenue. I think it was on the east side of Highway Seven or the west side. You remember where they lived?”
“Yes, it was on the side towards town, because there wasn’t any houses across the railroad track. Oh, and you know, after George died she went into the nursing home out at Holiday Lodge, and she lived to be nearly a hundred years old. And she didn’t have any survivors.”
“Mattie, do you remember what they did to make a living?”
“Didn’t he sell candy or something?”
“Yeah. They made homemade taffy candy. There was white taffy, made out of just refined sugar, and then some of it was yellow taffy, made out of syrup.”
“And he sold it up on the sidewalk in front of John C. Rogers’ drugstore. You could buy two or three pennies’ worth and have enough to share.”
Jones pulls a historical hat trick, recalling two other town characters: Cootie Sigler, who had memorably droopy eyelids and sold rabbits door-to-door, and a man named Shug Jones, who had an account at the bank where Jones worked in the fifties. “He had five thousand dollars in his account, and he would come around every now and then and want to see his money. And I would have to go back there in the vault and get enough twenties to make five thousand dollars, and put his name on ’em, and bring ’em out, and show ’em to him before he would be satisfied that he had that money in the bank.”
Jones is one of an oddly talented squad of regular callers. “Nobody can say ‘downnntownnn Center’ the way Joe Louis Jones does,” Mattie says with admiration. “And we have Lamar Roberts, who will sing on the phone in spite of everything. He listens to the ‘Birthday Calendar,’ so he knows who’s got a birthday. That’s his favorite song, ‘Happy Birthday.’ He likes to draw it out a lot, you know.
“And then we have Lefty Faulk, who’s an ex—baseball player. He calls in every day, and we try to stump him with baseball questions. And one of our prominent lawyers here in Center is John R. Smith. He’s got an office over on the east side of the square, and when we’re talking about something he’s interested in, he just quits his desk and runs down here in his car and joins in. He hates astrology, so of course I make out like I enjoy it. One time I told him, if he’d tell the judges to pick one juror for every month of the year, every sign of the zodiac, then we’d really have some interesting and balanced juries.”
Town physician Dr. Joe Hooker is another regular. “I’m not a native of Center, not even a native Texan,” he says. “For the first twenty years that I lived here, I was the new doctor in town. Patients would tell me when I came here, ‘Oh, I live down near where so-and-so used to live,’ instead of an address, you know, and that didn’t mean a thing in the world to me. Mattie has made us all learn our town better.”
Some children are as devoted to Party Line as their elders are. “I have people I call my ‘connections’ from the towns around here,” Mattie says. “There’s a little boy who calls in from the Dreka community; I call him the Dreka Connection. And then there’s a little boy in the Short community—he calls himself the Short Circuit. They get out of school at three-thirty, and so they can listen for the last half hour, and they’re wantin’ me to pop ’em a question they can answer. The little boy in Short, I challenged him to find out where his