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 community got its name. He didn’t know, and he said the schoolteacher didn’t know, either. And so I finally had to tell him it was named after a pioneer lawyer here in Center, Judge Dan Short. I used to write columns about all those places. I’m real happy to keep these kids interested in local history. They can’t wait to call in with their answers.”
Mattie’s late-in-life career as a radio personality is not as farfetched as it might seem. “I’ve always liked dabbling around news,” she says, “even though I don’t have a college education—just high school.” When Mattie McLendon graduated in 1929, during the Depression, her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, so she went to work at Perry’s dime store, earning $1.50 a day. “We were proud to get it,” she says. “I was such an active little clerk that the drugstore heard about me and hired me. That’s when I met my husband, L. L. Dellinger. He was known as Pete. He was the pharmacist.”
Later Mattie and Pete ran a grocery store, and Mattie started her own news bureau on the side. She covered local stories for the Houston Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Shreveport Times, and the Beaumont Enterprise. With no formal journalistic training, she wrote by instinct: “I’ve always tried to write on a certain level. You know what that is? I knew my mother would read my columns and stories, so I tried to write on a level that my mother would enjoy. The editors said that was a good idea. Don’t use two-bit words when nickel words would do.”
She was widowed in 1966, but her two children live nearby. Her son, Dan Dellinger, is the general manager of KDET-KLCR. “But, now, I got the job here before he was the manager,” Mattie points out. “Jack Bell was the manager back in ’87. He told me, ‘Let’s have us a program and let you utilize your history knowledge, and just talk about old times in Center.’ I never had mike fright or anything.”
Her daughter, Dixie Lee, has come home, semi-retired from a career as a microbiologist at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas, to run a Christmas tree farm with her brother out on Texas Highway 7. “Baylor still calls her in from time to time,” says Mattie. “She’s real smart.”
Mattie doesn’t have many guidelines for the show’s contents. “We shy away from serious politics, but Ann Richards came on during the campaign and played ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ on one of my friends’ ukuleles,” she says. “We’ve got other shows that handle the abortion issue and that stuff,” Mattie notes. “We’ll discuss religion sometimes but not doctrine.
“I was raised a Southern Baptist, and my folks wouldn’t let us associate with anybody who danced or played cards, but I’ve got two big vices, horse racing and Las Vegas. I love those nickel and quarter slot machines. I’m going out again next October first for my eighty-first birthday. You really need to supplement your income these days. Did you know they take Social Security out of my Social Security?”
For two years, Mattie’s sidekick, engineer, board operator, and bucolic straight man was Jerry Welch, a 27-year-old Illinois native who had been a broadcaster in the Army and came to Center to meet the pen pal who would become his wife. “I proposed to my wife on this show,” Jerry says.
Engineering Mattie’s show wasn’t always easy. On a fine day in January, Welch flails for the switches to connect a call when Mattie halts in midsentence to pick up the phone. “We have two women on the show who are real smart,” she was saying. “They have encyclopedias. One of them is Lena Ellington and the other is Peg … Hello, you’re on Party Line!” A man’s voice comes on air with “Go ahead and finish tellin’ about the two women.”
“Oh, okay,” Mattie continues. “The other one is Peggy Hutcherson, our counter. One day she was waiting in the doctor’s office, so she counted all the tiles in the ceiling. So then we gave her something really big. We told her to go up there and count all the bricks in the courthouse. And she did! She worked out there for over a month, and people would drive by and watch her counting bricks. She stopped traffic. And she came up with a pretty good number—two million and something.”
That patiently waiting male caller is attorney John R. Smith, the one who rushes down to the studio whenever he is really ready to talk. He says, “I wanted to tell you a problem I’m having with my mother-in-law. It’s a long story, but you’re five minutes away from sign-off, so I’ll tell you another time.”
Another regular, Clara Garrett, makes a Mattie-endorsed potion called Clara’s Liniment. “It’ll fix everything from bone spurs to potholes on the square,” Mattie proclaims, then breaks off to take a call from 89-year-old Wincie, who announces that she doesn’t have her teeth in but still wants to take a crack at today’s spelling challenge, “Episcopalian.”
“Eee pee eye eth thee oh pee ay ell eye oh em-muh?”
“I think that’s right,” Mattie says. The prize is one of Mattie’s twenty cats.
Once they’ve experienced Mattie’s show, people from bigger places have been known to time a trip through Mattie’s listening area when Party Line is on. Some of those traveling on Interstate 20 stop at roadside pay phones to dial her number just to say they are listening, happy to hear something shamelessly human on the radio instead of the glossy dross created by broadcast consultants. In an era of atrophied traditions and expendable landmarks, Mattie Dellinger’s twangy voice from Center speaks to their hearts. Her show—hokey, honest, wandering, and determinedly rural—breaks all the programming rules of big-time broadcasting in places like Dallas and Houston. But when you’re at the center of the universe, who cares?