A 70-year tradition ended before it was even 8 a.m. Friday.
When Matt Smith ended his morning ag radio show, it still was dusky and damp outside. It had been a rainy few days, enough to put a damper on hopes for a decent cotton crop this year. The combination of rain and temperatures that briefly and unseasonably dipped into the upper 40s was not a winning one.
But such is life for farmers and ranchers, a hardy group of West Texans whom Smith loves.
As did his grandfather, the late Harry Holt.
When Holt, who reported on West Texas ag for 50 years, became ill on a Sunday in 2000, he called his grandson and told him to fill in that next morning on his radio show.
Next morning turned into 20 years.
About two years ago, Smith — who owns Fry-Smith Funeral Home in Tuscola and has done his radio show from there for years — thought about retiring. He decided he’d round it off at 20 years.
Still, it was “bittersweet” when the time came. On the air Friday and again when we talked Monday afternoon, he choked up a bit.
“I did it,” he said, slowly, “out of respect for my grandfather.”
“I’ll miss it. The part I’ll miss is everybody I interviewed was salt of the earth.”
Can’t turn down granddad
There was great respect for Harry Holt.
The Reporter-News for years had J.T. Smith, and some good ag reporters who followed. Even a “girl reporter,” someone once said of Katie Dickey.
Alas, time has marched on, or maybe it has plowed us over. The demand isn’t there for specialty ag reporting, and with Smith’s retirement, the sun has set on a job that requires you to get up before the chickens and know your stuff.
It all began with “Matt, my boy, you’re going to do my radio show Monday.”
Smith was taken aback but answered correctly, “OK, I’ll do it.”
That’s the cowboy way.
His grandfather had many resources for information and Smith printed about 3½ feet of it to read on the air. That ought to get him through 30 minutes, minus six for commercials.
No sir. That was enough for five minutes.
“Then I just did the weather,” he said. “I was dyin’ on the air. It was baptism by fire.
“I knew exactly how long a minute was. It could be an eternity.”
But he stuck with it. When Holt was well enough to return, he did so at a part-time pace. Smith did two-thirds of the report and his grandfather the other third.
“He didn’t want to give it up,” Smith said.
Holt had both a radio and TV show for years. He also wrote for the Sweetwater Reporter and the Abilene Reporter-News.
He started at KRBC in 1952, beginning on the radio and adding TV when that came along the next year. When KRBC got out of the radio business, Holt went to KWKC.
Smith filled in for his grandfather on TV at KRBC, though never was an employee. When the ag report was dropped there and Jimmy Parker, who was doing a similar show for KTXS, died, Smith took over there until the station also dropped its TV show.
Learning the craft
Smith gave a shout-out to Jim Christoferson, who taught him how to work the control board and gave him a good piece of advice: if you make a mistake, and you will, move on.
“Don’t revisit it,” he told Smith.
And KWKC station owner Dave Boyll advised him to not talk so fast.
“He told me, ‘Slow down, and when you’ve done that, slow down again,'” Smith said. “He was 100 percent correct.”
Smith said he had some great interviews, including a man involved with the European Union who came across “just as Texan as you and I.”
Hardest interview? That would be rocker and bowhunter Ted Nugent, who was talking to Smith while shooting targets before a concert in Abilene. Nugent was selling him on landowner rights and hunting.
Holt died a month shy of his 90th birthday in May 2004.
“I love radio,” Smith said. “It’s more personal and intimate.”
But, Holt once told him, TV is where you get famous.
Live on air … from a funeral home
Smith bought Fry-Bartlett Funeral Home in 2010, keeping Fry in the name because the business originally was Fry Funeral Home, going back about 75 years now.
He lives at the funeral home, and to save time traveling to and from Abilene to do his radio show, Smith did his report there.
The opportunity to work as a funeral director “landed in my lap,” said Smith, who was looking for something new to do after leaving ranching and the TV gig ended. “I’ll invoke my faith and say God’s hand was in it.”
He had no experience in the funeral home business but, like he did with radio, he jumped in with both boots.
He did have some background to do ag reporting.
Though he grew up in Arlington, the city boy would jump into his Blazer on weekends, holidays and summers to drive out west to work for Harry and Mary Clark Holt. He made a good hand for a city boy.
“I was blowing up the highway” going back and forth, he said. “I had the best of both worlds, city and country.”
He learned rancher’s hours, too. He was up at 3:30 a.m. to be on the air for the TV show on KTXS. It was up by 6 to do the radio show. He got into a routine, knowing where to go for news, he said.
One thing he learned about TV and radio: you have to be on time. He couldn’t be two minutes late for a radio report or there’d be dead air. That’s a killer in radioland.
He managed to juggle radio and funeral home services, though sometimes there’d be a conflict. A family would call maybe at 4:30 a.m. and he would need to counsel them, aware, too, that he had to be on the air just after 7 a.m., prepared and ready to go.
He did his best to fulfill both obligations.
The value of agriculture
Smith said living a ranch life prepared him, though not formally, to be a funeral director.
“Ag taught me the value of life and the miracle of death,” he said. “You’re born, you live, you die.”
That is a daily ritual for a rancher, who witnesses animal birth but maybe one day has to put down a prized animal.
“You learn compassion,” he said.
Smith said he’ll have time now to get back to ranching. The family has land near Eastland, in the Potosi area and toward Sweetwater.
The thing that has changed the most in 20 years, he said, is how technology drives ag. The use of drones, GPS and the internet has become so important. He laments the lack of broadband service in rural areas.
“That’s the biggest change,” he said.
“I am proud so say I have an ag background. I’m not a dumb farmer,” he said.
Greg Jaklewicz is editor of the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
Read or Share this story: https://www.reporternews.com/story/news/columnists/greg-jaklewicz/2020/09/16/70-years-west-texas-ag-reporting-comes-end/5785838002/