Herald Democrat "church lady" JoAnn Ecker dies at the age of 70

Jerrie Whiteley
Herald Democrat
JoAnn Ecker

JoAnn Ecker, a Herald Democrat's newsroom family died Wednesday at Texoma Medical Center in Denison. She was 70 years old.

Before retirement, Ecker spent decades tracking the births, lives and deaths of the people of Grayson County through the Sherman, and later, the Herald Democrat.

She started at the paper in the composing department and then left to have her daughter, Heather. When Ecker returned, she worked in the newsroom and took over the job as archivist or librarian. While she was a great librarian, it was on the paper's church pages where she really shined bright.

 “Perhaps devotion is the best word to describe JoAnn’s commitment to the church page, her job at the Herald Democrat, its readers and her co-workers,” former Herald Democrat editor Jonathan Cannon said at the time of her retirement.  “She was the ‘church lady’ because she had a passion for it."

That passion caused her to spend decades typing in the news supplied by area churches each week. Some weeks, like those right before Christmas and Easter, this seemed like a David and Goliath fight to most of her co-workers, but it was one she always won.

“I have loved every minute of it. I have met so many people from different walks of life that I would have never met. Look at all of the people in the churches I met. I know I met over 100 churches and I know I met more people and all of the people at the funeral home, I loved them,” Ecker said at the time of her retirement.

She reflected on how she came to wear so many different hats in the newsroom. 

“I just considered it a ministry. I really did. And God gave me that job. I know he did ‘cause it fit me. It fit my personality. I fit my limited skills,” she said. (A note to the reader, Ecker’s skills were anything but limited.)

“She was a hard worker who always did excellent, 99.9 percent error-free work, and in this business that makes her a great employee,” said retired Herald Democrat editor Don Eldredger who had been Ecker’s boss for decades at the time of her retirement. “Anyone who deals with as many words as she dealt with every day and did so with a minimum of errors is a prize employee. And she was most certainly that.”

Eldredge explained that the church page as it existed before it Ecker added her own personal spin to it, looked nothing like it did when she left in 2014.

JoAnn Ecker

“JoAnn expanded what had been a single page that included some wire stories into a section mostly filled with local copy. It was among several extra duties she took on after starting out as editorial librarian. Of course, she continued her librarian duties throughout her career and always did a fantastic job at any effort she undertook,” he said.

“It just kind of took on a life of its own,” Ecker said of the church page. “I really believe that I met the best people," she said. She added that after retirement, she missed seeing those people every week and talking to them on the phone.

Although Ecker excelled at the church news part of her job, it wasn’t the only thing she did all day. As Eldredge mentioned, she started in the newsroom as the paper’s librarian which meant she was also in charge of archiving the daily paper. 

At the time of Ecker's retirement former Herald Democrat city editor Kathy Williams said she was a wiz at information storage.

“A task that has grown from clipping paper columns out of the day’s production to ensuring that the stories now are settled away in their cyber resting places. Her job grew in complexity from the paper to the digital age.

“Many might not know that the newspaper keeps a wealth of information in its 'morgue,' cross indexed by topic or name and date. In some ways, it’s easier to locate information from the turn of the 20th century than the turn of the 21st century. And that’s thanks to the faithful clipping, indexing and filing JoAnn has accomplished over the years. It’s also thanks to her tenacity in holding recalcitrant reporters and the occasional editor accountable for replacing clip files, photos and negatives.

“JoAnn always has cherished the importance of good records. And any reporter worth his or her salt respected her strict attention to preserving the past, even at the cost of a tactful reminder from JoAnn now and then,” Williams said.

Ecker recounted back then that she took the job so seriously because the woman who had it before her impressed upon her that news papers really are the first draft of history and she knew she was helping to preserve the area's history for future generations.

But she didn't just do the church news and the archiving. She also put in birth announcements and obits. 

“I did them almost all by dictation over the telephone,” Ecker said of the obits she did in the early days of her job in the newsroom. As the fax machine slowly gave way to email, more and more of the obits came in by that means than by dictation.

Being able to cut and paste some of the obits gave Ecker time to work on another task.

“The thing that I miss most of all is the thing that I didn’t even want to do — the birthdays. I didn’t want to do it. I did not want to do it,” Ecker recalled at the time of her retirement.

“When we merged (with the Denison Herald) and Donny told me that he wanted me to do the birthdays, I thought that’s just one more thing that I have to do. Sherman is gonna hate it. Denison was already doing the birthdays. But I thought, that’s Denison and this is Sherman and Sherman is going to hate it.”

But Eldredge said she was a natural for the job.

“I probably assigned the birthdays to her because she was a logical choice in that she was always in the office and she was never prone to mistakes. Dealing with names was a natural in that our librarian also handled obituaries and dealt with many names in that capacity every day,” he explained.

Ecker said that over the years of doing that job she got to know people who would routinely call in birthdays. Some of them called in their family’s names and some of them called in names from their church or Sunday School class. Still others called in the names of entire graduating classes from area schools. Some of those people became friends Ecker never met in person, but cherished.

“There were a lot of ladies (like that),” Ecker said.

“I will miss all of my people," she said as summed up her career back in 2014. This week, those of us who work at the Herald Democrat and all of the friends she made at area churches and throughout the county learned that now, we will have to miss her too. 

Though Ecker had retired as the newsroom's resident "church, obit and birthday lady" in 2014, she kept up with the goings on in the area the way any true newsroom staffer would, by reading the daily paper and calling with questions and an occasional story suggestion. 

As recently as this fall, she was still working the paper's daily crossword puzzle and could be called upon at any time to recall important dates and people from the past for reporters on a deadline.