By Tim Gardner
After nineteen years of operation, the Avery Post newspaper in Newland has closed, effective immediately. The weekly publication’s last printed newspaper was May 13, 2020. And with the closing, the career of Bertie Burleson, thought to be the region’s longevity leader among regional newspaper Editors, has ended.
Burleson released a statement about the Avery Post’s closing from herself and her daughter, Lydia Hoilman, who was the newspaper’s Associate Editor and Layout Artist. The statement was emailed to various patrons of the publication on May 18. It reads: “We are closing the Avery Post following months of businesses being closed due to COVID-19. Words cannot express what you, our advertisers, our ministers and community writers have meant to us You have forged bonds with us that will last, as long as we live; all of you have been a blessing, not only to our community, but to our subscribers in other states. We will always be grateful to you and cherish you as long as we live.”
A newspaper woman for around a half-century, Bertie, as she is called by those who know her best, diligently wrote the news of the area for both the citizens of Avery County and all others who have read her articles and columns.
Bertie was born in the Roaring Creek community of Avery County on September 8, 1936, the sixth child of Ina Cooper Burleson and Robert Scott Burleson. Bertie said her father went for the doctor, but he was delivering another baby; so her father sent for a local midwife nicknamed “Aunt Moll’ Webb, who delivered her.
Burleson was raised in a home filled with music and books. Her father, who owned a sawmill and made his living by sawing lumber and hauling it to various places to sell, played the fiddle. Burleson’s brothers also played musical instruments and they were joined on many occasions by musically gifted neighbors. Bertie said she recalls family members reading to her and that her parents making sure she always had books to read. Thus, her love of the written word came very early in her life. Bertie said that before she could read or write, she would make up poems that her mother would write down.
After Bertie turned six years old, her mother and her sister, Jo, were working in Baltimore, so she stayed with her aunt, Lucy Billings, in New Windsor and started the first grade there.
World War II was being fought and Bertie’s two oldest brothers were still drafted despite working in a war plant. They served six weeks in basic training and then were sent overseas to Italy. Brother Jack was killed in February and Henry was killed in June, 1944. In 1947, Bertie’s father died. He had been gassed in the Argonne Forest in France while fighting during World War I.
The Burlesons moved back home to Avery County, and Bertie attended grade school at Minneapolis Elementary. She graduated from Cranberry High School in 1954.
In 1959, Bertie married Bruce Cantrell and they had two children, Charlie and Lydia, and Bertie now has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. The Cantrells lived in Maryland and the Washington, DC area where Bruce was employed. In 1968, the Cantrells moved back to Avery County. Bertie worked in her cousin’s general store and at Minneapolis School as its secretary and as substitute teacher before launching her newspaper career. Bertie and Bruce eventually divorced and she changed her last name back to Burleson.
With encouragement from the late Judge J. Ray Braswell, Bertie said she wrote and submitted some articles (all which were published) to The North Carolina State Magazine in 1969 and ‘70. She also created a very colorful and enduring character named “Aunt Keziah” for Sherman Pritchard who owned The Avery Journal. Bertie kept readers entertained with her wit in her famous “According to Aunt Keziah” column, written in the Appalachia version of Mountain-Dialect. Bertie has received various awards for her preservation of the mountain dialect and history in her Aunt Keziah articles and she even wrote a booklet entitled: According to Aunt Keziah — Christmas Mem’rys.
In 1971, Pritchard hired Bertie full-time and she worked at the Avery Journal until early 2000. Besides “According to Aunt Keziah,” Bertie wrote articles, took pictures and eventually became Assistant Editor, then Associate Editor, before finally becoming Editor.
Bertie retired from The Avery Journal over philosophical differences with its then Publisher, Glen Grizzard, concerning how the newspaper should operate. Bertie then started her own newspaper, The Avery Post, in 2001, selling shares of stock to finance the undertaking. Shortly after, she was financially able to buy out all of her stockholders. Like she did in the Avery Journal, Bertie gave readers of the Post the news of Avery County with some general stories and features about newsworthy personalities from nearby counties such as Mitchell, Watauga and Carter (Tennessee).
The Avery Post was headquartered in three different locations in Newland during its existence, with its last being in the Newland Town Hall.
Bertie and Hoilman were also assisted with the daily business operations of the newspaper by Bertie’s granddaughter and Lydia’s daughter, Jessica Hoilman Tehandon, who handled its advertising. Before Tehandon, Denise Banner Henson was the Post’s Advertising Director.
Various others have contributed to the Avery Post’s production during its existence including Contributing Editors Jimmie Daniels, Gwen Gentry Clark and Tim Gardner, as well as local ministers Buzz Beers, Phillip Greene and John McCoury. Bertie’s son, Charlie Cantrell, and his wife, Juanita Cantrell, along with their daughter, Lila Cantrell, delivered the newspaper to various stores and other entities in Avery, Mitchell and Carter counties. Bertie’s grandson, Josh Hoilman, also assisted Bertie and Lydia in various capacities when the need arose. Additionally, artist Don Baker provided the Post with many cartoon drawings for Burleson’s “According to Aunt Keziah” columns and Jim Swinkola provided many superlative pictures and some stories for the newspaper.
Bertie’s newspaper career in general, and her life in particular, has been exciting, adventurous and always fulfilling. She has written about various noted personalities and thousands of blue-collar and ordinary people and become friends with multitudes of them. And she has never forgot her friends and always makes time for them.
“God has richly blessed me to have the opportunity to live in Avery County with my family and other people I love so dearly and to do the work that I love for such a long time,” Burleson said. “Life has been good to me.”
You can read more about Bertie’s life and times in the April 2017 issue of High Country Magazine by clicking HERE – and flipping to page 32
The Last Issue of The Avery Post