WOODBURY - Every two weeks, Esther Baker picks up her phone and sets out to cover what might be the smallest reporting beat in Pennsylvania.
And every two weeks, after the 87-year-old Baker puts her scoops on paper and leaves them in her mailbox, the Morrisons Cove Herald publishes her column, The Waterside News, a local journalistic institution now in its 56th year.
"It's the news: what everybody's doing, where everybody's been, what the kids are doing," said Donna Carbaugh, among the Bedford County village's estimated 90 residents and an occasional column source.
Mirror photo by Ryan Brown
Columnist Esther Baker sits with her old Smith-Corona Skywriter typewriter she once used to create her bi-weekly column for the Morrisons Cove Herald.
Somewhere between personal reflection and small-town society column, Baker's section - usually occupying just a few column inches in the weekly Herald - opens with a Biblical poem or phrase before detailing the daily activities of Waterside's populace.
"Earl and Janis Slick had dinner on Easter with Clint, Lynne Isaiah and Grace Burke," reads a passage in the April 11 edition. "The Helsels had a birthday dinner on Sunday for Luke Wiedemann, who just turned 11."
Baker, not a trained reporter but surely among the longest-running journalists actively covering central Pennsylvania, has worked through near-unimaginable personal tragedy to deliver information to a tiny but loyal readership.
"I just try to write the news," Baker said last week at the farmhouse where she's lived for decades. "And of course, I include some about Esther and family."
Raised in the Cove by a farming family, Baker took jobs as a bookkeeper, secretary and post office clerk before marrying her husband, Bob, in 1947. Her family struggled, losing their first house to a fire and fighting to make ends meet.
"That was mighty hard, when you have no money. No place to call a home," she said. "I learned to live with what I had or do without."
In 1959, her son Roger, aged 5, seriously injured his eye in a household accident. A local doctor urged immediate surgery at what was then Mercy Hospital in Altoona, Baker said.
A surgeon emerged from the operating room, only to tell Baker that her son had died. It was the day after Thanksgiving.
Complications - easily preventable, in Baker's words - were the cause.
"We just lost, lost and we didn't have anything left to lose. Except debt," she said.
Told in 1956 that the Herald's Waterside correspondent had quit, Baker took up the job at 5 cents per column inch. Her only literary background came from her father, who for years had penned religious and family-themed poems and articles with ease.
After spending years writing for free to pay off a farm-machinery ad her family had taken out in the Herald, Baker asked her editors for a raise. She got one: They doubled her pay to 10 cents an inch, where it remains today.
"I make a lot of calls for the pittance I get," she said with a laugh. "I probably spend four to five hours making calls, call-backs and trying to put it together."
It's the same procedure every two weeks: Baker calls her Waterside neighbors, collecting news on family visits and dinner parties, health updates and the occasional birthday.
She selects a religious note, often gleaned from her Seventh Day Baptist church bulletin, then puts the column on paper. She doesn't use a computer and has abandoned even the old Smith-Corona Skywriter typewriter she once employed.
"I couldn't get the tape I needed, so now it just sits there," Baker said.
Instead, she writes the column by hand, then leaves it in her mailbox for a Herald employee to grab on the way to work.
"If I paid the postage to send it, I wouldn't have many cents left," she said.
Placed in the Herald's "B" section under her name, the title "Correspondent" and her home phone number, Baker's column receives infrequent but passionate feedback. She recalled acquaintances begging her not to cancel the column - in many ways the last of its kind, Morrisons Cove Herald Assistant Editor Brian Hess said last week.
"We used to have columnists, over the years, cover the New Enterprise area and Claysburg, maybe Curryville. ... It was like 'who visited who,' events that were coming up - nothing negative," Hess said. "I believe she's the only one still writing a column about one of the small towns."
On the off-chance the editors forget to include the Waterside News one week, they can expect complaints from Baker's most loyal readers, he said.
As the years passed, her column switched from every week to every other week as fewer sources kept in touch.
"I'm the oldest person around here. Which means that most of my patrons, so to speak, are gone long ago," Baker said.
Baker kept writing even after her husband's death and a second family tragedy. In 2001, her son Wayne, a nurse at Nason Hospital, was killed by a piece of farm equipment on the land where his mother still lives. He was 50 years old.
Wayne was beloved by his Nason coworkers - who fought to keep him alive, Baker said, a tear in her eye.
Burying two sons and fighting to provide for two daughters (Anita Jubas and Sara Hayashi-Kavanagh) both now grown, left Baker with one rule for her column: No crime coverage or horrific news stories.
"No, I don't do any of those. I can't take that," she said. "I've had enough of the terrible incidents."
Instead, Baker uses her column to offer prayers for ill readers, sympathy to those who've lost relatives and happy stories about visits with her family, whose photographs cover her walls and fill stacks of albums.
Among her albums are yellowing news clippings: notes on the Southern Cove Volunteer Fire Company, for whom she volunteers, and a curious Herald story about Baker's violent struggles with snakes outside her home. In her spare time, she tends a garden and personally combats weeds, despite an aching back.
"Of course, my little bit of writing is part of my existence. It keeps me a part of the community - involved," she said.
Asked whether she has any plans to retire from journalism, Baker demurred.
"I don't have any plans to," she said. "I'll let the Lord decide it."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.