Winston Churchill once said, "The most beautiful voice in the world is that of an educated Southern woman." Though it isn't possible, one might think he was speaking of the River Valley's own Anita Paddock. Anita has played the role of mentor, instructor, and influence to a number of area writers all who are quick to credit her as the main reason for their success. Anita is more than just a teacher; she is a personal cheerleader for all of her students.
"I started out reading Nancy Drew mysteries," Anita says. "I started with them as soon as I learned to read." While most girls her age were asking their parents for a new dress or maybe new shoes, Anita was always asking for a new Nancy Drew book. Later on, after being taken on regular trips to the library by her sister Rita, also a huge reader, Anita's interests began to expand. She became a fan of Daphne DuMaurier, her favorite being "The Frenchman's Creek." "I would play like I was in the book by the pond in our pasture," she says.
At age thirteen, her dad gave her an old typewriter with a metal stand. The young girl spent hours in her room, pounding out one short story after another. Though she enjoyed the work she was doing, she decided to keep her writing skills a secret, even throughout high school and college. "My last name was Snoddy," she says. "You know how cruel kids can be. With a name like that, I didn't want to draw attention to myself." She remembers in college, considering all the writing courses available, and wishing she could take them. She didn't, wanting to come across as "normal" as possible.
The first person to recognize her gift for writing was her sister, Rita, whose trips to the library had helped to broaden Anita's horizons all those years ago. Married and living in Little Rock, Anita wrote letters to her sister. Later, after moving from Little Rock to Texas, Anita continued writing letters home. Rita became her biggest fan. When her husband decided he wanted out of the marriage, Anita moved back to Van Buren. It was then, with Rita's encouragement, she began writing short stories again. "She gave me permission to proceed," says Anita.
She later married her second husband, Ben Paddock. When Ben was thirty-six years old, he had a heart attack and nearly died. Realizing that life is short, Anita decided to try something she had always wanted to do but had never made time for. At the age of thirty-four, she enrolled in her first writing class. The class met on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The instructor was a graduate student in the writer's program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
The first story she wrote for the class was based on a lady she knew named Inez Radford. Inez was an elderly lady who had lived across the street from Anita's first husband's family. "She was an eccentric woman," Anita says. "She was going to Colombia University, working toward her doctorate, when she suffered a breakdown and had to come back home." Anita wrote the story, sending it to be read by Rita before turning it in to be graded in class. "Rita loved it," says Anita. "She said it was wonderful. Then I turned it in to the instructor..."
The story came back covered with blue ink marks from the instructor's pen. Most students might have given up right then, but not Anita. Seeing it more as a challenge than a hindrance, she worked on the story, rewrote it, and turned it in again at the end of the semester. This time the instructor loved it saying he had never known anybody who had improved so much in just one term.
Her first published story, one she was actually paid for, appeared in "Byline Magazine." It was a writers magazine then published in Norman, Oklahoma. "It was the place for new writers to submit their work," says Anita. Her story, "Reunion," was based on a true incident happening when she and Ben went to Little Rock for the birth of Ben's first grandchild. His ex-wife was also there, providing perfect material for a short story. "I didn't tell Ben anything about it," she says. "But then the magazine accepted it, so I had to." She laughs as she recalls the first time Ben read the story. "He kept repeating, 'Oh Nita, Oh Nita,' until he finally got to the description of the character. Then he said, 'whew, blonde hair and blue eyes, it isn't me."
Anita met Ben on a blind date. He had led a charmed life. A member of a prominent local family, he came from money and was very athletic. After attending the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, he was able to study at Duke University. He even spent a bit of time working on Wall Street. He was a skilled attorney handling the bulk of legal work for Mid-America Industries. When he lost that account, he was faced with starting all over again. He was involved in two high profile suits that could have put him back on top, but neither of those paid off. He couldn't leave the area. He felt he had lost everything. However, he did have a huge insurance policy.
One Sunday morning, having just gotten out of bed, Anita found a letter left for her from Ben. In the letter he wrote of his plan to go to a warehouse owned by the family and take his own life. He left specific instructions as to who she should call, where his body would be, and told her to stay away. "Had I not already been writing, already making a niche for myself," Anita says, "I don't know what I would have done after Ben's death."
When Ben died, Anita had already begun teaching writing classes, working under Carole Barger in the Continuing Education department at Westark Community College (now the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith). She'd worked with the "Write Your Life Story" community course for five years when, looking for a change, she began her own short story class. Her second class was in session at the time of Ben's death. She was not able to continue the class and was overwhelmed by her student's show of support. "It was the first time I realized that I mean something to people," she says. "Not just people I'd known forever, but these students, who I'd only known a short time, and we had already formed a bond." That class is not the only group of writers Anita has influenced throughout the years.
Her first student to be recognized was Reba Kirkendall who wrote the "Across the Creek" column for the Southwest Times Record. Having spotted the natural talent in her student, Anita contacted SWTR publisher Jack Mosely and recommended he hire Reba to write for the paper. He did and it soon became one of the paper's most popular features. Later, Reba self-published a collection of her articles, which was also a success. Even while lying in the hospital before she died, she was signing copies of her book for the nurses and staff. "I think I am most proud of her success than anybody's," says Anita.
Doug Kelley was the first of her students to actually publish a novel, "The Captain's Wife." Doug had been working on his manuscript for quite some time when he accompanied Anita and another friend on a trip to the annual OWFI, Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc., conference. On their way back home, Doug announced he had given his manuscript to an agent. "I remember saying, 'Oh no, Doug, it wasn't ready, you shouldn't have done that,'" Anita says. "The agent called him in two weeks, and then sold it in three weeks to Dutton, a major publishing house." Yet another success story credited directly to Anita's influence.
But to find her most successful student, she doesn't have to go very far from home. Anita's daughter, Jennifer, is the author of three published novels, an achievement of which Anita could not be more proud. After graduating, Jennifer went to work in Washington D.C. Though starting in the mailroom, she was eventually promoted to writing letters. Despite being told she was a good writer, Jennifer just wasn't interested. After all, writing was "Mom's thing." Later, after being introduced to the work of Raymond Carver, she began dabbling in poetry and short stories.
She moved back to Fayetteville and started classes at the university. Having already earned a degree in philosophy, she could now add a degree in English to the fold. Jennifer began sending applications for graduate studies and was accepted by a number of schools. After careful consideration, she chose to move to New York and attend NYU, graduating with a full portfolio of short stories. She later went to a writers conference held at the University of the South, her dad's old stomping grounds in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she met an agent. The agent suggested Jennifer join the stories in a collection bound by one common denominator. She took his advice and what started as a collection of short stories became her first published novel in 2004, "A Secret Word." Her second novel, "Point Clear," was published in 2006. "The Weight of Memory," Jennifer's third novel, was released in May of 2012.
In 2015, one of Anita's fondest dreams finally came true; her first true-crime novel was published. The book chronicled the 1981 murder of Ruie Ann Park, a pillar of the Van Buren, Arkansas community. Having attended high school with Mrs. Park's children, Anita was especially interested in the case. "When I first read about it, I vowed to my husband Ben this was the book I would someday write," she says. "Now, thirty-five years later, I came through with my vow." While some people are content to see their dream come true then rest on their laurels, Anita was filled with a desire to do more. Her latest book, also a true-crime novel, will be released soon. "Closing Time" documents the robbery and murders at the Staton Jewelry Store in 1980.
I met Anita while taking her short story class. Though I was a bit hesitant toward taking the class at first, very unsure of myself, Anita put me at ease almost immediately. She was the first to recognize the fact that I could write and with her encouragement, I soon came to believe it myself. I would not be doing what I am doing now if not for Anita's guidance, assistance, and influence. This article does not do her the justice she deserves; there is no way I could ever put into words how much I appreciate all she has done for me. Teacher, mentor, mother to David and Jennifer, grandmother to Sarah and Zack, these are all terms that describe Anita Paddock perfectly. Even so, when I speak of her, I prefer to use the word "friend."