Most of my readers will never have heard of Mary Kate Tripp. That’s too bad as she was a woman worth knowing. She died this past week, and with her passed a trove of local history about people and events in the tri-state area. That’s eastern New Mexico and the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles for those of you unfamiliar with what I mean by the tri-state area. She was a journalist in the true sense of the word. She reported the news without bias, either political or religious, and never, to my knowledge at least, wrote a story whose facts she could not support by direct observation or evidence in the form of a paper trail or direct quotes from participants–and the quotes had better be truthful. Mary Kate had no time for liars. Among other stories, Mary Kate reported on the Clutter murders in Kansas, the murders which inspired Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood. She was amused by the fact that most of the initial interviews during the first days of the criminal investigation were conducted by Harper Lee, not Truman Capote. Mary Kate thought that a wise strategy on Capote’s part, as the conservative Kansas lawmen and family and friends of the victims might have been a little hesitant to speak to the effeminate author with the high-pitched voice. This story is widely known now, but at the time Mary Kate told me, not many people knew.
The story of Harper Lee’s involvement with Truman Capote in his research for In Cold Blood was only one of many she shared with me over the years that I knew her. When she was editor of the book page of the Amarillo Globe News I wrote many a book review for her, at least one and sometimes two a week for nearly two decades. During those years she and I shared many a pot of coffee while sitting in her small living room and discussing religion, politics, and most importantly to me, local history of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle. In her decades-long career as a reporter for the Amarillo Globe News she covered many of the region’s famous crimes. Famous to us, at least, if not particularly well-known or reported outside our area. To me, she was a treasure trove of unreported background information not only on local murder cases, but also of little-known information about old scandals, political shenanigans, and long-held secrets of the rich and famous–our rich and famous, that is. She was a mentor to me in the area of background for my crime novels and historicals. She knew or suspected where the bodies were buried and whose closets held skeletons. Much of the background ambiance in my later crime novels I owe to Mary Kate. She was particularly interested in my second John Lloyd Branson novel, Murder by Deception, because its plot concerned the Department of Energy’s proposal to locate a high-level nuclear waste dump in the Texas Panhandle, specifically in Deaf Smith County, a little southwest of Amarillo. As Deaf Smith was at the time the tenth most agriculturally productive county in the United States, both Mary Kate and I felt a nuclear dump in such a location was a bad idea; in fact, it was a very, very bad idea. With input from Mary Kate and information provided by Sharon and George Drain of STAND (Serious Texans Against the Dump) Murder by Deception was a better book than it might have otherwise been. When I proposed the novel to my editor I was merely angry; when I actually wrote it I was still angry, but I was also informed, thanks to Mary Kate and the Drains.
Stories told to me by Mary Kate enriched my knowledge and understanding about the region and the people where I live. I am not a native Texan, so I still view the Panhandle with somewhat of an outsider’s eye. That is an advantage to a writer to an extent; I write of customs and language of the area that its inhabitants don’t notice because they are such a part of their daily life. Peacocks as watchdogs on some Panhandle farms and ranches are one example of daily life that I found astonishing. Mary Kate’s stories and her memories of her beloved Panhandle kept me grounded in reality, and I’m certain prevented my making too many leaps from observations to unwarranted commentary.
Journalist, book editor, mentor, icon of the Panhandle, Mary Kate Tripp was all those things. She had no children and as my own mother died when I was ten, I like to believe that our conversations in her living room while drinking coffee were the kind of talks I would have shared with my mother had she lived, and that Mary Kate would have shared with a daughter if she had had one. I loved those conversations. I will miss Mary Kate, and mourn her passing more than my words can express, because with her passes much of the unwritten history of the Panhandle. She was a great lady.
Good-by, Mary Kate.