WASHINGTON — One way to get the news in small-town Nebraska is to open the phone book, call a number and ask whoever answers if he or she has a story. Another way is to call a neighbor who has cars with out-of-town license plates parked out front and ask what's going on.
That's how Mildred Heath has been getting the scoop in her central Nebraska community between the much larger towns of Lexington and Kearney for 85 years.
At 100, she is the Overton, Neb., (pop. 659) correspondent for the Beacon-Observer, a weekly newspaper her family owns. The paper has a second office in Elm Creek and 1,500 subscribers.
Heath's dedication to journalism has won her the 2008 America's Oldest Worker award, as well as an honorary membership in the National Press Club, which also turned 100 this year.
Experience Works, a nonprofit program that provides job training for older workers, organizes the award. Helping to present the prize last week at the National Press Club was Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, who, in addition to being from Nebraska, has helped pass bills addressing senior citizens' access to rural health care, rehabilitation hospitals and medicine.
"In Nebraska, we do value hard work. Who we're honoring today is an example of hard work in Nebraska, and in America as well," he said to an audience of about 100 that included some of the oldest workers from other states.
Heath does work hard — 30 hours a week — pursuing community news such as visits from out-of-town relatives, trips to Omaha and birthday parties.
"It seems like papers, especially dailies, have problems getting news from so many sources," she said. "But small towns still need their weekly news."
Heath participates in the Daughters of the American Revolution, the United Methodist Church in Overton and the National Rifle Association. In addition to never smoking or drinking, she credits her longevity to her active social life.
"I've always been very active and take part in things," she said. "Working with people is what it's all about."
Heath, born in Curtis, Neb., started her career in journalism in 1923 at age 15, running a Linotype, a machine that turned hot lead into lines of type for the printing press. "I've got scars from the Linotype," she said. "It's wonderful not to have to mess with machinery like that."
Heath has outlived her husband and three daughters. Norm Taylor, 69, her son-in-law and the Beacon-Observer's owner, said: "She used to run the show and hasn't backed off much. She always says, 'I feel needed. As long as I'm needed, I'll do it.' "