RALEIGH — Often during the 37 years that Betty Debnam published The Mini Page, she pondered the fleeting nature of the journalism she was producing. Today's news would line tomorrow's birdcages.
But now, in retirement, she's found a repository for the nearly 2,000 pages of history lessons, lunch menus and civics primers she produced in The Mini Page, the weekly newspaper for kids that began in The News & Observer and later went national, appearing in as many as 500 newspapers across the country.
Her archive has been digitized and is publicly available through the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill. Now, teachers can plan classes around Debnam's history lessons, and nostalgic parents can look back to their formative years and see what they ate in the school cafeteria.
In 1969, it was fish sticks, hot dogs, hamburgers and gelatin, according to the first issue on Aug. 31 of that year. Some things never change.
The digital archive stretches from that first effort in 1969 to 2007, when Debnam stepped down as editor and publisher and sold her creation to Universal Press Syndicate.
Now 81, Debnam, still in Raleigh, sees the digital archive as her way of preserving The Mini Page legacy.
"It's wonderful to create something that teachers will be using for years to come," she said. "That means a lot to me. It's not like writing a story and having it be so timely it disappears. A lot of it can be used over and over again."
At UNC-CH, library officials also see the online archive as a teaching tool. It is easily found with a Google search, and hard copies are available at Wilson Library. The online archive can be searched by date, issue title, subjects, places and topics, said Biff Hollingsworth, an archivist with the Southern Historical Collection. Already, the library has heard from teachers seeking material on a particular subject, such as Black History Month or Presidents Day, he said.
"People could pull up every year of Black History Month and use it in their teaching," he said. "There are 2,000 issues, so there's a lot for everyone there."
Debnam, a 1952 UNC graduate, was teaching elementary school at Clarence Poe School in Raleigh when the idea for The Mini Page crystallized. Kids needed a newspaper, and teachers could use the course material. She took the plunge, and it caught on, thanks in part to her own crafty salesmanship.
Challenged by The News & Observer's advertising director at the time to sell a dozen ads, Debnam created characters she wove into ads for local businesses. Frankie and Frances Furter, for example, sold Jesse Jones hot dogs. Micky Music advertised piano lessons on behalf of Maus Piano Co.
Justice Burger was a fan
The Mini Page slowly grew a following, expanding first into other newspapers in the region. In the mid-1970s it was picked up by a syndicate and suddenly appeared in hundreds of papers, including The Washington Post.
"I am sure it would be impossible to gauge how many people [young and old] have read and learned something from The Mini Page - but I am certain that what they have learned is tremendous," said Lee Ann Potter, director of education and volunteer programs with the Center for the National Archives Experience, which has contributed materials to The Mini Page for issues on the Constitution and Bill of Rights. "They've come to realize that the newspaper isn't just for adults, and that complex information can be made understandable."
Though a product for kids, the paper caught the attention of some VIPs. One day in 1985, Debnam received a letter from Warren Burger, then chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court.
He liked The Mini Page, wanted to promote the upcoming bicentennial of the Constitution, and asked her to swing by for a visit. The result: a 21-issue special "Salute to the Constitution."
Children said it best
Still, her favorite fans were the young ones. She tells the Warren Burger story with a flat voice. But when she recalls a young girl's compliment regarding The Mini Page, her voice cracks.
She got plenty of letters over the years from grateful youngsters and reveled in their honest innocence.
"They'd say they liked The Mini Page, and they fought over The Mini Page," she said. "And that we should write more about animals. And dinosaurs. They loved dinosaurs."
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