Linn legend writes off into the sunset

By H.B. Dodds
Posted 10/14/20

OSAGE COUNTY — She never wanted to be a writer. "I hated to write," she explained. Now she doesn't want to ever write again. "I like being retired," she asserted. In between came 50 years when no …

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Linn legend writes off into the sunset

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OSAGE COUNTY — She never wanted to be a writer. "I hated to write," she explained. Now she doesn't want to ever write again. "I like being retired," she asserted. In between came 50 years when no one in Osage County wrote more.

Jerrilynn S. Voss, or Jerry, as everyone knows her, has retired from the Osage County Unterrified Democrat (U.D.). The Mid-Missouri weekly publication has known her as competitor, reporter, publisher, owner, and ad salesman. Add just about anything else a small-town weekly would need to survive and thrive. Survive and thrive it did, thanks to her advocacy.

In 1970, Jerry and her husband, Ralph Voss, lived in Jefferson City. He was a practicing attorney. One day, he announced he was going to Linn to buy a newspaper. She knew he didn't mean to drop a dime into a slot of a machine and grab something just to read. She felt, though, he probably wouldn't do what he did. He bought the Osage County Observer. He bought the typewriters, the press, and the newsroom furniture. He bought all the rights to continue publishing. Surprised as she was, the real shock was realizing they were moving to Linn. She had no idea how well she would fit in.

Ralph was the first practicing journalist in the family. However, it quickly became apparent he could not run the Observer by himself. Jerry began pitching in one day a week, then two. Then three. Then four...."Now I figure I'm working eight days a week," she said in 2012.

Other things were happening at the same time which would affect the Vosses' future in dramatic ways. Bill Zevely was a personal acquaintance of the Vosses and grandson of U.D. founder Lebbeus Zevely. He sold that paper in 1968. The new publishers were Norman and Jane Troesser. The Observer and U.D. were competitors, but the Vosses' relationship with Zevely and the Troessers was always friendly. They went so far as to loan each other supplies when they ran short. However, the goodwill ceased when the Troessers sold to three men in 1978. That group tried to turn the U.D. into a city-style paper; and their approach to the competition provided by the Vosses was not friendly. It was fierce.

"It just drove me crazy," she said. "It's a mean business, to tell you the truth."

In 1980 came the big event. The new approach did not work well for the U.D. in Osage County. Suddenly, the company was in a lot of financial trouble, and it turned to the Vosses for extrication. The Vosses had always wanted to combine the two newspapers, and this seemed like a good opportunity to do that. The concept was always in Ralph and Jerry's thoughts, but nothing could be worked out in 1978 between them and the Troessers. With the intervening two years in mind, they really wanted to make something happen this time. They were willing to and had to, pay more than what they thought the paper was worth. This was to allow the sellers to get out from under their tax liabilities.

"It wasn't free," said Jerry; but "it was good to combine the papers. It was good for the readers, the advertisers, and for us."

Jerry's first instinct was to drop the U.D. name and keep the Observer. Ralph, then a judge and only working part-time at the news office, intervened. His counsel was to honor the history of the U.D., a much older tradition than the Observer. Jerry concurred, but not without serious reservation.

"I couldn't say 'U.D.' when I answered the phone," she said. "I wanted to change the name, but Ralph said no."

It was when Selden Motors sold out to Carroll Rehma Motors that the conflict resolved in her mind. She mentioned to Ralph they had to get out to the dealership and get the story before the U.D. Ralph had to remind her: they were the U.D.

Jerry's knowledge and perspective of Osage County history are what Linn Mayor Dwight Massey valued the most. "Jerry Voss was an invaluable resource for the city of Linn," he said. "We could always rely on Jerry to give us a date to start looking."

She covered Linn City Council meetings for about 25 years. Massey also appreciated her sense of humor. He recalled numerous meetings that had to stop because everyone was laughing.

"She was always fun for us," he insisted.

Not that there weren't tough times. The two of them, sometimes joined by aldermen and citizens, had some arguments. There was never, though, any decrease in the high regard they held for each other.

Massey concluded with a coded message: "Jerry, the fiscal year is May 1."

Voss assigned herself to the Osage County Commission meetings as well. Two-term Presiding Commissioner Dave Dudenhoeffer, who served between 2011-19, had a similar take on Voss' journalistic style. He and the other commissioners would feel her combative edge on occasion.

"She got the gavel once in a while," he chuckled. "You can't please everybody."

He was speaking of Jerry's writing as well as his own work presiding over the meetings. He maintained, however, she did a pretty decent job.

"She printed everything that was said," he explained, insisting it was always "pretty well" the truth.

In terms of their personal relationship, he growled, "She's a Republican. That's all you need to know about how we got along." Then he chuckled again.

"A friend, Tom Warden, once told me that if you are doing your job in the newspaper business, everyone in town is mad at you for one reason or another. We sure achieved that when we bought the U.D.," Jerry observed. " The Democrats were upset that Republicans now owned the U.D. and the Republicans were upset that we kept the Unterrified Democrat name."

Voss confessed county government was her first love. She covered the towns as well and had a passion for how local government worked and served the citizens. "I felt like I was the readers' representative," she explained.

Her goal was for a town's or the county's citizens to relax at home, read the paper; and then they'd know what their elected servants were doing. Without claiming originality, she subscribed to the "We report; You decide" school of journalistic thought.

Osage County Treasurer Tim Neuner recalled her as strong and observant. She was occasionally referred to as "the fourth commissioner," he recalled, as did others. "She was a tough reporter, always looking for an angle," he said. "I would call her a good reporter, concerned citizen, taxpayer, with loads of knowledge on how county government works. She was not afraid to ask questions about the questionable."

He felt she always tried to put the county in a favorable light when possible, but he admitted it wasn't always possible. "I want to say congratulations to Jerry for her well-deserved retirement," he concluded. "Enjoy it."

She also cared for the commerce which took place in the county and its towns. That concern and passion were appreciated by many in that community. John A. Klebba of Legends Bank found her to be a particularly good asset with her understanding of the county's chronicles, much like Massey.

"She had a historical perspective that no one else did," he said.

This is high praise from someone whose family has been in business for a while. They're in the fifth generation running the only operating bank founded in the county. He liked how she always knew what had gone on before. She had the ability to identify current trends based on that knowledge.

"I thank her for all she has done for the county," Klebba said. "She's done great work here. We're much better off for her and Ralph's efforts."

Klebba went out of his way to express personal sadness for her absence, but he doesn't begrudge her taking the opportunity to retire. He's happy for her to look forward to her remaining years with freedom and good health.

There is little to tell about Jerry which any observant county resident doesn't know. She's way more transparent than secretive.

"I've always been extremely outspoken," she said; "sometimes to my own detriment."

Her toughness and willingness to admit faults have served her well in a difficult trade. It's impossible to achieve perfection, publishing so much material with tight deadlines.

"We've made the normal mistakes most newspapers make," she explained. "We've tried to fix those things."

She was always willing to redo ads that had errors and ran them with no further charge. She published retractions when necessary. She even redid some stories completely when she felt that was the only way to make things right. She made a long career out of trying to get things right.

However, she never felt that "career" thing. "I don't feel like a career businesswoman," she grimaced. "I just feel like someone who's doing their job, and to tell you the truth, I like that. It was the only real job I ever had."

For most of those years, she did most of the company's bookkeeping. She handled the subscriptions. She was the front-desk receptionist and answered most of the ringing phones. She sold ads and called on customers. Nor was she afraid of the time it took to get her writing done. Her calculation was for every one hour of a meeting, it would require two to three hours of writing. She always used a recording device and listened when it came time to put words on paper. That doubled the time already spent at meetings.

How did a young lady who hated to write ever get so good at it and grow to love it so much? Jerry Voss credited the late Paul Slater. Slater, a former professor of journalism at the University of Cincinnati, came to work at the U.D. from 1985-2004. He invested almost two decades behind the editor's desk there. Jerry remembers his technical excellence.

"He was very precise with every comma, every period. Everything had to be perfect," she recalled. "When he left, I realized I had memorized his writing style."

She had to be resourceful to get this education. There was no way to take college courses. "I didn't have time to do that," she emphasized. She did, though, take the best advantage she could. It was useful, having a journalism professor available for a couple of decades. She ended up an award-winning reporter. The Missouri Press Association, although she admits having not much to do with that organization, selected her for Best Story and Best Investigative Reporting trophies.

Most good workers, especially with the freedom of a small-town publisher, have systems. By the time Jerry Voss was ready to sell the U.D., she had developed a good tight one. It all pivoted on Sunday afternoon. That's when she would take an inventory of what had to go into the next edition; what needed to be written; and what time had to be budgeted to get it done.

"The deadlines were difficult," she said. "It took a lot of time."

Meanwhile, what had she been doing up until Sunday afternoon? There was as much time chasing the stories; going to meetings and events, and collecting the reports which now needed to be written. That's why they're sometimes called reporters and other times called writers. They're both. The word journalist covers it all. Jerry Voss was a journalist.

She wanted, though, for everyone to remember who the first journalist in the family was. "It's hard to express how much Ralph did for the newspaper," she said, "especially before he became a judge."

She remembered him juggling private law practice and writing for the paper. She remembered his long nights at the old letterpress in the back room of the Observer office. Many current U.D. subscribers remember and miss, the column. He wrote a good and highly anticipated, one after his retirement from the bench. No one familiar with the U.D. is unfamiliar with Ralph Voss' column, “For The Record.”

The Vosses are now very grateful to the Warden family of Owensville. Dennis and Connie Warden, and their son Jacob, purchased the U.D. in 2018. They welcomed the venerable masthead into their family of papers. It includes the Gasconade County Republican and the Maries County Advocate. They asked Jerry to stay on for a couple of years; and her commitment to do that explains why she retired in 2020, rather than sooner. The two families have high regard for each other.

Nor is this affection a new thing. Dennis's father Don, and his brother Tom, previously mentioned, were often in Linn helping the Vosses repair equipment. Once, visiting Owensville, Jerry saw Dennis as a young man in his 20's with his father and uncle. Tom told Ralph Dennis could do about anything anybody wanted with a computer.

Later, Don and Dennis visited the U.D. with a young boy, Jacob, tagging along. Now, Jacob can do about anything anybody wants done with media technology.

For her part, Jerry doesn't want much to do with the "techie stuff." She understands the necessity, though. That, and the decades' long friendship between the two families: it's what made her comfortable selling to the Wardens. The Wardens, in return, want to preserve the Voss legacy in Osage County journalism.

Given all sorts of choices, Jerry picked ad sales for her two years of labor under the Wardens' new ownership. "My customers are what really make this job go," she said. "They're what I really like."

Even then, she held herself to a higher standard. "I never sold an ad I didn't think would do some good," she said.

"I can believe that," responded General Sales Manager at Jim Butler Chevrolet, Robb Huot. He has known the Vosses for better than 30 years, remembering the days Huot sold Fords in downtown Linn. "I would write the ads on Monday," said the Linn native. "Then Jerry would come by to take pictures. We'd chat, then, and solve the problems of the world." He admired her straightforwardness, never beating around the bush. "She's an original," he concluded.

Many old-school workers like the Vosses dream of handing their businesses down to their kids. In the Zevelys' case, they came upon a generation where there were no heirs. The Troessers came across a similar issue when they were ready to get out of the business. Jacob Warden, still young, is the fourth generation of that family, so that line will carry on a while. When it came to the Vosses, there were plenty of kids and grandkids. However, all of them have found something else to do and are doing it well. They worked at the paper in their youth: stuffing, folding, delivering, selling ads, and even doing some writing. When it came time to consider the option of taking over the family business: they all liked what they were already doing better. Plus, they didn't want their mother's schedule. "We saw how hard you worked both at the office and at the home," they said. "We don't want to do that."

They're all hard workers in their own right. Yet, being a small-town journalist requires a special, unique, work ethic. Osage County has enjoyed one of those for half a century. She'll be remembered as well as the Zevelys. "I am incredibly proud to have had the opportunity to work at the Osage County Observer and the Unterrified Democrat for 50 years.

“Thanks to my family, my employees, and the people of Osage County for putting up with me,” is her closing statement.

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