Eleanor Bizzell Powell – Lady Journalist

Eleanor Bizzell Powell – Lady Journalist

by Marty Tschetter

IN FEBRUARY 1935, GOLDSBORO NATIVE ELEANOR BIZZELL FILED A STORY FOR THE NEWS-ARGUS THAT INCLUDED THESE WORDS, “Three New Jersey State Troopers are locked on the upper floor of the courthouse. It is their duty to watch over the Lindbergh kidnap ladder, Bruno Hauptmann’s tool chest, the ransom notes and the little sleeping garment. They each have a definite watch period, and are not allowed to leave the room.”

Eleanor experienced a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cover an important trial while studying at Columbia University’s Pulitzer School of Journalism. Once-in-a-lifetime because she was randomly selected from a pool of students to use the credentials from the journalism school. Important because of the national prominence of the murdered victim’s father. Defendant Bruno Hauptmann was charged with the 1932 murder of the 20-month-old son of Charles A. Lindbergh, then a modern day American hero who became the first to solo a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris.

An aspiring journalist, Eleanor Bizzell was only 21 years old and represented the only North Carolina newspaper, quite an impressive opportunity for firsthand work experience to report major news. Due to the horrendous act the press dubbed it the “Trial of the Century.” Daughter Pat (Powell) Biggers reflected, “Mother travelled back and forth by train and got a few scoops by eavesdropping on the big-time journalists also on her car. This was not the last time she took advantage of her persona as blue-eyed blonde Southern girl.”

Self-motivated, determined, outgoing, and an astute reader, in high school Eleanor developed interest in journalism by working on the Goldsboro Hi-News. During the fall of her senior year, she started as a reporter and by January became the editor.

For three years in high school she participated on the debate team that took part in the statewide competition held in Chapel Hill. In 1928 she made it to semi-finalist, the next year she became runner-up. In April 1930 The Daily Tar Heel reported, “….by perseverance as well as ability, Miss Eleanor Bizzell came to be on the Goldsboro High School team that won the Aycock Cup and the state debating title here.” Eleanor and teammate Ezra Griffin became the first team from Goldsboro to win the prestigious honor. That year Goldsboro High School placed both affirmative and negative teams in the finals for an all-city finish. The semi-finalist duo included Billy Crow and Ed Outlaw, who later became an admiral in the US Navy and remained a lifelong friend.

After graduating from Goldsboro High School she attended Brenau College in Gainesville, Georgia for two years, and then entered the junior class of UNC-Chapel Hill. At Carolina she worked on The Daily Tar Heel as a reporter and wrote a fashion page for the Carolina Buccaneer, a student magazine. In college Eleanor studied writing with Phillips Russell, a 1904 Carolina graduate with a distinguished career at several major newspapers in New York, Philadelphia, and London. Russell returned to UNC in 1931 to teach creative writing and served as a mentor for several future American authors, including Thomas Wolfe.

Eleanor’s son Tom Powell commented, “Professor Russell wrote a letter on Mother’s behalf to Thomas Wolfe, then in New York, recommending her as a literary assistant. Wolfe apparently planned to interview her for the position, but then wrote her a very courteous reply explaining that he would no longer need a helper given that he had decided to decamp for Europe, where he proceeded to write You Can’t Go Home Again.”

In the summer of 1934, immediately after graduating from UNC in the spring, she apprenticed on the staff of the Goldsboro News-Argus gaining additional work experience. Eleanor’s writing during college and continuance to graduate school exposed her to professional journalists throughout the state, which later provided opportunities to freelance.

At the time she entered the Pulitzer School at Columbia University, it was the only graduate school for journalism, and she was one of only 67 students accepted into the program. In New York City, she shared an apartment with her friend and next-door neighbor from Goldsboro, Martha Harrison Davis, also a graduate student at Columbia.

“Mother’s apartment was on an upper floor of a walk-up in Harlem. She said that on hot nights she would open the window in front of her desk and sit writing on her manual typewriter while listening to the sounds of jazz from the clubs on the street below,” said Tom.

Though in a demanding curriculum, Eleanor found time to work as an editorial assistant for the Phoenix News Publicity Bureau in New York City, which had the distinction of being the first publicity bureau run by women. Founder Ruth Byers was determined to help other women successfully contribute to journalistic opportunities.

In the November 1935 issue of The State magazine, Eleanor was profiled in a column “Tarheels in New York.“ The author remarked, “Miss Bizzell finds the work at Columbia extremely interesting, although it is very strenuous, as she is in class 31 hours a week, has to hand in at least one written assignment every day. She is also sent out into the city to report on a variety of people, places, and situations. Last week it was an arsenic-poisoning case in Mineola, Long Island.” During 1935 she also submitted a weekly column called “Gotham Gleanings” for the Goldsboro Herald.

During graduate school and for several years afterwards, Eleanor continued publishing articles on her own. Editor, author, and broadcaster Carl Goerch, who started The State in 1933, published some of Eleanor’s work. The March 19, 1938 issue prominently displayed Eleanor’s piece “Garden Fortnight” on the front cover. The article promoted a range of garden and historic homes tours throughout North Carolina. From 1937-40, she published 11 articles in regional newspapers and magazines including Holland’s, The Magazine of the South, The New York Times, The Rocky Mount Telegram, The Washington Post, The News and Observer, The News and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and The Columbia Record in South Carolina.

Eleanor’s line of Bizzells originally settled on Dobbs County land in the 1750s. Eleanor Laura Bizzell was the daughter of Thomas Malcolm Bizzell, MD and Mary Holcombe Bizzell. In July 1936, she married E. Charles Powell, MD of Rocky Mount in New York City. Dr. Powell served as a regimental surgeon in the US Army overseas during the Second World War. Eleanor remained stateside with her young child. After he returned from overseas they relocated to Goldsboro where he started the town’s first obstetrical practice.

As Eleanor raised her family, she actively pursued genealogy and local history interests. In the fall of 1955, she was appointed county historian by the Wayne County Historical Society. She frequently made appeals in the News-Argus and during public presentations requested old maps, family histories, account books, diaries, old newspapers, and pictures of early residents, buildings, churches, and schools. She also had a keen interest in collecting Wayne County folklore and recollections about the Civil War.

During the 1950s-60s she made many research trips to the State Archives of North Carolina, traipsed through countless fields looking for old cemeteries with her children Pat and Tom in tow. Her long-term goal was to publish a comprehensive manuscript on Wayne County history; she possessed the right background to engage readers. However, a book is a major project and it never was completed. In recent years her daughter Pat made a few gifts to the Wayne County Public Library of priceless historical documents that her mother collected.

Tom reminisced, “In the 1970s our parents went to a reunion in Chapel Hill, and at the reception was a receiving line, with pride of place held by the then very old former Dean Robert House, for whom the undergraduate library is named. House was quite frail and, in a wheelchair, but when Mother introduced herself, Dean House rose out of his wheelchair and said, “Eleanor Bizzell, I stand for very few people but I will stand for you.”

Pat said, “She did continue to do freelance writing throughout her life, interspersed with teaching at Goldsboro High School and, later, Wayne Technical Institute and then Wayne Community College where ultimately she was chair of Liberal Arts. She prepared herself in college and graduate school for the fields of education and journalism I think because those were among the very few intellectual fields open to women in the 1930s. She told me that if she had come along in the next generation, she would have gone to law school. She was always very interested in politics and history, and journalism was a natural fit for someone with her interests and consummate curiosity.”

As a journalist, writer, and teacher Eleanor eloquently used her well-honed skills to share her many interests, engaging her readers and her students across a lifetime well-spent. And so her tombstone features a quotation from her much-beloved English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer: “Gladly did she learn and gladly teach.”

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