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Phyllis Brandon, a pioneering Arkansas Democrat newswoman who made the High Profile section an enduring Sunday read and a potent weapon in the 1980s newspaper war against the Arkansas Gazette, died Saturday at her home in Little Rock.
She was 84.
As its founding editor, Brandon spent 23 years leading High Profile, first for the Democrat and then for the rechristened Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The popular centerpieces featured Arkansas leaders in business, politics and society, and prominent subjects trusted her to tell their stories, Brandon’s son Phil, founder of Rock Town Distillery on Main Street, told Arkansas Business.
“For the paper, which was in a battle with Gannett, the chain that owned the Gazette, one thing the Democrat had that the competition didn’t was High Profile, and the section had a great influence on the Democrat’s ability to win the quote-unquote newspaper war,” Phil Brandon said in a telephone interview.
Brandon was a “political junkie” whose own profile reached its highest point during the national rise of Bill Clinton, who was elected president in 1992. She interviewed him and Hillary Clinton, and was the only media representative invited into a closed celebration after the announcement of Clinton’s presidential run, according to Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson.
Her interview subjects ranged from Gen. Wesley Clark, the Little Rock product who became a top NATO commander and presidential candidate, to Helen Gurley Brown, the revered editor of Cosmopolitan who had bitter memories of her childhood in Arkansas.
“Phyllis had a gift for telling stories and celebrating Arkanans,” Bill Clinton said in a statement Sunday. “Her profiles gave us honest portraits and offered rare insights to the people who were making a difference. She was a trailblazer in the newsroom who served as a mentor to dozens of reporters who came along after her. Hillary and I send our heartfelt condolences…”
“She knew so many people, including the influencers in town and the state and beyond,” Phil Brandon said. “Yeah, they trusted her, and she meant so much to so many people. She worked her butt off to make sure my brother and I got to go to college.”
Though known for High Profile, and for editing Arkansas Life magazine before her retirement in 2011, Brandon made her bones as a bobby-socked cub reporter fresh out of the University of Arkansas journalism school, sent to pose as a student during the Central High integration crisis. The idea was to get a peek inside the besieged school, her alma mater, as mobs raged and soldiers lined the streets after nine brave black students dared to cross the color line. Less than five years out of high school herself, Brandon guise was never questioned, but she didn’t get into the school: All students had been locked out by the time she reached the door, she recalled in a video interview with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Center for Arkansas History & Culture.
Still, she filed stories on the standoff from a pay phone at the Mobil gas station that’s now a historic site near the school. There, white parents dominating the phone let her call the newsroom only after confirming she worked for the Democrat, not the Gazette, which was editorializing in favor of following the rule of law and letting the black children attend the school.
Phyllis Louise Dillaha left newspaper work after marrying Jim Brandon later that year, 1957, but she never gave up her fierce work ethic, toiling for the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission and Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the 1960s. She was a technical writer at Systematics Inc. in Little Rock when her son Alex, then a photographer at the Arkansas Democrat, persuaded her to cover parties as a sideline. Impressed with her work, Editor John Robert Starr offered her leadership of a new section, High Profile, which first appeared Jan. 5, 1986. The detailed profiles and big portraits attracted readers, Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. said in the Democrat-Gazette’s obituary of her. “She not only created a section highly popular with readers, but she was an outstanding goodwill ambassador for the newspaper.” She promoted philanthropy and lavished recognition on deserving Arkansans, he said.
“Phyllis was a one-name legend,” current High Profile editor Rachel O’Neal told Arkansas Business. “Her reporting during the Central High School crisis inspires me to this day.” O’Neal succeeded Brandon as High Profile editor in 2009, then was the paper’s business editor before returning to High Profile a few years ago. “Phyllis was a legend in the Little Rock social scene. She knew everyone and everyone knew her, and my one regret is that I didn’t ask her more about High Profile and the social scene over the last couple of years. So many readers told me, ‘Well that’s not the way Phyllis would have done it. It was hard to follow in her footsteps.”
Phil Brandon said he once had a deal with his junior high principal: He wouldn’t tell Phyllis anything about Phil as long as Phil never said anything to his mother about the principal. “Nobody messed with her,” Phil Brandon said.
In later years, Phyllis Brandon struggled with dementia, he son said. But O’Neal said she looked good a year ago at an Easter Seals event honoring Hussman. “She looked spectacular and made her way around the room as always. I don’t think she was ever in any pain, and when I die I’d like to go in my sleep.”
Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, told the Democrat-Gazette that Brandon should be remembered beyond her journalism. “While Phyllis is deservingly recognized for the Democrat-Gazette’s popular High Profile section, she should also be remembered as one of those courageous — and one of the youngest — members of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools, which was formed in the aftermath of the Little Rock Central High Crisis,” Rutherford said. “Her name is among those inscribed on the conservatory wall in the Terry Mansion where the group met.”