By: Sid Salter
My friend Lisa Denley McNeece would have made light of the cruel absurdity of her death on Sunday at her home in Bruce. Under singularly unexpected circumstances, she just died. She was a vibrant 56 years old.
The doctor told the family he suspected a massive embolism or blood clot. Loved ones and first responders were unable to revive her despite heroic efforts. Lisa’s death slammed family and close friends like a runaway train and left all in her orbit scrambling to process how such a tragedy could envelop us.
It is not the first time that the Denley family of journalists and community newspaper publishers have been rocked by sudden and senseless death. Lisa’s grandfather, Yalobusha County native Sellers Vanhoozer Denley, founded The Calhoun County Journal in 1953 with his wife, Maggie Ellen Simpson Denley, and his young son, Gale Denley.
Sellers Denley grew up working in the The Coffeeville Courier newspaper purchased by his father, George Elias Denley, in 1910. In 1981, returning from an economic development meeting in Amory with other Bruce city fathers, Sellers Denley was killed in a car crash near Wren.
The accident rocked the Denley family. Their lives were dated by it and Gale Denley carried the emotional scars of that sudden separation for the rest of his life.
Gale Denley, also a native of Yalobusha County, like his dad began working as a child at The Coffeeville Courier. When the CCJ was founded in 1953, Gale worked there, too, and would spend the rest of his life associated with the family newspaper, for many years as a respected publisher.
He was elected president of the Mississippi Press Association in 1983 and was inducted into the MPA’s Hall of Fame in 1996. Lisa, and later her husband Joel McNeece, would also serve as MPA presidents.
Denley served for a year on the journalism faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi. In 1963, he began his career on the journalism faculty at Ole Miss. He served as associate professor of journalism and director of the Student Media Center from 1963 until 1996. He supervised The Daily Mississippian student newspaper, the campus FM radio station, the campus television station and the Ole Miss yearbook.
In 2003, Ole Miss dedicated the S. Gale Denley Student Media Center in his honor. Denley died in 2008 from complications from injuries received in a near-fatal car accident in 1989.
Lisa worked with her grandfather and her father in The Journal as a youngster and later as an adult. She was a natural, learning the business from the ground up and watching and learning from her family not just the physical and mechanical skills of newspapering, but the toughness needed to deal with the public. Lisa’s smile was magnetic and ever-present, but there was a steel hand inside what was mostly a velvet glove. She learned at her father’s knee the true meaning of the retort to an unhappy reader: “I’m just so sorry that you feel that way.”
Gale Denley was my business partner in The Scott County Times and other ventures for some 20 years. We owned a Neshoba County Fair cabin together and our families spent that week together each year in close quarters for 30 years.
Lisa and sisters Celia and Deanna have been like sisters to me. Our children grew up together. We’ve carried each other through births, deaths, divorces, marriages, drama, disappointments and the joys of children and grandchildren best shared with friends who are like family. She sat with me often in Tupelo during my chemo treatments last year. Those visits meant the world to me. That was her way.
The last time I saw Lisa was at the funeral home in Water Valley last month. I sat with Lisa and her mother, Jo Ann Denley, during the funeral of our close friend and Neshoba County Fair neighbor M.B. “Snooky” Williams. Truth be told, we all laughed together more than we cried.
She sent me a text later that afternoon after Snooky’s funeral: “Thanks for saving us seats. It was a perfect service for him. Always so glad to spend time with you, no matter where.”
No line ever summed up a friendship more accurately. May God wrap her in perpetual blessings and her family in the peace that passes understanding.