On Sunday, October 16, 2022 Fred and Bettie Lee Gaskins will be presented the Middlesex County Museum & Historical Society Annual Preservation Award to recognize their 56 years of writing for, serving as treasurer and publishing the Southside Sentinel.
In 2022 the Southside Sentinel is celebrating its 127th year of reporting on life in and around Middlesex County, and Fred and Bettie Lee Gaskins are marking their 56th year as its owners and publishers.
The Gaskinses agree that in many ways it seems like yesterday when they bought the paper from attorneys John and William T. Bareford in 1966, and settled in. They were newlyweds, married only for about six months.
“We weren’t kids but I feel like we did a lot of growing up in those early days,” said Fred. “We made a lot of lifelong friends while falling in love with Middlesex County, and of course our new hometown, Urbanna.”
Both are graduates of the University of Richmond where Fred minored in journalism and Bettie Lee was editor of the college newspaper. Bettie Lee had experience working with her father, Emory Currell, editor and publisher of the Rappahannock Record in Kilmarnock for 66 years. Fred’s family was in the seafood business and lived in Irvington.
With the help of some existing Sentinel staff in 1966, Fred worked full time at the paper, writing stories, taking photos, selling advertising and trying to learn how to produce a paper with hot lead. The office was where the Something Different retail/takeout side is now.
Bettie Lee did bookkeeping and proofreading as needed while also teaching third grade in Middlesex.
Within a year they had to give up on the old hot metal type printing technology they inherited and switch to a central printing plant using a new “offset” process.
“We had a notion that we would buy our own modern press later, but it was never feasible to make the investment in equipment and trained personnel to operate it only one or two days each week,” Fred said.
The Sentinel was never again printed in Middlesex County. Today the Sentinel, and the Rappahannock Record, are printed in Alexandria on the same press that prints the Washington Post.
The major printing change was the first of many, many production changes and upgrades over the years. Now all the pre-press work is done on computers.
After the death of Bettie Lee’s father in 1993, the Gaskinses also assumed management of the Rappahannock Record, owned by Bettie Lee and her sister, Clara Christopher, of Williamsburg. Fred became president and publisher of the Record and Tom Hardin became editor of the Sentinel. Bettie Lee serves as treasurer for both papers.
In the ensuing years, and to Bettie Lee’s and Fred’s delight, their three children, Susan, Kate and Joseph, became involved with the papers. Susan and Kate now manage the Record and Joseph is the production manager and graphic designer at the Sentinel. Urbanna native Robert Mason Jr. has become the Record’s editor.
Bettie Lee and Fred are supposed to be semi-retired, but still put in some long hours most weeks.
On Main Street in Kilmarnock the Record still operates in the building where it was founded 105 years ago, but during the Gaskinses’ tenure the Sentinel has outgrown a couple of locations on Virginia Street in Urbanna. When the staff began to expand in the early 1970s a larger building was needed. They bought the former Mercer Funeral Home building at the corner of Virginia and Prince George Streets in 1972 and remodeled it. The former funeral home was the Sentinel’s home for the next 32 years.
Then, faced with replacing the entire roof and other major repairs, Fred and Bettie Lee decided to build a new office in the Sentinel parking lot. When it was complete in 2004, the old funeral home was demolished and that space is the current parking area.
Fred and Bettie Lee are quick to point out that although spacious buildings and new technology are nice to have, it’s been a dedicated staff that has enabled the Southside Sentinel and Rappahannock Record to produce their “weekly history books” for so many years.
“Beginning in 1966 with the struggles the Sentinel had with hot lead, learning an entirely new way to compose the paper, hiring our first advertising sales person, our first reporter, and all the talented employees who have since come our way, I am simply amazed at how we have been blessed with the right people at the right time throughout our 56 years,” said Fred. “It’s almost as if some master playwright set up the plan, sent out a casting call when a need existed, and in they came. In my mind’s eye I see and remember so many of them, and the talents they brought and in some cases continue to contribute. We are thankful to all of them, and of course to the community for supporting its hometown newspaper.”
(The 1986 centennial article mentioned that former publisher Julian Brown holds the record for the most number of years at the Sentinel, 59, so we are getting close to matching that!)