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the occasions lady and the good 'mike' days
by Audrey Poff; illustration by Mandy Northcutt; photo courtesy of Rodney Freeman

I was shocked and deeply saddened to receive a text from my friend, Janie Overall, on Aug. 5, saying that her husband, Mike, was in the hospital and that his illness was terminal. “Best guess is two weeks,” the text read. “No more
columns.”

I met Mike Overall when I went to work for The Jonesboro Sun in 1990. He was one of two associate editors who worked for the Troutt family for several decades when they owned the newspaper. The associate editors were polar opposites and they switched schedules every few days so that they each worked their share of days and nights. Just dealing with two men who were so different from one day to the next frequently stressed out the entire newsroom.

Mike was the laid back, tall, thin jazz drummer who loved to read and write as much as he loved his jazz. We all liked Mike. He was not the type to micromanage every minute of your day. For the most part, he expected everyone to do their job and gave them space to do it. He did not like to be bothered with the details of running the newspaper. He was annoyed by the ringing telephones, the beep of the fax machine and most things that involved technology. Other than a pair of hippie leather sandals with a peace sign from the 1960s, there was really nothing in his desk drawers. That was Mike.

When the Sun staff moved into the new newsroom in the early ‘90s, the two associate editors were located in the center of the room. I chose a desk on Mike’s side, some 10 feet away from him, where I could be under his wing. He was easy to get along with if you were a competent reporter, and I strategically chose to be farther away from his polar opposite who rolled in barking out orders.

When things were running smoothly, Mike would sit at his desk in the center of the newsroom and drum on his leg or his desk or whatever was nearby. That was a good sign for the rest of us. It would be a good day.

Mike was not the type to praise employees but you knew that if he didn’t think you were capable, you probably would not be in his company in the first place. Once, after editing one of my stories, he turned back to me and said: “You write clean copy.” Coming from Mike, that was huge. I couldn’t have been more delighted if he had told me he thought I hung the moon.

I left The Jonesboro Sun in 2000 shortly before the Troutts sold the newspaper. Mike left after the sale and worked for the public library as a reader’s adviser for many years … but he missed writing. He would write freelance articles for Occasions as needed, which eventually led to him writing a monthly column for the magazine. Although he had been diagnosed with three different types of
cancer in the past few years, he would undergo whatever treatment or surgery was required and be chomping at the bit to write again.“I never like to miss an issue,” he would say.

Mike had already begun working on his column for this issue before he became weak and was hospitalized on Aug. 3.

Rodney and I went up to visit with Mike after I received Janie’s text on Aug. 5. He was unable to communicate well but he knew we were there. I was able to go back the following night with former Sun staff members to visit him once more. He would occasionally smile or laugh out as we relived some of the craziest days any of us have ever experienced.

As we got up to leave the hospice house that evening, I knew it would be my last visit with him. I was able to hold his hand and tell him that I loved him once more before I began making way for other visitors. As I said a final goodbye, I looked back just in time to get a wink from him. It caught me completely off guard. There was so little left of him by that time that I’m really not sure how he did it – the same wink that I saw in the newsroom on so many of those good “Mike” days.

Mike died of Stage IV lung cancer the following day.

Death has a way of reminding us that we are not promised another day on this earth to share with those we love. I wish I would have gone to listen to him play jazz more. I wish I would have met him for lunch or just called him out of the blue. But in the end, I was able to let him keep writing about two things he
loved dearly – books and music. There is probably nothing better that I could have done for him.

Whether he was writing an article, sending kind words in an email or sending my daughter her first “fan” letter after watching her perform on stage, his words were truly his gift. He will be deeply missed.