Thinking back, Beth Bunch may have been the very first local person I met on my first trip to Hattiesburg back in October 2009.

I was here for a long weekend to scope out the area and to undergo a couple of job interviews about the possibility of becoming the next publisher of this newspaper and its affiliated products.

Truth be known, my first impressions of the Hub City and the surrounding area weren’t that great.

If I remember correctly, it was raining and dreary that weekend and without knowing anything at all about the layout of Hattiesburg, I spent most of the time driving up and down Highway 49 trying to find the central business district. (Hint: it’s not anywhere along U.S. Highway 49).

Prior to arriving for the interview, Beth had been kind enough to mail me several copies of The Lamar Times and The Petal News as well as Signature Magazine.

Again, I wasn’t impressed.

Of course, 11 years later, I can freely admit that I wasn’t looking very closely at them at the time.

After all, despite the fact I flew in for a weekend visit, I really had no intention of accepting the job here.

I tell people all the time that the only thing I knew about Mississippi prior to moving here was what the world knows about Mississippi and as you might expect, it’s not all sunshine and roses.

I learned later that the staff  had been without a publisher for several months and without anyone to mind the shop, it was left up to Beth to try to tame the craziness. And at that particular time, there seemed to be a lot of craziness.

As it turns out, she had been pulling double and triple duty for quite some time in an attempt to keep things afloat.

Not only was she filling in for the publisher on many of the day-to-day management duties, but she was also delivering all of the newspapers to all of the racks and convenience stores each week when our delivery driver at the time fell seriously ill.

I can’t imagine how many hours she was putting in at the time because she was still doing her normal work, but she seemed to be doing it all with a cheerful attitude.

Arriving at the office that day, she was one of the first people to greet me.

At the time, our offices were over on Westover Drive across the street from where The Martini Spot used to be (convenient, I thought) and as I nervously parked the car out front, I wondered to myself what in the heck I was thinking flying to Mississippi for a job interview.

I remember opening the front door to the office and stepping into a dark lobby area only to find a long, wooden front counter without anyone sitting behind it. For a moment, I wondered if I was in the wrong place.

“Well, hellllllooo there!”

From out of nowhere, Beth appeared and immediately stuck out her hand.

“I’m Beth Bunch,” she said. “You must be David. Welcome.”

Her infectious smile and thick southern drawl immediately helped ease my nervousness and a moment or two later, I was being whisked through the office on a nickel tour. Thinking back, I’m sure she was as unimpressed with me as I was with the newspapers.

You might find this hard to believe, but I haven’t always had all of this gray hair and I can’t help but think she must have been secretly rolling her eyes at the thought of some young ‘kid’ coming in to take the reins.

Comparatively speaking, Beth isn’t all that much older than I am, but over the years, I’ve had fun pointing out the fact she was my elder to whoever would listen.

The truth of the matter is that regardless of her age, Beth has always worked harder than journalists half her age.

For as long as we worked together – and clearly before – she was always willing to step up and do whatever it took to get the job done and she did so with a smile on her face and without ever uttering a single complaint.

It takes a special person to be able to do that – especially week in and week out.

And Beth has certainly been that person; not to mention the fact she probably deserves a medal for putting up with me for so long.

During the course of my 23-year career as a professional journalist, I have had the good fortune to work with some incredible, hard-working people and Beth Bunch would be at the very top of that list. She certainly deserves as much of the credit for our success as anyone.

Consider this: since her arrival in Hattiesburg in 2006, our publications have won 214 first place awards from the Mississippi Press Association, perhaps more than any other newspaper in the state.

Twenty-three of those first place awards belong solely to her for her work as a writer, as an editor, and as a photographer.

Another 53 awards were given to our general staff for projects  that she helped lead.

During that same period of time, we have been honored as the very best weekly newspaper in the state 10 different times – including the last seven consecutive years.

Signature Magazine has been honored eight times as the best magazine in the state.

Awards certainly aren’t everything, but for community newspapers like ours, they can be a pretty good indication of the quality of work being produced, some of which I shall never forget.

A few different times over the years, Beth has written a column or two about an old “friend” of hers named Ms. Beasley, a creepy-looking doll that she cherished from her childhood.

I don’t know how many people I have met in my 46 years of living, but she’s the only person I know who knew who Ms. Beasley was. Maybe it was a southern thing – maybe not – but thanks to Beth, she will forever be associated with that creepy-looking doll in my collective memory.

In a column she penned some 21 years ago while working as the lifestyle editor at The Daily Journal in Tupelo, Beth wrote: 

“For the most part, I feel ageless - not young, not old and not really middle-aged, either. It's only when someone hits me in the face with some fact or facts that I get to feeling really old and realize how much time has passed.”

I did the math and when she wrote that, she was 10 years younger than I am now.

The last 11 years have gone by in a blink of an eye, but later in life when I look back at this time, I’ll smile and think of Beth Bunch.

And Ms. Beasley.

Gustafson is the not-so-mild-mannered editor and publisher of The PineBeltNEWS.