In rural Missouri, anti-war satire opens wounds

Saturday, January 5, 2013 | 5:46 p.m. CST

FREDERICKTOWN — Frances Madeson wanted a fresh start, a return to her Missouri roots after a divorce and decades of raising a ruckus in Washington and New York as a congressional aide, Wall Street paralegal-turned-playwright, workplace organizer and comedic novelist.

The St. Louis-area native settled on a quiet southeast Missouri home outside Farmington,  but she couldn't stay quiet for long. The dearth of civic engagement led Madeson, 56, to revive the twice-monthly Madison County Crier in Fredericktown, population 4,000. The community newspaper focused on many of the usual trappings of small-town life, from birth announcements and gardening tips to Fourth of July photo spreads.

Then there were Madeson's continued efforts at social provocation: the contentious Q-and-A with the school superintendent about military recruiters on campus, the published back-and-forth with a conservative Southeast Missouri State University economist. In mid-September, alongside a local Marine's boot-camp graduation announcement, Madeson offered an announcement befit for "an alternate universe," with William and Donna Killian's son Caleb instead graduating from "U.S. Peace and Love Corps" boot camp trained in "astronomy, hand-to-hand massage ... vegetarian cuisine and close order jitterbugging."

Critics called Madeson's attempts at satire a slap in the face, the last straw from a liberal carpetbagger who insulted a community grounded in faith, patriotism and civic pride. Fredericktown unceremoniously yanked away its welcome mat. Advertisers fled, fearful of a citizen boycott of their businesses. News sources refused to cooperate. After one more issue, with letters to the editor both pro and con, Madeson shut down the paper.

"She had to have known what was going to happen," said boutique owner Karen Whitener, a former Fredericktown mayor and previous Crier editor who helped convince Madeson to restart the newspaper. "Are there crazy, pro-military people here who thump their chest? Yes. But there are so many more people who would love to have that conversation.

"The way she did what she did was just so awful, so rude and unnecessary."

Now, Madeson is ready to move on, her house for sale, the reservoir of goodwill for the iconoclastic newcomer emptied. Still, she considers her time in the area a success.

"It was all about the dialogue," she said. "They can try to bury it; they can go into denial. The toothpaste is out of the tube."

Agitation has always come easy for Madeson, whose father was the St. Louis campaign organizer for Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign and later led the liberal New Democratic Coalition. She described a childhood home filled with visits by left-wing intellectuals and anti-Vietnam War activists. In college, she spent a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem during the Yom Kippur War, an experience she called crucial in shaping her anti-war views.

After graduating from Washington University, Madeson worked briefly as an aide to Democratic Rep. Bill Clay and then the House Committee on Education and Labor. In New York, she studied acting, wrote and starred in a one-woman show and paid the bills working in "the belly of capitalism," a nonprofit nursing group, a philanthropic venture and a university conference center.

The region she relocated to was once dominated by lead mines but now counts several state prisons — including one for sex offenders and another where executions occur — among its top employers. Located about 90 miles south of St. Louis in the rolling foothills of the Ozark Mountains, Madison County is awash in state parks, designated wilderness areas and a dozen wineries. To the east, the 18th century colony of Ste. Geneveive on the Mississippi River draws history lovers and antique buffs.

The Crier was started by Whitener in 2008 soon after she stepped down as Fredericktown's mayor. Whitener turned it over to another local woman who published for about one year before Madeson's stint, which began in June.

Madeson had lofty goals for the paper, envisioning fiction and poetry by local writers, high school authors to chronicle teen life, sponsored community events and a flood of ads from insurance agents, car dealers, restaurants and other local businesses. Residents clamored for the free publication, she said, with circulation quickly increasing from 1,200 to 1,800.

That vision came to a screeching halt in late September, despite her initial efforts to persist. Madeson said that some elected officials stopped returning her phone calls. Some flat out hung up when they heard her voice on the line.

"Everywhere I turned, they would just stonewall me," said Madeson, whose final issue included a photo of her late father's gravestone. Marvin Madeson, a World War II veteran, is buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a military burial ground in St. Louis County that dates to before the Civil War.

Among the few advertisers to remain loyal was Denny Ward, who helps manage a nonprofit, rural public transportation network.

"I really think she was successful," Ward said. "Maybe her downfall was that she didn't really know her audience well enough.

"Dealing with controversial issues came second nature to Frances," he added. "But that's not second nature to many in the community."

For Madeson, the future is uncertain. She hopes to write another novel but is coy about whether Fredericktown and its foibles will serve as comic fodder in the way that the doyennes of the Lower East Side in Manhattan graced her first book, "Cooperative Village." She hasn't given up on rural life but expects to live closer to a city.

Alternately wistful and defiant, Madeson called her efforts an attempt at "getting people to take an interest in themselves."

"People tried to characterize what I'd done as hateful," she said. "It was so the opposite. It was really about shining a light on things they need to talk about. And those conversations are happening."


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