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Mary Myrtle Medearis (1915–2012)

Though she always considered herself a musician, Mary Myrtle Medearis was best known as the author of Big Doc’s Girl (1942), a novel that grew out of an assigned autobiographical short story in a creative writing class. It has the distinction of having stayed in print longer than any other work of fiction by an Arkansan. Ever tenacious, Medearis had great success as a writer and historian in spite of her humble beginnings—and partly because of them.

Mary Medearis was born in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) on May 31, 1915. Her mother, Myrtle Hendricks, taught piano. Her father, Dr. Robert Medearis, practiced medicine. Mary, whose maternal grandparents had been vaudeville performers, inherited her family’s love for music.

By the time Medearis graduated from North Little Rock High School in 1933, her father had died, and her mother was ill. She was uncertain how she could afford the musical studies she had always aspired to. In 1936, her aunt, Millie Hendricks Webb, bought Medearis a one-way ticket to New York City, where she could save expenses by living with her cousin and enter the Juilliard School to study piano. Her aunt paid her tuition, and Medearis offset her expenses by typing menus for a neighborhood tearoom.

In 1938, she decided to enroll in a speech class at Columbia University because New Yorkers had trouble understanding her Arkansas accent. Upon registering, Medearis learned that the speech class was full but that a creative writing class had openings. The registrar told her the writing class would also emphasize oral performance, so she enrolled.

When the writing teacher assigned an autobiographical short story, Medearis wrote “The Death of a Country Doctor” about the death of her father. The teacher was so impressed with it that he entered it in a competition sponsored by Story magazine, which it won in 1940. A film producer encouraged her to develop a screenplay, which led to a publishing contract with the J. B. Lippincott Company for a novel-length treatment of the same story. Medearis used her advance to buy a new piano.

Upon its publication in September 1942, Big Doc’s Girl was praised in the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, and scores of other publications. It soon earned a place on the New York Times Bestseller List, and the Times also named it one of the ten best books published that year. A condensed version appeared in Redbook magazine in September 1942.

The book was translated into German, Arabic, Swedish, and Japanese. In 1957, the New York Theatre Guild adapted it for the television series U.S. Steel Hour, which was broadcast in 1959 with Gene Hackman as Reverend McCraighton. In 1961, the Dramatic Publication Company of Chicago published it as a full-length play.

In the meantime, Medearis graduated from Juilliard in 1940, married Richard Reeves, a chemist, that same year, and moved first to New Jersey and later to Pennsylvania, where she raised four children and taught music. On a visit home to Arkansas in 1962, she discovered historic Washington (Hempstead County) and returned each summer until 1975 to visit and write down people’s stories. By then, Medearis had divorced and her children were grown, so she moved there permanently to write a book about the town. In 1976, she published Washington, Arkansas: History of the Southwest Trail. During this time, she also embarked on another career, along with John Ferguson, as a founding director of the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, affiliated with the Hempstead County Historical Society, of which she was a charter member. She held this position for thirteen years.

Big Doc’s Girl remained in print for thirty-nine years, until 1981, when Harper & Row, which had bought the J. B. Lippincott Co., allowed it to go out of print. The rights reverted to Medearis, and she contracted with August House Publishers of Little Rock (Pulaski County) for a new edition in 1985. It remained in print until 1998. In 2005, August House again revived the title. August House soon licensed paperback rights to Critics Choice Books.

From 1993 to 1996, Medearis was the writer in residence for Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia (Clark County) before moving to Saratoga Springs, New York, in the fall of 1996 to live in a retirement community for writers and artists. She died on September 16, 2012, at Saratoga Springs.

For additional information:
Brandon, Phyllis D. “Mary Myrtle Medearis.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. December 29, 1996, pp. 1D, 5D.

Obituary of Mary Myrtle Medearis. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. September 18, 2012, p. 5B.

Liz Parkhurst
August House Publishers

Last Updated 10/10/2012

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