I remember the day I met Leslie Criss.
I’d put in a resume at the Daily Journal for a position on the copy desk, an after-hours role in which I’d be proofreading the next day’s newspaper for errors. It was the scorching summer of 2012.
My dad always thought I’d make a great journalist. As a youngster, he took spectacular photos for the school newspaper at Aberdeen High School. Like most bone-headed kids, I didn’t really pay his input much mind up until that point.
To my surprise, the next call I received was from Lloyd Gray, the DJ’s editor at least 15 years. He asked if I’d be interested in a reporter position covering schools, nonprofits like the Salvation Army, and the local church community, and I agreed to come in for an interview with him and Leslie.
As soon as she walked into Lloyd’s office, I felt calmer about my interview. Leslie has that effect. She made an impression on me, not only as a kind and generous woman, but one who embodies the true old-school newspaper type. These rare individuals tend to be persistent, tough, thorough, diligent, hard-working, and unflappable.
After I accepted the job, she said that as soon as I left, she’d told Lloyd, “I like him.”
Clearly, I liked her, too.
For the next several years, I held a desk space between Leslie Criss and Ginna Parsons. They gave me perspective and guidance through various crises over the next four years, both in work and in life. I still hear her in my head at times, her signature catch phrase, “Still, and yet.”
Remember back in school when you waited until the night before to start working on a big project? Working at a newspaper is exactly like that – every single day. The first time I found myself hyperventilating on an assignment coming due, Leslie kept me from imploding.
“Riley,” she said, pushing her chair away from her desk to look me in the face. “This paper has run every day except Christmas for a hundred years. Do you think that the first time it fails to come together will be because of you?”
I took a breath and got to work. She was right. Everything turned out fine.
Over the years, I watched her answer disgruntled letters and rude emails from readers with unparalleled grace. She has a heart for Mississippi, for the South, and the Journal’s readership, even those who think differently than she does. Leslie Criss doesn’t judge anybody. All you have to do to earn her friendship is treat people with respect and kindness. But she’s more than nice.
In all the time I worked with her, Leslie never hesitated to step in where she was needed – before work, after work, on weekends, on holidays, you name it. She held us all together at times. It is incredibly rare to find a leader who will get down in the trenches with you, shoulder to shoulder, to make it happen. She treated every story, every column, with care and honor, day in and day out.
Leslie is retiring Oct. 31. I’ll miss her presence on the page. She poured her heart into it, and what a big heart it is.