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He also loved newspapers, which he viewed as a link to the universe beyond the borders of the ranch. "The most important part of the day, other than when I was in school, was 10:15 in the morning, when the mail came -- because that's when we got that day's newspaper," he says. "It was really the only way we kept up with what was going on."
When he reached fifteen, Singleton remembers, "I got my driver's license, and my father told me that if I could get a real job in town I didn't have to work on the ranch." To that end, he applied for a position at the Graham News and wound up as sports editor -- a title that seems considerably less highfalutin when Singleton reveals that he was actually the only person in the paper's sports department and one of just four in the newsroom. (His oldest son, Will, fifteen, is starting his newspaper career at a higher level. He's currently interning at the Denver Post, and received a co-byline on July 29 for a story about underage teens, such as himself, buying R-rated-movie tickets.)
Young Dean loved his duties at the Graham News and happily worked himself to exhaustion -- a possible reason that he doesn't view job conditions that others revile as being anything to gripe about. "I'd get out of school at 2:45 in the afternoon and go to the newspaper and work until midnight, sleep a few hours, then go to the mailroom, deliver bundles of papers to the stores around town and then go back to school," he says. Over 10,000 inches of his copy was published in commercial newspapers by the time he graduated from high school, thus earning him recognition as the 51st member of the "Big Inch Club," sponsored by Quill & Scroll. In doing so, he made the career of his journalism teacher, whom he still refers to as "Miss Maxwell." He says, "I saw her at my thirtieth high school reunion a year or two ago -- she was about 87 years old -- and she told me, 'I only got one Big Incher, but I did get one.'"
Upon his graduation, in 1969, Singleton landed a position at the Wichita Falls Times Record News, for which he'd worked as a stringer. He was charged with driving each day to small towns within the paper's 200-mile circulation range "to look for news," which he sees as a great way to find the stories that are too often missed; he hopes that the Denver Post will grow large enough to allow selected staff members to do something comparable. This approach led to his first big story, a page-one Sunday piece about a speech made at a meeting of area Democrats in Quanah, Texas, by the local congressman, who told his audience that the oil depletion allowance, an important tax break for Texas drillers, was about to be axed. "That got picked up nationally," Singleton says, still savoring the scoop.
From there, Singleton skipped first to the Tyler Morning Telegraph and later to the Dallas Morning News, where he worked for over two years as a news editor. (His veteran colleagues needled him about his youth with the nickname "Teeny Weeny Deany.") Singleton lore holds that he also applied at the Dallas Times Herald, but he was turned down for being "too young and too inexperienced," a rejection he crowed about in an ad he placed in Editor & Publisher when, in 1986, he bought the Times Herald. "They...told me to come back in a few years," Singleton wrote. "Well, I guess you could say I'm back."
Not that Singleton let his youth slow him down. In 1972, before his 21st birthday, he was asked by a couple of businesspeople in Graham, including Ed Eakin, to start a paper to compete with the Graham Leader, a publication perceived as being anti-growth by the powers that were. Eakin, who's now 73 and runs a self-named publishing company, says he met with Singleton "in Jacksboro, Texas, at a place called the Green Frog Cafe, and we made a deal that we would print the paper and finance it, and Dean would run it and have half interest."
After taking out a $10,000 loan to buy his piece of the project, Singleton launched the Clarendon Press, which he says "just kicked ass; we put out a really good newspaper. I got a couple of kids out of college to help write news and covered real stories. The Leader was primarily an editorial page with a lot of chicken-dinner news. But we put out a real newspaper -- covered meetings and city hall and the whole county."
Eakin also backed Singleton in the purchase of another paper, the Azle News, which did well, too. But, as Eakin says, "Dean was always a step ahead of everybody," and when Singleton learned in mid-1975 that the E.W. Scripps company was planning to shut down the much larger Fort Worth Press, he decided, with the encouragement of several businessmen, including the late George DeArmond, that he should buy it.
Even Ed Estlow, then the president of Scripps, thought this was a crazy idea. "I told him I didn't think it was practical, because the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the other paper there, had the market wrapped up pretty well," allows Estlow, 81, a longtime Denverite and unabashed Singleton fan who's been on the University of Denver's board of trustees for over a quarter century. "I didn't think he could make it."