Gigs: Betty Debnam Hunt

The woman behind the Mini Page

by Elizabeth Lincicome
photographs by Madeline Gray

Betty Debnam’s zest for lifelong learning is contagious. “I feel very strongly that elementary education begins at any age,” Debnam says. “It can begin at age seven or eight, or at age 78, and that is essentially why I started the Mini Page.”

After 48 years, the weekly educational newspaper supplement founded by Debnam in 1969 continues to be a favorite of not just young readers, but also their teachers and parents. The Mini Page is loved for its snappy writing, its endearing illustrations, its fun-yet-educational games and puzzles, and its approachable recipes. It’s the right mix, and its 88-year-old creator remains insightful, affable, and young-at-heart at home in Raleigh today. “The Mini Pages tried to bring a caliber of education that had not yet existed in newspapers.”

Creative sell

The first edition of the Mini Page ran Aug. 29, 1969, with a back-to-school theme that included a profile of Los Angeles Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel and a Faces in the News section asking readers to identify a photo of Spiro Agnew, the 39th U.S. vice president. Today, the pages’ subject matter remains diverse and in-
demand. The supplement is now syndicated through Universal Uclick and published in over 500 papers nationally and internationally, including in the Sunday News & Observer on the back of the Work and Money section. 

But in the beginning, it had a much smaller circulation, and it was Debnam’s hard work that created a product with staying power. Debnam moved to Raleigh at the age of 12 and attended Saint Mary’s  School and UNC-Chapel Hill before earning a master’s in education from Duke. She was working locally as a first and second grade reading teacher when she thought up the Mini Page. While serving on a social studies committee for city schools, “we were discussing the idea of offering a mini-unit for teachers and children,” Debnam says. She calls the Mini Page a “boiled down” version of the committee’s notion. “I would write it for kids, but it would be useful for teachers and parents, as well, because it was so easy to understand. It would also be useful for older kids or even adults who found reading the newspaper to be a challenge.”

Her end goal, she says, was to raise the bar: to first capture young students’ interest, and then to “build their background knowledge about subjects that everyone needs to know to solve real-world problems and become curious citizens.”

Debnam took her idea to the News & Observer. Then-co-publisher Frank Daniels Jr. liked the idea, and so did then-editor Claude Sitton; but first
Debnam had to sell it to head of advertising (and later associate publisher) Dave Jones.

Debnam approached revenue with a children-first approach: She proposed illustrated ads. Early Mini Pages included characters representing certain businesses: Frankie and Frances Furter sold hotdogs to represent Jesse Jones Hotdogs, Mickey and Minnie Mouse sold pianos to represent Maus Piano. Her idea proved innovative. “No one had ever seen these types of drawings,” Debnam says. And it worked. Debnam’s ads were so successful that by 1977, the Mini Page no longer needed advertiser support, and that’s when Universal Press Syndicate picked it up.

Meanwhile, today Debnam and Jones remain close friends. “I owe Dave Jones so much because he was my first mentor and gave me my first opportunity. He continues to be a great, great friend.”

Betty Debnam Hunt looks over several Mini Pages in her studio in Raleigh.

Turning the page

Debnam says she met many of her close friends through the Mini Pages. She even met her late husband, Col. Richard Hunt, when he was passing through Raleigh. Hunt had spent years as a reporter at the News & Observer, and on a return visit the two met. By 1978, Debnam moved to Washington, D.C. with Hunt, where he served as a military advisor to former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. 

Through the years, living in both Washington, D.C. and Raleigh, she has received all sorts of fan mail and letters of gratitude from those she has touched through the Mini Pages. She considers their authors close friends, too. Among them, Don Graham, former publisher of The Washington Post wrote: “Dear Betty: Thank you, thank you. The color Mini Page is the only aspect of the ‘new’ comics no one criticizes.”

A young Raleigh admirer wrote: “Dear Candy Can Do (the character representing First Citizens Bank): I like the Mini Page very much. My mother says that getting up early on Sunday morning to read the Mini Page helps me to get to church on time. If there were a mini paper every day, maybe I could get up early on school days, too. Please send me seven Peter Max covers for my books.”

For about a decade, Debnam was the sole writer and editor of the Mini Pages. She eventually added a few other staff members, though never more than a handful. Running a newsroom, albeit an intimate one, came naturally to her, she says, because she comes from a long line of journalists. Debnam’s grandfather started the Greene County Standard Laconic in Snow Hill, North Carolina; her grandmother ran the paper; and her father later became a reporter there, as well as an editor and a television commentator. She also remained a teacher at heart, and letters like the one above to Candy Can Do bolstered her.  “Trust me I loved it. There is no way I could have kept going for 37 years if I had not loved it.”

When Col. Hunt passed in 2007, Debnam sold the Mini Pages to Universal Press and returned to Raleigh. She donated all of the archives from 1969 – 2007 to the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, where they are free and downloadable online. She still reads the current Mini Pages. “I think they are doing a good job with it.”

The institution she founded remains invaluable in the classroom. Lacy Elementary School second-grade teacher Joy Ingallinera says she has taught the page for years. “I use the Mini Pages in my second-grade classroom to create a scavenger hunt questionnaire, in order to strengthen reading and comprehension skills. The students also love reading about what other students at various schools are doing.” 

Debnam has won numerous awards and honors, including from the Newspaper Association of America, the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame, the Newspapers in Education (NIE) Hall of Fame, the American Library Association, the American Chemical Society, the Freedom Foundation, and the Department of the Interior.

Beyond the awards, Debnam’s legacy is her vision, nearly 50 years ago, to use newspapers to develop elementary reading skills. She hopes they will continue to do so, she says, because the Mini Page’s themes are evergreen. “These topics are still relevant today and will be for some time. The reality is, one issue of the Mini Page has as much information as a single children’s book.”