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Miss Mattie's place on Center stage; Radio: For listeners who prefer folksy talk of cats and casseroles to presidential scandal, this East Texas broadcaster is just the ticket.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CENTER, Texas -- Letterman and Leno have asked her on their shows but, no thank you, she doesn't cotton to the idea of flying on an airplane. Politicians stop by to visit when they're " 'lectioneering," and Willie Nelson calls occasionally to say hello.

At 87, the host of the radio call-in show "Mattie's Party Line" has drawn a following far beyond her station's 60-some-mile range.

"It's such a silly program, really," Mattie Dellinger says, attempting modesty about the show that she is actually, and justifiably, proud of. "Party Line" is an island of pleasant chatter in the midst of the sound and fury that dominate talk radio.

Taking your call

If you want to trash Clinton, call Rush Limbaugh. If you blame your mother for screwing up your life, call Dr. Laura Schlessinger. But if you want to talk about cats, wish a neighbor happy birthday or gab about your church dinner, call Miss Mattie.

Miss Mattie isn't nationally syndicated, though, so first you'll have to get somewhere in the vicinity of her beloved Center, an East Texas town of about 5,000 near the Louisiana line. Center, to the former newspaper woman, is short for Center of the Universe. From 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, Miss Mattie will take your call.

Lamar, though, probably will get on the air first. He's the nursing -home resident who calls at the start of just about every show to sing "Happy Birthday" to whoever is celebrating that day.

You'll also have to compete with the other regulars: Peggy, the woman with the counting obsession who can tell you the number of tiles in her doctor's office or bricks in the courthouse. And John, known on the air as The Lawyer, who loves to tease Miss Mattie about her own obsession -- with the National Enquirer. And Bobbie, the UFO sighter.

If "Mattie's Party Line" is the window to the soul of Center, it's quite a cozy place to live. Having lived here her entire life, Mattie Imelda (pronounced EYE-melda) McLendon Dellinger knows just about every caller by name. They exchange pleasantries, ask after one another -- everyone apparently is "tolerable" -- and catch up on who saw whose daughter the other day. The show indeed is like an old telephone party line -- listeners are merely eavesdroppers on Miss Mattie's conversations.

On a recent afternoon, Edna calls in to thank Miss Mattie for sending her a picture of her home's previous owners; one of Miss Mattie's interests is local history. "Edna," Miss Mattie signs off, "I'm coming by to see you before too long."

The Lawyer strolls into the studio to chat. He's John R. Smith, a former district attorney, and he banters with Miss Mattie about whether she's gone to the salon to get her hair "twisted" or to the store for her tabloid fix. "I had to buy a Globe," she says with mock dismay, "because they didn't have the Enquirer yet."

Lamar calls in again -- he seems to have discovered yet another celebrant -- for his third rendition of "Happy Birthday" for the day.

Another caller checks in to see whether the kittens Miss Mattie has promised her -- the offspring of one of the dozen cats she lives with -- have been born yet. "I've been delaying telling you this for about a week or so," Miss Mattie says sadly before breaking the news. The pregnant cat had been run over by a car.

Miss Mattie's many cats are a running theme on the show. Winners of trivia contests, especially The Lawyer, are often blithely told, "You win a cat." The actual prizes are more likely to be tickets to what Miss Mattie calls "the picture show," which tends to confuse her younger listeners who are rewarded for calling in to recite John 3: 16 or the Pledge of Allegiance.

Miss Mattie started the show in 1987. She had retired from the Light-Champion newspaper, having decided she couldn't handle all the "running around." A lifelong writer, she had begun contributing stories to newspapers in the 1950s, when her real job was helping husband, Pete, with his grocery store.

After Pete died in 1966, she started working full time, taking pictures, writing stories, doing a genealogy column and interviewing the stray traveling celebrity such as Dorothy Lamour for various local papers.

It wasn't hard for her to get a gig at KDET (for "Knee Deep in East Texas") -- her son was general manager at the time. The station carved a time slot for her in its schedule of news, music and swap-shop shows, and she took off.

'On the front page'

In radio, the natural talker and lover of the limelight found her natural medium. Even as a newspaper writer, she found she liked being as much a part of her stories as her subjects.

"I took advantage of every situation to get publicity," she says, remembering how she would "jump up and get my picture made" at events with politicians. "I was on the front page of every newspaper."

Radio station employees fondly tease her about how she relishes her local celebrity. She calls visits even to a store owned by her children "personal appearances," and gives her audience advance word on when they might catch one.

The show fits neatly into her life. Miss Mattie has not remarried -- "I never saw another man like him," she says of Pete, with girlish devotion -- but belongs to a club of eight women who get together every Monday, the one weekday she isn't on the air. They lunch, shop, travel to Dallas for theater or "go to the boats," a ladylike euphemism for gambling in Shreveport, La.

Her radio show's subject matter tends toward light, neighborly fare, such as church programs and local history. Much as she tries, though, Miss Mattie can't always steer talk away from national news like the running Clinton troubles.

"I try not to get into all that," she says. "You get started on that, it gets out of hand because people get mad. I try to keep it entertaining."

The show has drawn media attention for the lively, good-humored charm of its tiny host -- she's more likely to fudge about her sub-5-foot stature than her age -- and the celebrities she has attracted to this outpost far from the usual media circuit.

Then-Gov. Ann Richards, trailing a busload of reporters, was a guest in 1994, and they compared notes on grandchildren (Miss Mattie has two, plus two great-grandchildren), jewelry and church services.

And then there's Willie Nelson.

Miss Mattie set off a small furor in 1992 when she announced on the air that she didn't like his music or his looks. Callers were outraged -- this is Texas, after all, his home turf -- and Miss Mattie decided to turn the hubbub into a bit of publicity for herself.

She wrote the singer and told him all about it. One day, the "Party Line" phone rang and it was Willie Nelson.

"I'm going to come to Center," he said, "and I'm going to make you like me."

Nelson eventually gave a concert in Center, invited Miss Mattie to watch it from the stage and, well, it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

"I was scared he'd be mad," Miss Mattie says. "But I grow on people."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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