Not that many years ago, I never expected to reach age 30, much less 68.
My dad died in an industrial accident at 29. His four brothers died in their 20s.
My mother, for a while, believed the family was jinxed because of the deaths of my dad and uncles. I lived under a motto of my grandfathers Walter McPeak who said “if you’re not living life on the edge, you’re taking up to much room on Earth.”
Such early moldings helped give me a purpose in life. I fell in love with photography at 10, sold my first news photograph to the the Farmville Herald at 11 and decided at that point I wanted to be a photojournalist. Ben Bowers was the editor there who looked at the young man with a roll of film that showed a nighttime meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in Prince Edward County and decided to give him film and encourage him to pursue his dream.
We left the racism of Farmville and moved to Floyd in 1961, Pete Hallman, owner of the Floyd Press, recognized my dream and drive and hired me as a reporter and photographer, based on my folder of photos and stories of the horrors in Farmville. He sharpened my dream, nurtured the desire and taught me to write. His wife, English and journalism teacher Ruth Hallman, taught me sentence construction and sharpened my juvenile prose into readable copy. She also helped me when I got into trouble, which was often.
Pete introduced me to Fred Leoffler, state editor of the daily Roanoke Times, who hired me as stringer/correspondent while still a student at Floyd County High School. I still accepted the belief that my life would end early, before 30, and I took classes without study halls and a year of summer school to graduate early from high school and went to work for The Roanoke Times at age 17 as both a reporter and photographer, becoming the youngest full-time reporter at the paper while studying at the University of Virginia’s then-area campus on Grandin Road.
Jim Echols, then city editor of the Times, told me that being hired as a reporter who shot photos rather than as a photographer who wrote stories gave me a better starting salary. That turned out to be true for all of my career as a newspaperman.
I covered Ku Klux Klan meetings in Franklin County, civil unrest on Orange Avenue, crime in the area and developed a column about the younger generation of the Roanoke Valley. The Virginia Press Association honored me with first place awards for feature writing on a report on a young woman who underwent a then-illegal abortion in the area and another award for coverage of the street racing culture on Williamson Road in Roanoke.
My schooling at UVa depended on transferring to the campus in Charlottesville, Virginia as a junior, which would have put my newspaper career on hold so I dropped out of college at the end of my sophmore year, which brought my career at The Roanoke Times to an end in 1969 when the paper discovered I never got around to a degree and told me to find a job elsewhere.
Armed with a copy of the classified ads from Editor & Publisher magazine, I called the first newspaper in the ads — The Alton Evening Telegraph in Alton, Illinois. I called and managing editor John Focht asked me to fly out on the first day of the next week. He looked at my growing collection of clips during the hour and a half of talking and he offered me a job at $55 a week more than my former job at The Times.
I arrived ready to the new job two weeks later and was assigned to the county seat bureau of the paper to cover news and the new campus of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I was 21.
At age 26, the editor Steve Cousley named me acting city editor when longtime editor Elmer Broz died. I also was writing a column at that point. On December 17, 1977, I turned 30 and beat the imagined jinx of dying before that age. I was editor of the paper’s weekend edition by that time and had a number of awards from the Illinois Press Association and other organizations on the wall.
Married Amy on December 15, 1979 and, after 12 years with the paper, decided to take a break from journalism to become press secretary to Congressman Paul Findley of Illinois in 1981. The plan was to spend a couple of years in Washington to learn how government worked and then return to newspapers to put that knowledge to work.
Two years turned into four, then six, and, by that time, I was chief of staff for another Congressman, then special assistant to the ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. I traveled, sometimes with Amy, to Israel, England, Paris, Stockholm, Germany and other counties on “official business” that were more junkets than actual work for the committee. I did work on committee’s investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger‘s fatal crash and probed computer security problems at the National Security Agency.
The National Association of Realtors came calling and I was Vice President for Political Programs the year I turned 40 in 1987 and remained there until 1992 .
During that period I also worked as a political operative for the Republican Party and, as such, did things that I regret, including mudslinging, attack ads and playing short with facts. I have tried to make amends for in recent years.
I was a journalist at heart and began to free-lance while at the Realtors and returned in earnest in the 1990s. I also faced more than 30 years as a hard-drinking journalist and then political operative. It had taken its toll and I took the first step with Alcoholics Anonymous on June 6, 1994. I turn 68 today after 21 years, six months and 11 days of sobriety.
With Amy’s love and support, and the help of fellow travelers who face the beast of alcoholism, I continue living sober one day at a time.
That same year as a newly-recovering alcoholic, I started a political news web site on the Internet called Capitol Hill Blue. Today, it is the oldest continually published political news site on the World Wide Web.
I covered the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the Pentagon as a news photographer for wire services on September 11, 2001, and the months that followed. I traveled the country and the world, covering stories before my mother got sick and needed attention so Amy and I left Washington in 2004 and bought a home in Floyd County to be here with her in her years of declining health until she died on August 28, 2012, at age 89.
On November 9, 2012, an encounter on my Harley-Davidson and a black cow on a dark night on U.S. 221 in Roanoke County almost sent me to the grave but I’m still around.
Some people tell me that I’m to old to still be riding motorcycles and point out that I turned 65 in the hospital in 2012 recovering from the crash that damn near killed me. During a grand mal seizure, I did die for a little while but I hung on, came out of the coma, worked hard on rehab and walked out of the hospital on December 24, 2012 — 45 days after laying my bike down to try to avoid hitting a cow — an action that saved the cow’s life but broke a bunch of my bones, ripped off part of my face, dislocated my right eye and left me suffering a severe brain injury.
An incredible team of neurosurgeons, orthopedic surgeons, plastic surgeons and rehab specialists accomplished what most thought would be impossible but I emerged with a functioning mind and mostly-functioning body. I am still recovering three years later.
As I turn 68 today, I can look back at a life that, at one point, I thought incorrectly might end by 30. I’ve been fortunate, been helped by good, caring people and have the love and support of a loving wife of 36 years.
I’ve made more than my fair share of stupid mistakes in my life and I still make mistakes today. I’m human. I did things in the employ of the United States government that defied the laws of morality and decency we were taught. I did things as a political operative that were questionable and immoral.
As an alcoholic, I hurt too many people, put my needs above those of others and put my life in danger too many times. Without Amy’s love and support, I would not be here today.
I was extremely fortunate to have discovered early on what I wanted to do with my life and I pursued that objective with passion. I should have kept my promise of staying in Washington for just two years before returning to newspapers. The decade-plus of political activity was seductive but it led me to make decisions then and afterward that violated what I was taught and in what I believed. Some of those practices endured too long after my return to journalism and I am still learning and, hopefully, making better decisions now. I’m sorry for what I did and I’m sorry for what Amy endured during that part of my life.
I am blessed with having a chance to spend my later years once again as a newspaperman, working as a photographer and reporter for The Floyd Press and BH Media. I’m fortunate to have found new territories to explore as a videographer, producing films about the music culture of our area and shooting news footage for TV stations and cable networks.
My real fortune, however, comes in life with a loving wife of 36 years and a host of good friends. All of you make me feel young today and give me more reasons to live and learn.