As another year heads to a close, taking stock of where one is at a particular point in life becomes more important, especially as the years add up. Seeing another of my news stories on a paper where I once worked as a full-time reporter means a lot.
My story from the Floyd Press on the sentencing of Samuel Wayne Hale topped the home page of The Roanoke Times on Christmas Day, a nice gift. Hale will spend 30 years in prison for shooting at Floyd County sheriff’s deputies, and wounding one, in a chase back in October 2019.
He also has 53 more years awaiting if he violates probation after getting out of jail sometime close to the year 2050. Most felt the punishment fit the crime.
Brings back memories of more than 60 years of my life. I worked for the Times as its youngest-ever full-time reporter back in 1965-69, which followed three years as a full-time for The Floyd Press while attending Floyd County High School in 1962-65.
Yes, that was a long, long time ago, back when I had coal-black hair instead of the thinner white stuff now on my head.
What makes it so special, though, is that those years began a lifetime career as a newspaperman, with one ill-advised sabbatical as a GOP political operative — after so many years on the road covering news events in this nation and around the world. Unlike too many others who worked too long in their lives at jobs they didn’t like or want, I knew by age 10 that I wanted to be a newspaperman and photographer.
I was 10 when I crawled through a wooded area overlooking a field in Prince Edward County in Virginia to photograph a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan, composed of several of the racist members of the board of supervisors and school board there who closed the public schools to avoid integration and opened an all-white private school.
Ben Bowers, then news editor of The Farmville Herald, told me he could not publish the photo in that family-owned paper but sent it to The Richmond News-Leader, which did.
“You’ve got guts, kid,” Bowers said. “And you have a nose for news. Don’t lose either of those valuable gifts.”
Those conditions were part of the reasons our family left Prince Edward County not long after that and moved to Floyd County, settling near Willis. I took my photos and some news clips to Pete Hallman, then owner and editor of The Floyd Press, and he hired me on the spot. After graduation, he urged Roanoke Times State Editor Fred Loeffler to hire me as a reporter and photographer while attending the University of Virginia’s then-Roanoke Center on Grandin Road.
Pete Hallman was a good friend and great mentor for a young kid who still had a lot to learn about being a reporter. His wife, Ruth Hallman, was a fantastic English teacher and adviser for The County Crier, the FCHS school paper. She polished my writing skills. Both are gone now, but their son, Randy Hallman, had a good career at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, covered business and NASCAR racing, among other beats. His books on NASCAR are great reading and have treasured spots on our bookcase.
Randy remains a great friend, as do his sisters. I spent so much time in the Hallman home in Floyd during my high school years that I felt like part of the family.
At the Times in Roanoke, columnist Ben Beagle and political reporter Mel “Buster” Carico took me under their wings and taught me a lot. Carico talked the editors into letting me cover the statehouse in Richmond with him one year, and it provided a great education in politics and reporting. They’re gone, too, but I still use what they taught me so many years ago.
As a youngster at the Press and the Times, I was still a kid to others in the newsroom. Maybe my youth then is why I’m still alive today at 74, while too many have gone.
At The Alton Telegraph, my next newspaper job after leaving the Times in 1969, I learned a lot from Elmer Broz, a grizzled City Editor whose style harked back to the Chicago heydays of newspapers. When Broz died, editor Steve Cousley appointed me to Elmer’s job. Steve is retired. So was Walt Sharp, one of my best friends at the Telegraph and, the editor after I left in 1981 to move to Washington, DC.
Walt died a few years ago in San Antonio, TX, of pancreatic cancer. We still miss him.
We also miss Ed Pound, who games fame at The Telegraph for his strong investigative reporting, which took him to the Chicago Sun-Times and then to Washington, where we often met for lunch to talk what was and was not happening in the Capitol city.
So many others are gone too. Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist who became a friend, New York columnist Jimmy Breslin and reporter Pete Hamill, another New York legend.
After so many years as the youngest kid in the newsroom, I suddenly was older than most in later years. Some came to me for advice or mentoring. I became a photojournalism mentor for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) for student news photographers.
In 2oo2, while covering the start of America’s official start of the war in Afghanistan, I met a young Marine, Austin Tice, who wanted advice on how to become a photojournalist. After his tour ended, he contacted me in Washington for more help on becoming a news photographer covering conflicts.
Tice learned fast and became a sought-after writer and photographer by media organizations. We kept in touch after Amy and I moved to Floyd County. He disappeared when kidnapped on Aug. 14, 2012, while covering the conflict in Syria.
Austin is still missing after more than nine years and four months. I’ve worked with the Washington Post, which used his photos, in an effort to find and bring him home. Amy and I wear wristbands containing his name. He and his family remain constantly in our prayers.
His situation reminds us that our profession has threats. I walk with a limp, have damaged hearing and other medical issues because of injuries suffered while on assignments over the years. Our occupation has many joys, but it can also bring sorrow, especially when we must deal with the tragedies we cover.