Paul Dellinger was already a fixture at The Roanoke Times when I joined the staff of the newspaper in 1965. The Wytheville-based reporter would go anywhere at anytime in pursuit of a story. His home served as the “Southwestern Virginia Bureau” of the newspaper and a clunky old teletype machine sat in his basement so he could tap out stories to the paper.
Most often, however, Dellinger called in his stories from pay phones in whatever town he happened to be in while covering a story. As the new kid on the staff, I often took his stories over the phone, taking his dictation from a phone receiver cradled between my shoulder and ear.
Some reporters would call in notes, saying “clean that up for me,” and leaving it up to the rookie to turn rambling thoughts into readable sentences. Not Dellinger. His copy came in clean and often ran as he dictated it on the fly.
The Times estimates Dellinger’s byline appeared in the paper more than 17,600 times over the past 44 years. That may be a conservative estimate. He would cover two or three meetings a day plus a breaking news event or two.
Dellinger called it quits last Friday after 44 years. It wasn’t as much his choice as the economic reality of that fading institution of journalism called newspapers. The Times, like so many other papers, offered early retirement to staff members 59 or older with at least 15 years of service. Dellinger is 69 with 44 years at the same paper. His reward for all those years was an offer of “nice job Paul but it’s time to go.”
A feature in the Times over the weekend called Dellinger a “Southwest Virginia fixture.” He is more than that. To many in the counties west of Roanoke he was the face of the Times. To others he was the paper’s soul, a soul lost long ago in a consultant-packaged product that is a shell of its former self.
The Fishburn family owned the Times in the 1960s. Like many family-owned Southern newspapers, the Times followed conservative policies. It didn’t run liquor ads. It endorsed Republicans for political office.
But the paper had a soul that reflected the community it served. Writers for the paper were, for the most part, home-grown: Ben Beagle, the folksy columnist, Mel “Buster” Carico, the best known political writer in the state, outdoor writer Bill Cochran, an avid hunter and fisherman.
I learned a lot from those local legends. When city editor Dick Hancock dressed me down in front of other reporters for missing a key element in a story, Beagle and Carico took me across the street to the bar of the Ponce de Leon Hotel and patiently explained where and what I did wrong. When the next session of the General Assembly started, Carico went to Hancock and said “let me take the kid along” to cover the session.
I wrote a column aimed at younger readers during my last two years with the paper. Beagle and I would sometimes spar in print. Nothing personal. Just good fun.
Dellinger taught me a lot as well. I covered several stories with him and marveled at his ability to get to the heart of a story and coax information out of reluctant witnesses to an event. He taught me to think on my feet and compose a story in my head before calling it in. When I left the Times in 1969, my next newspaper got a better reporter because of what I learned from Paul Dellinger, Ben Beagle and Buster Carico.
The Times Dellinger left last Friday is nowhere near the paper he joined and helped mold in those early days. Carico retired in 1981. Beagle still writes a column from his home but it is relegated to the back of the living section. The paper, under the ownership of Landmark Communications of Norfolk, is unabashedly liberal now and that rankles readers in conservative Southwestern Virginia. Many of the kids who work out of the paper’s “New River Valley” bureau in Christiansburg come from all parts of the county and often have to ask for directions to the towns they cover. They conduct interviews by email and compose stories on laptops before sending them in. The thought of trying to compose a story while stuffed into a phone booth on a hot summer day would send some of them into apoplexy.
Someday soon Paul Dellinger and I will sit down for lunch to talk about the old days and a newspaper business that both of us may have outlived. It will be a point that neither of us ever expected to reach.