Sixty years ago, at age 10, I decided that I wanted to be a newspaperman.
I had sold my first photo to The Farmville Herald, our hometown paper when we lived in Prince Edward County of Virginia, and could not understand why the county board of supervisors and school board closed the public schools to avoid integration.
I wrote an essay about living in such a troubled community and Ben Bowers, the City Editor of The Herald, submitted it to another paper when his refused to publish it.
I had snuck through the woods and lay on the ground to capture a photo of a local Ku Klux Klan meeting to illustrate my story. Parents of some of my classmates attended that meeting and I got a beating from those classmates at school right after the article appeared.
My mother considered sending me to Florida to live with my grandmother near Tampa to attend school to avoid future fights. My stepfather suggested shipping me off to Fork Union Military Academy. I left the Boy Scouts and the town’s Little League and spent more time alone.
The problems resolved themselves for a while when our family left Prince Edward County and relocated to Floyd County, where the bicycle I used to deliver papers in Farmville was left to rust in the barn and where no Little League played.
Pete Hallman, owner of The Floyd Press in those days, looked at my collection of newspaper clips and my photos and put me to work on his newspaper. His wife, Ruth Hallman, taught me English and Journalism at the new Floyd County High School and gave me a treasured spot on the school paper, The County Crier.
Pete also introduced me to Fred Loeffler, State Editor of The Roanoke Times, who encouraged me to cover news in our county and area as a part-time “correspondent.” I covered a plane crash near Rocky Knob, a murder trial in Floyd County Circuit Court and other stories but reporting that student school bus drivers at FCHS had threatened a strike over a pay scale lower than adult drivers, got me into trouble with School Principal Ray Hollingsworth and superintendent Alonzo Monday.
Hollingsworth suspended me from high school. Monday threatened to turn it into a permanent removal that threatened my graduation. It took Mrs. Hallman, who threatened to quit over what she called a “threat to freedom of the press” to keep me in school. Monday and Hollingsworth backed down.
I had learned again that reporting the truth had consequences. I had brought much of it on myself. I was a brash, headstrong teenager who thought rules got in the way of doing what I might want to do. As school photographer, I could get out of class to shoot photos for the school paper, yearbook and other projects. I could leave school and drive to Roanoke to get filmed processed or take care of other things, not all of them related to school.
I used summer school one year and a full class load with no study halls for two to finish my sophomore year with enough credits to become a senior a year early.
My impatience cost me a lot when it came to close friendships. So made too many bad choices. I took my first drink of alcohol at age 15 from a woman 11 years older than me and who used a glass of Cleophus Sowers’ moonshine to ease my nerves for some other “adult” activities she had in mind.
By graduation at age 17, I was an alcoholic who often drank alone and used vodka and a lot of Listerine mouthwash and breath mints to cover discovery. I left Floyd County as a drunken newspaperman who spent the next 17 years reporting for newspapers in Roanoke and the St. Louis metro area before taking a break to work for Congress on what I said would be “a sabbatical” to let me learn more about how government worked.
Instead, I learned how government thrives on corruption, greed and misuse of power — seductive additions that drew me into that sordid profession for a dozen years as a political operative, a chief of staff and, finally, a vice president for political programs that operated what was then the largest political action committee for the National Association of Realtors.
I left that world in 1994 as an out-of-control alcoholic with a vanquished sense of worth and little allegiance to truth or morality. The climb back from that sinkhole has been long, difficult, painful and incomplete. I’ve taken many necessary steps, but more remain.
Those years, and other incredibly stupid mistakes that I have made and will continue to make doesn’t make the recovery process easy nor should it be. Diligence must continue.
I returned to the only profession that I ever really wanted or needed. That profession gave me a sense of purpose. It allowed me to travel the world, often with wife Amy, where we saw news unfold and magnificent things happen. I also saw, and reported on, many of the dark things that happen in our society and world: death, destruction, terrorism, racism, bigotry and hate.
Even now, in what some call “semi-retirement” I am still a newspaperman, writing and shooting photos back where much of it started more than a half-century ago. I hope and pray to continue that until I die.
Have I learned? God, I hope so.
Am I a better person? That judgement must come from others at another time. I am sober today for 24 years, four months and 29 days. That’s a start but other work remains.
Regrets? Of course. We’re human beings and we make mistakes. I still screw up but when I do so I hope I am able to realize that correction must follow. If I could relive those years between 1981 and 1994, they would not involve most of the life I lived during that time.
I became part of what I despise. Yet I also lived in a part of life that few ever see or experience. It was educational and taught me the real meaning of wrong. Let’s hope that is a bright side that remains.