Reporting hot issues generates controversy

A 17-year-old newspaperman in 1965, working for The Roanoke Times.

In 1967, a friend introduced me to a 16-year-old student at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke not long  after she had a then-illegal abortion at the hands of a medical student paying for his doctor’s education by charging $200 for the procedure.

Her story a young girl who got pregnant from the evening she lost her virginity in the backseat of her boyfriend’s car in Wasena Park was, I felt, worth reporting.

So I reported it in a column for The Roanoke Times .  We didn’t use her name but I did confirm her pregnancy and the after effects with the doctor who treated after the botched abortion that left her unable to have children later in life.

Virginia outlawed abortion back then.  Some states allowed them, under strict circumstances, but not the Old Dominion.

When I turned the story in for publication, assistant managing editor Howard Eanes spiked it (“spiking” meant turning it down for publication).  Managing editor Woody Middleton backed his decision, so I took it to Executive Editor Barton Morris.

“I think this story is an important one for our readers,” I told Morris.  He agreed and overruled Middleton and Eanes.

Several months later, the story won first prize in the Virginia Press Association’s annual news contest.  It was my first major award for a young reporter who started his daily newspaper career at age 17 for the Times.  I felt rewarded by VPA’s  awarrd on a story that two of my editors rejected.

Public reaction, however, delivered a strong message about just how controversial abortion could be in 1967.  It remains a hot button issue today, more than 51 years later.

Readers condemned me for writing the story and the paper for publishing it.

That story wasn’t my first journalistic act to cause controversy.  Eight years earlier, as an 11-year-old Boy Scout in Farmville, VA, I stretched out flat in the words bordering a clearing and took photos of a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan in Prince Edward County.

The Ku Klux Klan: A dominating force in Prince Edward County, Virginia, in 1959.

I submitted my photos and an accompanying article, about being a youngster living in a county where the school board and supervisors shut down the entire public school system rather than comply with a federal court order to integrate, to our local paper.

Ben Bowers, then an editor at The Farmville Herald, a locally-owned newspaper that published twice a week, wanted to use the article and photos but the publisher spiked it.  Bowers then sent the package to the other newspapers, including the Richmond News-Leader, the Winston-Salem Journal and Charlotte Observer.

Richmond and Winston-Salem said “no.”  The Charlotte Observer said yes and their publication of the story and photos were picked up by other papers.  That clinched my decision to become a newspaperman.

Ironically, after joining The Roanoke Times in 1965, I covered several meetings of the Klan in Franklin and Patrick Counties.  A year after winning the Virginia Press Association award on the abortion column, they gave me another award for a story about street racing in Roanoke.

I won other awards for stories at other newspapers over the years after leaving Roanoke in 1969 for Illinois and 12 years at The Telegraph in Alton, but the first one from the Virginia Press Association hangs on the wall of my den and studio in Floyd.

It was my first and one that meant a lot to a young reporter who still had a much to learn and experience more than a half-century ago.

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