WDN experiences helped develop life’s journey

Published 11:58 am Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Special to the Daily News

Not so much who I am but where I am and what I do are significantly the result of my experience with the Washington Daily News.
This includes my ultimate career path and current job in New Orleans, where I do environmental and safety work for a company with oil, gas and chemical storage terminals from New York harbor to San Francisco Bay.
My early experience with the paper was no different than anyone else growing up in Washington and Beaufort County in the 1950s and 1960s. My earliest memory of the paper is of my grandmother proudly showing me a news clipping, doubtless placed there by Mary Bell Toler, of my Uncle Murray, an actor, in a play or movie somewhere in California. That was also the first time I remember understanding that the Daily News made things important to people.
My understanding expanded with my Dad reliving the Pam Pack football games in the Saturday-afternoon paper and me having a vague feeling that one day he might really like to see my name in those stories. I took early steps in that direction with Daily News pictures of me on the Dr Pepper and National Spinning youth baseball teams, but in the end, Dad had to settle for pictures of me standing with other guys in white shorts holding tennis racquets. I knew this just didn’t measure up to that picture I can still see in my head of Ward Marslender Jr. pretending to throw a pass to someone on the team that almost won the state championship in Canton. The picture was probably taken by John Morgan, THE sports editor.
From Washington High School, I went off to Chapel Hill, took a break to explore the world in the U.S. Army for four years and came back home where I needed a job during the summer before returning to UNC. Working the second shift at Hamilton Beach putting the nibs on egg beaters soon lost its luster. Mac Cox, a close friend of my brother Larry, was leaving the paper as sports editor. He suggested I apply for the job.
To this day, I do not know why Mr. Ashley B. Futrell Sr. hired me. What at the time seemed like a better way to spend the summer turned into one of the real turning points in my life.
Fortunately, my limited knowledge of sports was not tested. My main job was to endlessly report the scores and stats from a seemingly infinite number of area high-school and youth-league sports. It was not journalism by any stretch, but the experience did further my understanding that a local newspaper’s primary job is to publicly document the key times in people’s lives.
I did get to write a few nonsports stories. It was fun and an ego boost when people started recognizing me.
I returned to UNC that fall but could not shake the fun of taking words out my head and then watching Margie Gardner, Bill Daniels and Dick Dixon turn them into type made out of molten lead. Lloyd Roberts placed the columns of lead sentences in racks to be turned into lead cylinders that were put on the presses and then stamped out by Vance Bell on thousands of sheets of paper with my name on them somewhere.
It was definitely an ego feed.
I left UNC again, enrolled at East Carolina and went back to the Daily News where I watched Mr. Futrell, who had just played a big role in turning the college into a university, work so effectively for the medical school that would come to mean so much to so many. It was quite a lesson in how strong individuals, especially with command of media, could have a vision and make big things happen.
I also got to experience the value of people whose skills and dedication are the glue that keeps things together. Tom Spencer was reigning managing editor and the rock in the news room. My memory sees him vividly at his desk with The Associated Press ticker-tape machine loudly running behind him. He’s typing away with a slip of paper between his lips and the ever-present bottle of Coke at hand. His wife, Elsie, is nearby, proof-reading copy. Mrs. Toler is at her desk on the phone, taking notes about some social event or wedding. Margie is in the next room, typing away on a machine that’s like a typewriter but turns copy into ticker tape with holes that are then turned into leaded type. She does so with an error-free efficiency that I still remember with admiration and have never had any hope of duplicating in anything.
The whole experience helped me adjust to the world as a young man still unsure of what he wanted to do and slowly realizing that time would not permit him to be anything he wanted.
Ironically, considering my subsequent career in environmental work for Texasgulf’s (now PotashCorp Aurora) competitor, one of my first stories back at the paper was about whether the new Texasgulf mine was the reason the Pamlico River was “infested” with sea weed. It had none when I was growing up, at least where I lived at Edgewater Beach. I thought I had a real scoop. It didn’t take long for the state scientists to explain to me that natural cycles, especially hurricanes, were more likely the explanation for the vegetation. So much for the scoop.
It was a busy time balancing work at the paper and classes at ECU, but at that age I didn’t need as much sleep as I do now. Some real fun began at the paper when Irving Litchfield Jr. returned home from the Air Force as a photographer. Irving and I grew up on the Pamlico close to each other. He proceeded to teach me photography, and the paper gave me a chance to publish it. Photography and its associated skills have enhanced my marketability and what I could contribute to every job I have had since. To this day, it remains a passion.
The civil-rights movement, government programs to help the needy, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty — those were heady things to report on in those days. I got to talk with and even work with people like Mr. Futrell, Mayor Thomas Stewart, Bill Cochran, Beverly Moss, Grace and Frank Bonner and others working to build the city and county. The 1960s and early 1970s were complex times, but on hindsight, still seem to me to have been moving in positive directions.
Because television, especially local TV, had not yet taken over, the newspaper was central to a lot of what was going on. Bond issues for recreation and new schools and the Aurora Fossil Museum were major projects my paper experience helped me be a part of.
It was certainly not all “aim-high” stuff, however. One of the most interesting stories in those early years was about a woman named Monique. Irving, and I went to the county fair looking for stories. Monique was a woman who disrobed for a living in a tent that attracted a varied audience. This seemed an ideal “human-interest” story, especially when Monique turned out to be more than expected. She was intelligent, charming (didn’t take much to charm Irving and me, of course) and gracious. I wrote about her in those terms, and it was the story that resulted in the most phone calls and letters to the editor of any story I wrote. According to most commentators, there was no way that a woman could do what she did and be anything but an immoral cartoon character. Lesson learned.
A bigger lesson came later. Mr. Futrell was a state Senator and, obviously, a politician. As such, he was controversial. More than once, his campaigning and legislating raised issues. I had to write a series of stories about an issue that included, as a sideline to the main issues, concerns involving Mr. Futrell’s campaigning. I sweated that out for a week before getting up enough nerve to talk to him about it. I was amazed, grateful and proud of his response. He told me to pursue the story, get facts from all sides and then report them. Important lesson learned.
I met and married the love my life, Mindy Maloney, while going to school and working at the paper. No sooner were we married then, again, Mr. Futrell, as he would several more times, opened up new worlds. He offered Mindy and me a chance to move to Havelock to run the weekly paper there with the possibility of working my way into ownership. It was scary, but Mindy encouraged me and we moved. She quickly learned typesetting, layout and some of the newspaper’s business aspects.
Years later, Mindy’s experience would come in handy. After three children and relocations to Oklahoma twice, Texas and New Orleans, Mindy and I pondered long and hard about a 1998 call from Brownie Futrell. He offered us a chance to get back home to family and to the profession I had most enjoyed. We could not resist.
I got work as the news/city editor and as a photographer. I also immersed myself into the paper’s mechanics, which had changed a great deal. No more lead, just digits. Mindy’s experiences along the way prepared her to become the society editor, something we both treasured since we knew and loved Mary Bell Toler over the years. As always, there were bright young people starting careers in journalism at the smallest, family owned, daily paper in the country sporting a Pulitzer Prize. Mike Voss was a mainstay. Margie was still there making sure things held together. Vance still turned the press on.
After a year and half, circumstances created financial opportunities involving a return to New Orleans. We had left our eldest daughter there with imminent possibilities of grandchildren and a city big enough that our two other daughters might be able to join us and make homes.
We moved once again and live in this fabled city with our adult children and their children. I still do environmental and safety management work that Mr. Futrell, for some reason, thought I could do in 1975. Mindy uses the skills she acquired to help publish several magazines in New Orleans. The Daily News and the people there we grew up and matured with remain a big part of who we are and what we do. And we are grateful.
In the flooding that followed Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Rusty Walker showed his love of photography by kayaking up the Pamlico-Tar River and Tranter’s Creek to take photographs of flooded residential areas.