Wineka column: ‘Coach’ Walls always had choice words for reporters

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Back in the days before newspapers began fretting about the Internet and reducing both their print product and editorial staffs, Dwayne Walls made a living as an itinerant writing coach.
He was a hired gun brought in especially to improve the words of young reporters.
I became a disciple of sorts. And, I like to think, a friend.
As I remember, Dwayne traveled in a yellow, high-mileage Mercedes Benz sedan. He reserved certain days for the various newspapers on his circuit, visiting the Post on Wednesday or Thursday afternoons.
I looked forward to his arrival and tried to have a draft of my weekend story ready for him.
Dwayne liked to read out loud รณ always a good tip for any writer. When words or sentences don’t sound right or flow correctly, it’s pretty obvious when they are spoken.
On my stories, he didn’t try to rewrite me, preferring to make suggestions on structure instead. It led to considerable debates at times. Reporters aren’t necessarily the most coachable human beings.
A favorite thing of his to say was, “Let’s park this over here,” meaning I should take a sentence, paragraph or whole passage and move it away for the time being so we could visit it later.
When “later” came, that part of the story usually belonged somewhere else or, more likely, didn’t fit in anywhere.
He drew his chair next to his writers and leaned in hard, as though he were a runner in the starting blocks. Dwayne had a knack for making writing like sport.
Like an editor, he would ask questions that begged for an answer. If I disappointed him with a grammatical slip, he usually cussed. If I pleased him with an approach or turn of phrase, he slapped his thighs and congratulated me.
He left the newsroom one day unimpressed with the way I was leading into a thumb-sucking piece about how Salisbury really hadn’t grown much for decades. The next week, he made it a point to find a Sunday newspaper and see whether I had taken his advice and started over.
I had. He shook the newspaper in glee and ran to tell an editor there was a chance for me yet. I’ll never forget the look on his face.
Dwayne described to me once how much pleasure he derived in seeing a particular reporter write her stories. She sat back from her computer with the keyboard on her lap and as she typed, a smile crept over her face. A joy filled her as one word followed the other.
To Dwayne, good writing had that effect on good writers.
Dwayne usually joined the newsroom gang for end-of-the day beers at the old Ham’s restaurant. He would regale us with his own reporting stories and gave us glimpses into the characters at other newspapers.
Dwayne made his own reporting mark with the Charlotte Observer in the 1960s. He left to write books, teach journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and set himself up as a vagabond writing coach, when even small newspapers like ours could afford the luxury.
The day eventually came when our editors had to cut Dwayne’s contract, and I would see him only sporadically at annual press functions. Then I lost all contact.
Dwayne died this past week in a South Carolina nursing home. He was 76 and had Alzheimer’s disease.
He would not have remembered me.
But I remember him.
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Contact Mark Wineka at mwineka@salisburypost.com or 704-797-4263.

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