From Bloop Balls to mad monkeys, I’ve had a blast

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 1, 2014

The first story I ever wrote for the Salisbury Post ended up on the front page.
I was wrapping up an internship in August 1992 with the News and Record in Greensboro and asked my editors which newspaper they considered the best small daily in North Carolina. Without exception, they said the Salisbury Post.
So I started reading the Post every day at lunch in the News and Record library, devouring articles and columns by Rose Post along with my PB&J. The Post had an opening for a reporter, so I applied.
As part of my interview, I had to write a story. Elizabeth Cook, then managing editor, sent me out to interview a local man who made Bloop Balls, little foam balls that stuck on the end of car antennas. While touring the entrepreneur’s small warehouse, I peeked inside a huge cardboard box full of Bloop Balls that read “Perot.”
Ross Perot had just pulled out of the 1992 presidential race, and I told the owner I was sorry about this overabundance of Perot campaign material that he was obviously stuck with.
He smiled and said that was actually a new order, placed after Perot dropped out.
In journalism, we call that getting the scoop.
I wrote that Ross Perot was apparently getting back into the race for U.S. president, as evidenced by thousands of Bloop Balls in Rowan County bearing his name. (A month later, he did just that.) The story landed on 1A, and my career at the Salisbury Post began on Sept. 4, 1992.
Nearly 22 years later, after two full-time stints that bookended my three babies, I’ve said a tearful goodbye to the Salisbury Post and have taken a new job that will give me more time with my family. Leaving a job you love is hard enough, but leaving coworkers you adore is positively painful.
I’ve been hooked on reporting since my first real story ran in my high school newspaper. Another student allowed me to write about her battle with an eating disorder. All of the personal, private details — she bravely handed them to me like a gift, given with the trust that I would weave them into something real but kind.
Stunned and a little overwhelmed, I worked to write a story that could help others who were suffering but also educate our classmates about this misunderstood condition. I learned that newspapers have a unique ability to influence people, as well as a profound responsibility to inform them.
Soon after arriving at the Post, I was assigned to cover a KKK rally in downtown Salisbury. I had no idea the hate group still existed. When I told my parents in South Dakota about the upcoming story, I think they considered sending in an extraction team.
But the next year, when the KKK pulled another parade permit, the Post made the decision not to cover it. Soon after that, the Klan stopped parading. Another lesson about the power of the press.
My first full-time stint at the Post ran from 1992 to 1995. I covered Davie County for a short but fertile period that produced stories including the arrest of the elderly mayor of Cooleemee by the town’s police chief, who happened to be named Matt Dillon. Who needs to write fiction when you’ve got facts like that?
I covered the long, bizarre demise of Tri-County Mental Health and was briefly chased by an angry monkey at the former Charlotte Metro Zoo.
In a story headlined “Rowan’s dirty little secret,” I wrote about horrible conditions at the original Rowan County Animal Shelter, where employees could not safely drink the contaminated water. Dogs were crammed into kennels in the overcrowded facility and usually held only for the minimum time state law required before they were euthanized in the now infamous gas chamber. Adoptions were rare.
The story helped fuel a grassroots campaign for a new shelter, just as recent coverage by the Post helped force elected officials to finally remove the gas chamber and replace it with more humane lethal injection.
Because Post reporters rotate the weekend shift, we inevitably cover traffic accidents, no matter our beat. I’ve covered many. The one I’ll never forget happened on July 8, 1995 — a Saturday — when a truck driver traveling south on Interstate 85 took his eyes off the road to adjust his coffee cup. He didn’t realize how slowly the three-vehicle convoy from South Carolina was traveling as it crept onto the interstate, led by a 1972 Ford flatbed truck hauling a Cadillac.
When the semi driver looked up, he was barreling down on the third car in the convoy, striking it and starting a chain reaction. Four members of the family died, including two children, and nine others were injured. Pregnant with my first child, I cried at the sight of stuffed animals and children’s shoes strewn across the highway. That was a tough assignment.
Somehow, whenever I worked the weekend shift, things often had a way of “blowing up,” as we say in the newsroom. Wrecks, fires, murders, weird gas leaks and more occurred on my weekends, sometimes many of them at once and often close to home.
I live a block from the church where fugitive John Knox Bridges barricaded himself in the basement with a gun on a Saturday night in 2013. Home for supper while working the weekend, I heard about the armed standoff from a neighbor, grabbed my camera, told the kids to lock the house and walked out the door to cover the events as they unfolded.
I never felt in danger while reporting the news, but looking back, there was one place I probably should not have gone — down an 11-foot tunnel into a buried school bus in 2001. A disturbed Rowan County man had buried the bus in his backyard and stocked it with everything you’d need for the end of the world: food, water, hand grenades.
If the owner, who was posting bond at the county jail, had come home while the photographer and I were down there … well, I’m not sure the emergency exit at the back of the bus was in working order.
That wasn’t the only dumb thing I did while working for the Post. When the late Jim Hurley owned the paper, staff members who won N.C. Press Association awards stayed at the Carolina Inn on his dime. Despite the hotel’s no-pet policy, I took my two dogs to Chapel Hill, convinced no one would discover them in the hotel room. Wrong. The hotel alerted Jimmy, who alerted Elizabeth, who alerted me about the fine, which I sheepishly paid.
I got lost. A lot. I took good care of the Post’s equipment, mostly. In 2011, I placed a video camera on the trunk of a parked car so I could use another camera to photograph the Hardiman Building.
When I turned around to retrieve the video camera, the car had driven away. And with it, the camera loaded with my raw video, never to be seen again.
During my second full-time stint at the Post, from 2010 until Aug. 22, I again had the remarkable privilege of telling stories about people — and even a few animals — who inspired me when I wrote about them and still do today. I felt honored to tell readers about some of the remarkable people who surround us every day, whose determination, courage and capacity for love and forgiveness may otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Like Johnny Moser, who graduated from high school at age 20 despite an undiagnosed learning disability and a period of homelessness.
Like Mike and Annette Hoosier, who adopted three brothers and later their blind baby sister. The Hoosiers happen to be white. Their children happen to be African-American. And anyone who has a problem with that will hear a word or two from Mike.
Like Sean Summer, who suffers from a rare congenital defect that causes deformities of the face. Sean has endured more than 20 surgeries, speaks with an impediment, walks with a limp and can hear only with the help of a high-tech aid anchored in his skull. Yet he opened a kennel and daycare for cats and dogs.
“The animals, they don’t care what you look like,” he told me. “As long as you take care of them and play with them, they’ll love you.”
Dog stories became some of my favorites, especially the story of Woody and Raka, bomb-sniffing military canines that ended up in the Rowan County Animal Shelter. Faithful Friends eventually placed both of the yellow Labrador retrievers with U.S. military veterans, who pledged to give the heroic animals the retirement they deserved after saving many lives.
I hold these and other stories in my heart as I leave the Post, including the story of Harriet Pinkston. Terminally ill, Harriet’s dying wish was to see her only child graduate from high school. But she was not expected to survive until the graduation ceremony.
So a dedicated physician at Rowan Regional Medical Center and many others brought the ceremony to her. Harriet passed away nine days after watching from a hospital bed as son Jesse received his diploma from North Rowan High School in the hospital’s chapel.
Working at the Post was not all tears and heartbreak. I’ve probably laughed as hard in the newsroom with my coworkers as I’ve done anywhere.
We went through a particularly hilarious period a few years ago when former webmaster Andy Morrissey encouraged the reporters to record online videos to promote our Sunday stories.
Each week, Morrissey would pop up and say, “Who’s got the enterprise story this week?” Print journalists go into newspapers for a variety of reasons, but one common denominator is a complete disinterest and often downright fear of being on camera.
This aversion made video-shooting days painful and, for those of us lucky enough not to be the subject that day, quite entertaining. I still crack up when I remember Sarah Campbell’s mantra “get it together, get it together” as she tried to get through her one-minute video segment without laughing. Or crying.
I think Morrissey had hoped the news reporters would embrace online video-making and create a mini sensation like Ronnie Gallagher, our late sports editor, who was a natural on camera. But Shavonne Potts, with her photogenic smile, was really the only one of us the camera loved. The rest of us appeared to be exactly what we were, terrified and annoyed.
Between my full-time stints, I worked as a freelancer for the Post, covering the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Soon, I will go to work for Duke University in the Kannapolis office as the communications specialist for the MURDOCK Study.
Like many of you, I often spent more waking hours with my work family than my own family. And as I leave the Post, these hard-working, dedicated, smart, funny people fill my heart and occupy my mind. More than awards, more than getting the scoop, this precious Post family is what I will miss most about a job I truly loved.