Arguably my most memorable lesson at the mike came 37 years ago moments after I was off mike.
Often, in the days leading to Christmas, television newsrooms rely on the routine. Maddening crowds making final purchases at stores, holiday travel, the hot gift items and charitable community efforts all line the rosters of local evening newscasts.
December 22, 1977, in Columbus, Ga., a story that might have been routine at any other time of year was a gamechanger for me.
Shortly after our 7 o’clock newscast ended on WTVM in Columbus, I was preparing to head next door for a greasy evening meal at a popular fast food chain. A scanner call changed everything.
A fire was in progress at a home about 10 miles from the station in the outskirts of Muscogee County. My co-anchor was on her way to her family home in Philadelphia for a few days. I was carrying the ball solo, so a young news intern from Auburn University and I headed for what would probably lead our late newscast.
After weaving through heavy midtown traffic, we reached the home in about 25 minutes. The intern grabbed the camera and began shooting. Two units of firefighters were unsuccessful in saving the house.
My first question for the fire captain in charge was whether anyone was inside. Thankfully, no one was. The homeowners appeared to be away. Here we were three days away from Christmas and a gutted home is what they would find when they returned.
After about 20 minutes, the intern and I were about to wrap up and head back to WTVM. A station wagon approached. Moments later, a father and mother and three small children emerged.
We gave them space to survey the rubble of what was left of their dwelling. Afterward, I spoke with the father. I told him I understood if he did not want to talk but asked if he would consider a brief interview. He consented.
“I believe in God,” he said. “I believe God will get us through this and take care of us. But right now, I’m thinking about these three boys of ours. All of their Christmas presents were in the house and they’re all gone.”
The wooden frame home was a modest one. I found out that the father worked at one of the textile mills in Columbus. He toiled hard at the blue collar job to make ends meet for his family.
My intern and I saw 8:30 on the clock. We had to dash back to have the story at the top of the 11 o’clock news.
I never was comfortable with personal tragedy and misfortune as what often drove the train of newscasts. All I can tell you is those categories are far more frequent and emphasized on local news today than they were in 1977.
As we were about to drive away, my intern said, “Hold on just a second.” I thought he perhaps had forgotten a piece of our equipment. “I’ve got to do something,” he told me.
Interns in television newsrooms are unpaid. Their compensation is college credit for their internships. I knew the aspiring journalist who was acting as my videographer was not rolling in money.
He reached into his wallet for a $20 bill. “I’ll be right back,” he said. About 30 seconds later, he returned. We drove away. Curious, about five miles down the road I asked, “What did you have to go back for?”
He said, “I couldn’t leave without leaving something for those kids’ Christmas. I left the money on the front seat of his car. I knew he wouldn’t take it if I offered it to him face to face.”
Immediately, I had an empty feeling. Not only was I the second-highest paid staff member of the newsroom, I had been raised in a family where helping others had been a theme of both of my parents. I was so focused on getting back with the story, I forgot one of my most important life lessons. I felt like a failure in a variety of ways.
The story led the late edition of Action 9 News. Just before we switched to weather, our producer Cliff Windham entered the studio. “When the news is over, call the captain of The Salvation Army. He wants to talk to you.”
At 11:32, I made that call. The captain and his wife were on extensions. “Can you put us together with the family?” the captain’s wife asked. “We can help them with temporary housing and we want to see that those children have a full Christmas.”
The next morning, after several phone calls, The Salvation Army was into action, as it always is during a time of need. A short-term furnished home was found for the family.
Christmas was on Sunday in 1977. At the time, WTVM had no Sunday night newscast. The day after, we visited the family in their small but clean short-term quarters. Thanks to The Salvation Army, the three boys all awoke on Christmas morning to find three used, rebuilt bicycles under their tree.
I spoke with both parents. They were both grateful beyond words. However, the father left me with a closing thought.
“Everybody has been wonderful to us,” he said. “But I went back to my car last Thursday night. Somebody left a $20 bill on the front seat of my car. I wonder who did that.” He never learned the identity of his benefactor.
That twenty was left by an unpaid news intern who honestly did not have it to give. Twenty years later, he became executive vice president of CNN International. Today, he remains a much-respected news executive in Atlanta.
His name: Eric Ludgood. On a December night 37 years ago, Eric taught me a lesson I never forgot. If you are a good person as well as a good journalist, you need to have a soul as well as a nose for a news story.
As the late Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know—–the rest of the story.”