At WREG in Memphis, the newsroom on the Fourth of July is like many across the nation—-skeleton crews, stories that depict Independence Day celebrations, and a challenge to fill one, two or three hours of news time.
However, this Fourth is unlike most in the past at the CBS station. Friday, the people who work there lost a colleague in a horrendous tragedy.
I never met Nancy Allen, though I have other friends who work at WREG. I dare say, other than co-workers and personal friends, virtually no one knew that Nancy was employed there.
In a scenario in which all of us have probably had nightmares about experiencing, Nancy’s home erupted in fire. Authorities say she was probably trying to escape but was not successful. She was found dead in the aftermath.
Nancy Allen was a graphics operator at WREG. You never see people such as her on camera. With the virtual elimination of credits at the ends of newscasts, we rarely see the names of those unseen workers who sustain the production end of local news and commercials.
Graphics operators are the most vulnerable to carpal-tunnel syndrome of anyone in television. If they were paid by the numbers of words they type or logos they squeeze into a screen, they would all be half-billionaires. They are the people who type every name of people who appear in a newscast, every logo identification in a commercial, and emergency messages and school and business closings during severe or winter weather. You want to keep the good ones.
Nancy worked at WREG for 30 years. People with that kind of longevity in television stations are few and will become fewer with every passing year. If Nancy was like others I have known of that ilk—Carlos Williams at WRBL in Columbus GA, the late Cy Willis at WTVM in Columbus or Maxie Ruth (who worked under 17 different news directors at WSPA in Spartanburg before he retired), she was as familiar in her station as the location of the coffee pot in the employees’ lounge or the entrance to the newsroom. Again, I didn’t know her—-but with that many years of service, the word institution is probably not an exaggeration.
I cannot write an obituary tribute to Nancy Allen. However, I can offer some insight into the emotions of people in local television when they lose one of their own.
Plain and simple, the mood is no different than in any family, a church congregation, or any other business. If one has worked with a veteran employee for an extended period, the instant emotion is like a blow to the chest. You realize this friend and colleague whom you saw often as much as you did members of your own family will never again walk through the door, sit at her desk, or be busy at her keyboard. Someone else will ultimately be hired for the job but the newcomer will need time and the patience of the staff to develop the personal identity that his or her predecessor possessed.
I well remember 37 years ago when a young radio news director John Patterson was seated next to me at a Columbus City Council meeting on a Tuesday morning. The next day, a police call sent officers to an apartment building. A couple of hours later, the body of John Patterson was rolled out of the unit. John had taken his own life. My colleague Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer wrote eloquently of how we in media are no different from anyone else. When we lose a member of our fraternity, especially in the way John died, we have regret that we did not see the signs or know him well enough to reach out to him more. I talked with his colleague from WRCG a week later. “We’re still in shock,” he told me. “None of us knew. We still don’t know how to deal with it.”
I had been gone from Wilmington, N.C., for 13 years when I received the news that my weathercaster during the years I was news director at WWAY, Shirley Gilbert, had succumbed to cancer. Shirley had one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I ever encountered in the congested, often tense environment of a newsroom. She was always prepared and professional. Her battle with cancer was an extremely difficult one. She had not been able to work in her final nine months. Regardless, I spoke to a couple of the half-dozen employees who remained at WWAY after learning of her death. “You kept saying to yourself that Shirley was going to beat this,” her successor as weathercaster told me. “Even though we had all been prepared for the inevitable, there’s a big hole in the station right now.”
The toughest moment of any I ever had in broadcasting was in 1999. In addition to our regular telecasts of Union University basketball, we were doing the first season of a weekly coaches show. We taped on Sunday afternoon for airing on Tuesday night. On a cold, dreary Saturday at around 4 o’clock, I received the devastating news that the co-head coach of our women’s team, Lisa Hutchens, had been found dead in her apartment. Lisa was 38. She was to have taken over the team in full the following season. I cannot tell you the emotions that swarmed over me. Further, I realized I was facing having to do a half-hour show that dealt with Lisa’s death. We could have opted to suspend the show for a week and our two stations would likely have understood. However, we all agreed that the longer we postponed acknowledging Lisa’s passing, the more difficult it would be for all of us to deal with the grief of her loss. Only the providence of God helped me through that broadcast. We had a little more than a month remaining in the season. We had to get on with life but not a single game telecast came and went that we on the broadcast team would not look over at the bench and glaringly realize that Lisa was not there and never again would be.
When you’re with a television station for 30 years, you survive a lot. Nancy Allen endured more than one station sale that is always unsettling to a staff, saw anchor retirements, learned new graphics programs and experienced the nuances of this rapidly changing profession.
My good friend Tim Simpson, WREG’s chief meteorologist, and veteran anchor Alex Coleman tweeted some of the first tributes to Nancy. That was followed by several other veteran members of the News Channel 3 staff. I could tell instantly that the 140-character limit could not come close to reflecting the sadness and emptiness Nancy’s colleagues felt.
The easy thing for co-workers to say is “she will be missed” or “her passing will leave an empty void in our company.” The truth is: any condolence or tribute you offer seems so inadequate, especially when a tragedy takes the life of one you have known for years.
If you are reading this and work for another station in any city in America, tweet a note of condolence and encouragement to @3onyourside. The staff has had to go on with business. Television news does not stop even in a time of internal or personal tragedy. Nancy Allen’s memorial service will be Saturday at Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, TN. Many memories will be shared of what she meant to her family and to her professional family. Those memories will never be far from those with whom she worked at WREG.