The Man Who Took A Chance

My first boss passed away recently.

Paul Cunningham was the editor of The Elba Clipper, the weekly newspaper in my south Alabama hometown when I was a boy.  I was intrigued by the paper – not just the stories about what was going on in Elba, but the way the stories got there.  The process of journalism.

I decided to do something about it.  When I was in the fifth grade, I marched into the Clipper office and asked Mr. Cunningham for a job.  He looked me up and down and said, “Not yet.”  Two years later, I marched back in, and this time he looked me up and down and said, “All right.”  He put me to work in the back room, the print shop, learning how those stories became a physical thing, the newspaper.  I learned to set type by hand, make proofs and read them, operate the clanking, clattering machinery, get ink under my fingernails and in my blood.  It was newspapering from the ground up.  It was the best job I ever had.


Later on, Mr. Cunningham set me to writing a weekly column, “Twenty-five Years Ago in Elba.”  Each week, I would search the back issues of the paper and pick out items to put in my column.  I think it entertained and informed our readers, and it taught me a lot about my hometown’s history and the people who had put out the newspaper a quarter-century before.  It gave me a sense of the legacy of a newspaper, its place in the community through time.

Paul Cunningham was a fine editor.  He showed by example that journalism is an honorable profession, and that a newspaper is as crucial a part of a town as schools and churches and government.  If people don’t know what’s going on, they move blindly through life.  He was an excellent writer who appreciated the power of words to inform, educate, entertain, and – perhaps most importantly in a newspaper – disturb.

As I look back on that time, I realize that the most important thing for me personally was that Mr. Cunningham took a chance on me.  He looked me up and down and saw something worth cultivating.  He gave me an opportunity that led to a passion.  He taught me by example that one of the most important things we do in this life is invest time and interest in a person younger than we are.  I’ve tried to pay it forward.

Paul Cunningham was 94 when he passed away – a World War Two veteran, a veteran of a lifetime in the journalism business.  In me, a part of him lives on.


The Stand In The Schoolhouse Door

It was fifty years ago today – June 11, 1963.  I was a witness to a piece of history that, as much as anything, propelled me into a career in journalism.

The University of Alabama, where I was a student, was until that moment a segregated institution.  There had been one earlier attempt to integrate, but it ended in mayhem.  Now, on this day fifty years ago, two black students – Vivian Malone and James Hood – appeared to register for classes.  Governor George Wallace physically blocked their way, a piece of theatre that came to be known as “the stand in the schoolhouse door.”

Wallace Schoolhouse.jpg

Wallace had run for Governor, and won, on a segregationist platform, and it had backed him into a corner.  The University would be integrated, there was no doubt about that, but Wallace needed political cover.  So the “stand” was carefully orchestrated.  U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his aides worked out the scenario: Wallace would make a symbolic stand, the Alabama National Guard would be federalized, and when the Guard showed up, Wallace would stand aside.  Everything went as planned.  Wallace made his show, the students enrolled, and violence was averted.

I was working my way through college at a Tuscaloosa radio station at the time, and beginning to cover local news stories.  This was the biggest.  I was there, notepad and tape recorder in hand, in the throng of local and national press people several yards from Wallace on the steps of Foster Auditorium.  At the moment, my only thought was the story itself .  But in the days ahead, I had time to reflect on the moment and consider it from the perspective of a University student.  I had the unshakeable conviction that Vivian Malone and James Hood – citizens of my state – had every right to be students at my school.  And I thought Governor Wallace had used my school as a stage for political grandstanding.

A couple of years later, I graduated and took a job as a reporter for a Montgomery television station, covering the state capitol and state politics.  Governor Wallace and I had a cordial relationship – reporter and newsmaker.  I came to understand his multi-faceted personality.  He was, in a sense, trapped by his own political rhetoric.  But he had a populist and compassionate streak, too.  He helped created a system of trade schools and junior colleges across Alabama, and championed a free textbook program for elementary and secondary school kids.  There was light and dark in George Wallace, as in us all.

The “stand in the schoolhouse door” was my first big story.  It convinced me that I was on the right career path, and I never looked back.  I came to believe that a good journalist needs three things: integrity, curiosity, and a love of the power of words – to inform, enlighten, entertain, and even disturb.  I have George Wallace to thank for at least some of that.