Learning about the untimely passing of a colleague from three decades ago brought back memories from working in local television news with some very special people.
An email arrived recently informing me that a former colleague from my television reporting days had passed away.
After experiencing the shock from learning of Helen's death and having thoughts for her two grown children, I spent a few moments to grieve over the passing of my former co-worker. All three emotions: shock, concern, and grief were experienced in the course of an afternoon.
The first fifteen years of my professional life were spent as a television journalist working in a total of five local stations in different parts of the country. I cherish the memories from those years, and consider myself fortunate that I have stayed in contact with at least a handful of colleagues.
But there is a special place in my heart for the two years I worked in Huntsville, Alabama.
This column is not about how those good old days were so much better than it must be for electronic journalists working in the media today. It was a different time. Electronic news gathering in the 1980s was the only true high tech medium for the time. Journalists now have the internet, vest cameras, surveillance footage, cell phones, and webcams in their electronic toolboxes.
The rules were much different three decades ago with editors reviewing news copy, ethics guiding most decisions about appropriateness, and gut instincts playing an important role over decisions about fairness.
This is not about the differences from my time in the media to now. This is about the similarities; or at least what many of us hope endures over time: good memories.
Those years created many smiles.
In those formative early years in northern Alabama, my coworkers and I learned a lot about the exciting world of local television news. The station had a remote van that allowed us to report from just about any place in northern Alabama and southern Tennessee.
I did my first live report from the local Republican Party celebration on election night when Ronald Reagan was elected President.
Our station experimented with lots of ideas that were new for the early eighties but seemingly normal in local news today. Some nights, we would take the whole anchor team including the weather and sports casters, on location and do the entire broadcast from the field.
From time to time, we would interrupt network programming to broadcast bulletins to our audience. This practice usually generated calls from viewers who missed something in the sitcom we were interrupting. My news director would dismiss the complaints with explanations to the staff along the lines of “they may hate us for interrupting, but they’ll remember us.”
I remember getting home one afternoon after pulling an early morning shift when the phone rang. The news department’s assignment editor dispatched me to the airport where a big fire had broken out. I had already worked about ten hours and was looking forward to a relaxing evening. But the story needed to be reported, and I got my instructions to meet the live truck at the airport. I arrived on the scene moments before the six o’clock newscast began, reported what few details I knew at the beginning of the newscast, promised the viewers more later, and returned with another live report before the newscast ended.
I’ll never forget the night before Thanksgiving in 1981 when I was sent to a remote part of the viewing area where a distraught man was holding his wife and young child hostage. My photographer and I, along with our competitors from other news media, stayed with the story until it ended in the early hours of Thanksgiving morning. Upon returning to the station, I worked on my script, recorded my narration, headed home, and took my wife out for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. It was the most sleep-deprived holiday I ever endured.
And there were little things about working with a group of good humored folks.
I remember calling the general manager's secretary by her name "Mrs. Higgins" using my impression of Tim Conway's old man Tudball's character from the Carol Brunett Show. I can only hope the real Mrs. Higgins appreciated the reference.
Even Helen, the person whose passing is now bringing up so many memories, got the best of me one night when I asked her to pick up a sandwich for me on the way back from a reporting assignment. I asked for a Whopper with no onions.
She had the sandwich made with triple onions. I was so hungry that I didn't notice the extra onions until about the third bite.
The men in this photograph were the young Turks of the WAAY-TV newsroom in Huntsville, Alabama in the early 1980s. Shown here at a colleague’s farewell party, we were full of energy, enthusiasm, and optimism.
We would repeat a farewell party every few months as someone in the newsroom accepted a new job in another city. My colleagues were dispersed over the years to such places as Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa, and in my case Rockford, Illinois where I became one of the youngest television news directors in the country in 1982.
None of us seemed interested in making Huntsville, Alabama our permanent home. The so-called Southern hospitality was wonderful. It was a beautiful city, but many of us were climbing up the career ladder.
My wife and I came to Huntsville as newlyweds. If we were looking for an adventure to start our married life, we found it there. We left about two years later shortly after the birth of our first child. There were high and low points for me professionally during that time, but as with anything meaningful in life, the good times outweighed the bad.
We were ambitious and excited about the work we performed daily at WAAY-TV. Most of us moved on, with only occasional phone calls and a Christmas card to keep us connected for a few years. Eventually, new work brought about new acquaintances. With time, only the memories survived.
So I remember the passing of our colleague Helen. I smile as I recall the time when our hopeful dreams carried each day, and we had no idea how life would end up for all of us.
They were the good old days.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced. He shared some memories of his work covering the US Space program while working in Huntsville in his book Microphones, Moon Rocks, and Memories.