Years ago when I applied for a job at the revered Atlanta, Ga., afternoon paper, the Journal, a crusty old managing editor said, “I suppose you want to write the great American novel.” “No,” I replied, “I want to write stories about people that need telling.”
All these years later, I still do. And that old fellow (who was probably younger than I am now but seemed older than the hills and just as flinty) never knew what he missed.
People stories, feature stories about what people do and why they do it. Those are what make up life. As newspaper people, we do have a responsibility to report the good and bad current news, but that’s not what people remember.
Sometimes, the best stories go unwritten. Those people I’d love to interview are too modest, too bashful, too ladylike to want their stories in the newspaper. When we moved here, some of the oldest of the great families in the area still believed “A lady’s name should appear in the newspaper only three times: when she is born, when she is married and when she dies.”
I remember one couple in Amherst County who had been married 60 years when I asked to interview them. They were good country people, hardworking, unassuming, and well known in their community of Temperance. Although I knew the wife from Extension Homemaker Clubs – those are the topic of a whole ‘nother column someday – she was hesitant to allow me to write about their long and happy marriage. She said she’d ask her husband.
The answer came back: “He doesn’t hear well and wouldn’t enjoy being interviewed. And at this late date, I wouldn’t want to go against him. After all, it’s his house.”
He had brought her home as a 16-year-old bride. They still lived in his family’s homeplace, and even though she had worked outside the home for a number of years, he was the man of the family and his word was final.
They’re both gone now, and I never did get to interview them to pass along their wisdom to younger people.
A couple of weeks ago I talked with a sweet lady in her early 80s, asking her for suggestions of what she would like to see in our community newspapers. She sounded so interesting, I asked if I could interview her. She declined.
As her daughter later told me, “She is very private, more like bashful…it would bother her awful to be in the spotlight.”
The lady had years of stories I’ll never get to hear, from walking to school every day, to how Paint Bank, where she grew up in Craig County, had electric lights before New Castle because of the mill there.
Her daughter remembered her mama telling her about family trips in a homemade camper during the Great Depression. They saved up money to go by collecting pennies in a jar.
Oh, the stories I’ll never get to hear. At least her family knows and appreciates them.