|"Don't Chase Fire Engines" ©Mary Montague Sikes|
"You don't have to chase fire engines," he told me that day.
Be alert, carry a camera, and be ready to promptly file a story, he said. The News Leader was always in competition with The Richmond Times-Dispatch (the morning newspaper) for stories. My job was to "beat" the competitive reporters which was hard to do unless I was attending a morning meeting and could file the story before the press deadline.
I loved this job with the newspaper even though, when officials decided to go into closed session to block public coverage, I was thrown out of meetings, along with the other reporters. This happened most often with the boards of supervisors of the three counties I covered. Until we were readmitted, we would sit together in narrow corridors, in stairwells, and occasionally outdoors when there was no other place else to go. Sometimes the closed sessions lasted for hours.That happened so often in those days that Gunn decided to do something about it. He co-authored Virginia's Freedom of Information Act that became a law in 1968.
Although I was often in rooms filled with dense clouds of smoke, I learned so much from the experiences there. I learned about local governments, schools, people, and I learned about writing and doing interviews.
Yesterday, as I watched one tornado warning after another come up on the television screen for our area, I thought about those early experiences with the newspaper. I thought about how that young reporter would have gathered the news somehow. She would have typed out her story and dictated it over the telephone the next morning. Then she would have taken her camera and gone hunting for tornado damage photos. Finally, she would have removed her film from the camera and taken it to the post office to send by special delivery to Richmond.
What a different world from the one in which I learned not to chase fire engines.