Counting on someone you counted out

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

 

– Anais Nin

 

I was in Edgefield County last week enjoying the hospitality of the Trenton Community Development Association and was asked to tell a story about someone from South Carolina, so I told them the story of Iris.

Thirty-five years ago I was the young state editor of this newspaper and as such I inherited a collection of reporters, correspondents and assorted stringers, many on the payroll since I was in short pants.

I never met them in person, taking their scattered dispatches from faraway hamlets in Georgia and South Carolina over the phone or (in those pre-Internet days) through the mail.

Iris was our correspondent in a small South Carolina town about 40 miles away. Over the phone she sounded like every Sunday school teacher I’d ever had.

Usually her contributions came in the mail, carefully typed, and they usually found their way into the paper on some out-of-the-way page.

Admittedly, I didn’t think about her efforts very much.

I concerned myself with the higher priority stories of the day, stories that had the ring of importance, stories that won journalism’s highest accolades, stories such as Lawrence Welk coming to Augusta.

This was big news.

Not because I liked Lawrence Welk, but because our boss, a gruff, old editor as demanding as a 4 a.m. alarm clock, thought Lawrence Welk was the greatest musical talent since Beethoven.

For days, he insisted, and we failed to provide – a profile interview of Welk, who was to perform with his orchestra in Augusta.

Press agents denied our aggressive reporters an interview. Assorted hotels about town were staked out for days, yet America’s favorite accordion player remained elusive.

Each new report of failure brought another bellow from the boss. He stalked the newsroom like a bear on Benzedrine, growling at that the lack of enterprise exhibited by modern journalists, while recalling his own success years before of tracking down a politician on a moving train.

We were hearing that story for about the fifth time when the phone on the desk in front of me rang.

It was the last person the world I expected – Iris.

“Mr. Kirby,” she said in her proper Sunday morning voice, “my husband and I just had a delightful dinner with our old friend Lawrence Welk, and I wonder if you’d like me to write about it?”

I stared at the receiver in my hand, suspecting the usual newsroom pranksters. Looking about and seeing none, I gratefully informed Iris that we indeed wanted her story, and not to wait for the mail. She would be welcomed to come over to the newspaper office immediately and write it up.

It turned out that she and her husband had once run a motel on the highway to Florida and Welk liked to stay there. They had become friends and that friendship showed in her story the next morning featured at the top of the page. It was the first time Iris ever had a story lead the page, and the last.

She passed away within a year, and when she did, several young editors drove over to her South Carolina hometown on a Saturday morning for her funeral. We owed her that for saving us by getting a story nobody else could get. And we owed her, too, for teaching us a lesson: Sometimes the person you counted out, is the one you end up counting on.

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