By Nancy Lindsey
Editor’s note: Nancy Lindsey wrote this column a few years ago for The Enterprise. The Enterprise is republishing the column in honor of Lindsey’s retirement.
I never took Journalism 101.
I was born wanting to be a writer, so it was a series of serendipitous situations that cast me into the stormy, scintillating, sobering seas of journalism (I always did like alliteration).
As a child, I had poems published in this newspaper. As a teenager, I was chosen to write the Stuart High School column for the Martinsville Bulletin, which was about one-third high school events, one-third teenage gossip and one-third musings and essays.
The summer after graduation I wrote features for the Bulletin, about the Vesta Fourth of July celebration and the destruction of the historic Stonewall House.
Then I went to college, where I didn’t major in journalism because all my mentors told me I had to major in English and become a teacher—something I knew even then that I didn’t want to do.
Four years later, after being stationed at Radford College for three years, getting married and having a child, I was contacted by the publisher of The Enterprise, and offered the job of reporter. I had to make a quick decision, because the editor-reporter had had a heart attack and was unable to work for a while.
My husband and I left Shelby, N.C., and moved to Patrick County. He got a job teaching at Red Bank School and I went to work one month after my daughter was born.
I sometimes think I did some of my best writing in those six months in 1966, without a degree, without even a journalism class.
I wrote features on amazing people, including a legendary moonshiner with a pet raccoon and a repertoire of tall tales; an old lady who sat down at her piano and played “Dixie” in honor of her father, a Confederate officer; and a distinguished retired teacher who had taught four decades in Patrick’s one-room black schools. (While she was serving me a Coke and speaking gently of the trials of teaching without enough books, materials or financial support from the county, her husband was sitting on the porch saying, “tell ‘em about working like a slave for 30 cents a day.”)
It was early enough in the 20th century that I was able to witness a changing world, with Patrick County as a microcosm: people whose lives spanned the years from horse-and-buggy transportation, no electricity and primitive medical facilities, to cars, airplanes, television, space exploration, and all the rest of “modern society,” circa 1966.
From there we went to Williamsburg, where I became a feature writer and reporter for the Williamsburg Bureau of the Newport News Daily Press.
Although I did the cops beat (and remember posing with some confiscated guns and Williamsburg’s version of Barney Fife), I primarily wrote features.
My first award-winning feature was after an interview with a 14-year-old runaway. It began, “It’s a long, long way from California to the Williamsburg City Jail.”
I did whatever my boss told me, although I was terribly shy. So when my editor told me to get an interview with Walt Disney, who was staying in a cottage in the historic district, I obeyed.
At 22, I think I looked much younger than my age. Maybe that was in my favor—maybe he would think I was a high school or college student, and be gentle.
Without calling to make an appointment, I knocked on the door of the cottage. Walt Disney’s son-in-law came to the door and I asked (quivering, I’m sure) “may I speak to Mr. Disney?”
Unbelievably, he invited me in. I waited until Mr. Disney came down the stairs, smoking a cigarette and drinking a mixed drink.
I couldn’t believe it. I was in the presence of the creator of Mickey Mouse, Fantasia, the cartoon version of Peter Pan and Wendy and Tinker Bell, the founder of Disneyland and so much more.
He was kind; he shook hands and asked me how old I was. When I told him, he said, “I bet you grew up on my Mickey Mouse Club, didn’t you?”
I said I did and mentioned “Spin and Marty” and Davy Crockett. I was too dazzled to think then, but I did later: “just exactly who was interviewing whom?”
I don’t remember anything else, except that the son-in-law had to help me use the office camera—and I didn’t have enough sense to ask to have my picture made with Walt Disney. (Nor do I have a copy of the story I wrote; it’s lost in the clutter of my house and my mind.)
I wasn’t so fortunate when my boss sent me to interview Texas Gov. John Connolly, who was wounded when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Connolly was staying in a room in the Williamsburg Inn, and when I knocked on that door, his wife told me in no uncertain terms that the governor could not be disturbed.
I got over much of my shyness, and became adept at interviewing strangers—artists, musicians, Colonial Williamsburg interpreters and craftsmen, doctors, students, professors, writers, actors, magicians and a sword-swallower, and others I can’t remember.
When we moved to Seattle, I worked for KVI Radio for a few months and met my only other celebrities: I shook hands with Gene Autry and Peggy Fleming.
I enrolled in the school of journalism at the University of Washington, but even then I didn’t take Journalism 101. I jumped right into political reporting, covering part of the legislature, editorial-writing and—something I already knew how to do—feature writing.
Fast forward to 1978, after four years of pretending to be a teacher (just ask any of my fellow teachers from that era), when I rejoined The Enterprise as an editor and reporter.
In the intervening years, I’ve done a little bit of everything related to newspapers, except entering the digital age. I may be the last living editor who lays out my pages by manual cutting and pasting. (Gail Harding, the [former] publisher, [sent] the pages to the Martinsville Bulletin electronically.)
I’ve covered murder trials and the floods of 1979 and 1985; taken pictures of stills before they were blown up; gotten too close to forest fires; and listened to too many governmental bodies fighting among themselves.
I’ve spoken out for the Virginia Freedom of Information Act many times, and am still flabbergasted that so many people don’t realize that it’s a protection of our freedom, not a violation of that freedom.
The highlights of my career thus far would have to be the features. There have been wonderful people like retired teacher Ruth Jean Bolt and her memories of a fading way of life: haystacks and springhouses and walking paths and the “grey ghosts,” her names for the dying chestnut trees; Sam Levering, whose father walked down the Blue Ridge Mountains ridges looking for the best place to plant apple trees (which became the most famous cherry orchard in the south); my grandfather, Frank Hylton, who was trading horses when he was a young boy and running the riding stables at Fairy Stone and Pocahontas state parks when he was a relatively old man…
A major highlight has been returning to this column and the creative spark it allows me to feel occasionally—the spark that sometimes fizzles and sometimes flares up, but never completely burns itself out.
I’ll never take Journalism 101, but after five decades (on and off) of writing facts and features, I’m inclined to say I don’t really need it.
I hope I can keep on learning—about reporting, writing, living and loving life, and exploring all the things that interest me, from the mysteries of the past to the possibilities of tomorrow.
I guess I could call it Journalism 501.