Exactly 40 years ago, at 6:00 a.m., I wheeled my Ford Torino off Elm Avenue and onto I-581, leaving Roanoke and Southwestern Virginia for a new reporting job with a newspaper in Illinois.
I left behind a $105 a week job with The Roanoke Times for a $160 a week gig at The Alton Telegraph in a Mississippi River town just upstream from St. Louis.
The Times had been the second step in my fledgling career as a journalist. My four years there were exciting, educational and often controversial. The powers-that-be weren’t sad to see me leave. My four years at The Times were marked by clashes with editors and problems caused by my young, often out-of-control ego. I won some awards and that just inflated my young, immature head even more.
In Illinois, I would find freedom I didn’t have in Roanoke. Elmer Broz, the city editor at The Telegraph when I arrived, was a throwback to old-style Chicago journalism. He liked to raise hell. I fit right in. He also brought my ego down to earth — more than once. I always deserved the reality check.
Leaving Roanoke and Floyd County behind became a turning point, a break from the safety and comfort of having family and childhood friends nearby. I arrived in Alton on a cold, rainy afternoon on April 2, 1969 and stayed for nearly 12 years, leaving on February 27, 1981 to head for Washington, DC. My first marriage ended in Alton and, after a few years of single life in the swinging 70s, I met and married Amy. We will celebrate 30 years together later this year.
Alton provided a stability my life lacked to that point. The dozen years there marked the longest I had — up to that point — lived in any one place in my life. I had spent my first five years in Florida — my birthplace — then three years in Floyd followed by five years in Farmville, four years back near Willis and then four years in Roanoke.
When Amy and I arrived in Washington in 1981 we had no idea we would stay for 23 years, living the entire time in the condo we first rented and then purchased in Arlington. Yet Washington became more of a base, a place to return to after many trips to places around the country and world. My work took me to many far-off places and my last passport had extra pages added to it.
Life on the road takes its toll and when it came time to make the decision to stop living out of a suitcase we considered a number of places to locate in what would be our final move. Southwestern Virginia wasn’t even on the list.
But a return here to do a documentary on the Friday Nite Jamboree rekindled a love for the Blue Ridge Mountains. We bought land, eventually opened a studio in The Jacksonville Center and split our time between Arlington and Floyd counties before selling the condo in 2004 and buying a home.
Life, for me, came full circle. I write and shoot photos for The Floyd Press, the weekly that spawned my journalism career in 1963 when then-owner Pete Hallman took a chance on a 15-year-old kid who thought he had what it took to be a newspaperman. This web site is one of the featured blogs on the New River Valley home page of Roanoke.Com — the site for The Roanoke Times.
My suitcase sits unused in a closet. My passport lies in a drawer somewhere. I’m home…and I’m staying put.
However, I’m still raising hell. Some things don’t change.