As a publisher of a weekly newspaper, you find yourself doing a lot of different things. Both news and advertising become part of the daily routine. One day you’re crunching numbers for the budget, the next day you’re calling on a new business that has just opened in the area.
In a lot of cases, the publisher also writes — news, features, editorials — the whole gamut. Whatever it takes. It’s a way to stay connected to the community in a personal way and it can remind us when and why we decided to make newspapers our life’s work.
Bogged down with day-to-day demands, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why we do what we do and why we love it. There are some things, however, you just can’t forget. Such is the story of a man named Billy Wolfe.
Billy grew up on the rough edge of a small town in southern West Virginia. When he was about 14, his dad decided he’d had enough of parenthood and he lit out for parts unknown, leaving Billy’s mom to take care for him and his brothers and sisters by herself.
Through sheer determination, he managed to get through high school. But once he had his diploma, Billy went where most young men did in the late 60s — he got shipped off to a place called Vietnam.
I don’t know what all happened to him there. He never really wanted to talk about it, but by the time I met Billy, his life had changed forever. He had left both his legs in Nam. I remember the first time I saw him. He looked a lot older than he was. He was, of course, in a wheelchair and had a hard time getting around. But there was a great spirit about Billy. He had a great sense of humor and he loved people.
Above all, he was thankful — thankful for friends who had given him a place to stay when he returned to his hometown after his service to his country. His friends, a local electrician and his wife, knew Billy really didn’t have any place to go, so they remodeled their detached garage into an apartment for him, making it fully handicapped-accessible.
Unfortunately for Billy, his benefactors had some neighbors who didn’t like them very much and when they found out that the two were providing someone with an apartment — a detached dwelling — in a neighborhood not zoned for such places, they jumped on it.
They took their complaint to the zoning board. Not getting the immediate results they wanted, they showed up at the town’s next city council meeting and threw a fit. It was simple, they said. It was against the law and Billy would have to go.
I was a 20-year-old college student who just worked part-time at the local paper to get myself through college. That day, I drew the short straw and ended up with the evening’s city council meeting as my assignment. I really hadn’t covered many meetings and I sure wasn’t ready for this one.
It was an ugly scene. Neighbors stood up in defense of Billy, saying they would be fine with the council passing some sort of variance, but the opposing side persisted, demanding that the council uphold the zoning regulations.
Of course the law was on their side and so the majority of the councilmen voted to oust Billy. By the time that meeting was over, there was also another casualty. Our mayor — a veteran himself — resigned, saying he wouldn’t lead a town where such an atrocity could take place.
It didn’t take long, after the story came out in the next morning’s edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, for Billy to become a household name. The TV and radio folks picked it up and ran with it. People in the community were outraged. Our newspaper stayed on top of the story and didn’t let go. They kept the issue in front of the public, covering it from every possible angle.
The story had a happy ending. A local attorney and a contractor contacted Billy’s friends and together, they forged a plan that would satisfy the town’s zoning regulations. Volunteers went to work to remodel the house and garage, putting it all under one roof. The day I learned that Billy’s home was saved was a day that truly changed my life.
That was the first time I really understood just what a difference a newspaper could make and I knew I wanted to be part of that. We all walk this earth for a reason, and we all enjoy many different powers. Each of us has the power to influence others, and in turn, each of us is influenced by those who cross our life’s path. Every day, in the newspaper industry, we operate a power tool – a tool that should be handled with care.
It is our awesome responsibility — and our privilege — to stand up and speak out, with integrity, truth and determination, with every word we print.
Lynn Richardson is president of the Tennessee Press Association.