To tell the truth, it was the headline story not because of my literary prowess, but because timing put a kid reporter at the scene of the big story of the day.
I like to think I’ve gotten better at my craft — and it is a craft — since that city council meeting so long ago.
Doing some quick math, the estimate I come up with is close to 10,000 stories, features and columns have crossed from my brain waves to a typewriter (yes, an actual typewriter) and computer keyboard.
Many of those stories involved what we call “hard news” — council and commission meetings, crime and justice, budgets, elections.
But, there are the stories that are usually the most fun to do and oftentimes can be heart-wrenching.
Feature stories are the ones that give us journalists a break from the routine of quotes and statistics, and allow us to stretch our creative writing wings in a different way than when covering the mundane or the controversial.
However, that creativity never gets in the way of the core of the story and the facts that make it so interesting.
One of the greatest things about what I do is the chance to meet so many interesting and diverse people.
Each one has a story that is unique and personal.
I have been humbled over the years that so many people have allowed me to share in their most intimate life moments.
It still amazes me that families have allowed me to be there for what should have been times their emotions might have better been kept among themselves.
Those times have been both joyous and devastating.
I remember the story of a man who lived in the Smokies.
He was a musician, he had three kids if I remember correctly, and he lived on a beautiful ridge with scenery from a tourist brochure.
Tragically, he had for the most part lost his sight and the ability to see not only that magnificent view from his front porch, but the faces of his children.
I don’t know why but he allowed me to be there when, after some charitable doctors made it possible for cornea transplants to be performed, he shared the moment the bandages came off and the first sight he saw after so long in darkness was the sun coming over the American flag that flew in his front yard.
I challenge anyone to come up with the right words to describe that moment.
I am quite sure I didn’t, but the story prompted the general manager of Dollywood to call and ask for the man’s phone number and address.
They wanted to treat the family to a day at the park.
(The neat thing was the park extended the same invitation to me, and my publisher at the time was gracious enough to allow me to accept.)
There have also been those moments when I hid with a family awaiting the arrival of a son or daughter whose safe return home from a distant battlefield was never a certainty until that moment.
Those are times you try to be like a fly on the wall and stay out of the way.
But, I can’t think of one time when I wasn’t welcomed to those joyous reunions when it was insisted I be just as home there as the other gathered family and friends.
The most recent one of those was last year, when I was at the homecoming for a soldier who was one of the survivors of the Fort Hood shooting.
At the scene, he threw himself over another comrade and that heroic action caused him to be shot at close range several times.
I had written about him after speaking with his mother, and to finally meet him was an honor on my part.
The family insisted I sit with them, and the soldier and I had a wonderful conversation.
As it turns out, he loves to fish and I invited him to come to East Tennessee. I know a great fishing guide (my dad) who would love to host him.
Unfortunately, that day probably won’t come because his diagnosis includes becoming both totally deaf and blind within the next few years.
He told me he wants to start a program to help others who find themselves like he is now.
Incredible, sad, but a wonderful joyous spirit to share.
The other end of that joy spectrum is being with families when the return did not mark a happy ending.
I watched as the coffins were carried off the plane. I was there at the church, and when the final gun salute was fired and the flag folded.
These were times when I did everything I could to be respectful and out of the way and they were the stories I wanted to get right as much as anything I had ever written.
Again, these families could not have been more gracious and kind allowing me to be the chronicler of what had to be an ultimate emotional moment in their lives.
They also honored me with the responsibility of telling the stories of their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers who had so bravely sacrificed for their country in a place so far away.
When you are entrusted with those treasures, you take it with an awesome sense of responsibility.
All of my years as a journalist have been spent with community newspapers.
I’ve always said these newspapers are a “community scrapbook” where the most important items are not as much the “hard news” stories as the obituaries, the wedding announcements, the “big game,” neighborhood celebrations and all the things that are the personality of a community.
These are articles that are cut out and sent to far-off relatives, framed on a mantel or stuck on the refrigerator.
They are also often the way a family chronicles their history, and the value in that is priceless.
That is why I take these types of stories so seriously.
Through the years, I have been fortunate to have had some recognition saying my work has either been exceptional in quality or meaningful in purpose.
The greatest awards I ever received were not in the form of a plaque or citation.
It came from two other of those personal stories it has been my honor to write.
I had the pleasure of interviewing a Rotary exchange student from Denmark.
He was a great kid — smart and funny.
I sat down with him for more than an hour to hear his views on how he saw America and some insight into his life across the sea.
Upon his departure, the Rotary Club gave him several gifts.
As he unveiled one of them, it was a beautifully framed and matted copy of the story I had written about him.
I don’t know who had the biggest appreciation.
All I could think of is something I had done would now be hanging on a family’s wall in Europe.
But, the biggest “award” for me by far was this one.
There was an elderly man who had served in World War II in the Navy.
He and his wife were now living in a nursing home with his health rapidly declining.
His service had been remarkable and exemplary, but government bureaucracy had not gotten his much-deserved awards and medals to him.
The man’s daughters spent more than a year communicating with government officials trying to make sure their father was able to receive his just due before it was no longer possible.
They fortunately came in time, and I covered the ceremony.
The story was not only about the awards and the ceremony, but the father’s story about his service.
It was a marvelous tale and wonderful to tell.
Less than two weeks later, the father passed away.
A short time later, his daughters came into the office with several copies of the paper with my story about their father.
“We would like for you to autograph these,” they asked.
I was reluctant. I thought it was a bit much and didn’t want to mess up what was obviously going to be something the family would want to keep.
But, they insisted and so I did.
That for me was, and remains, the ultimate honor.