A city newsroom
(This is a chapter of a Memoir, “Give Light” of the six decades Frances Stebbins has spent writing about faith communities in daily, weekly and monthly news publications covering the western third of Virginia.)
Why Roanoke with its mountains? Why not the Norfolk area with which my newsman husband Charlie Stebbins was more familiar and where he could have enjoyed the coastal atmosphere with which his World War II Navy days had prepared him?
The newspaper careers we shared for more than a half-century make it impossible for me to tell my story of writing about Western Virginia churches without including his. But I was more often the decision-maker in our marriage even though I was always careful to consult him. Generally, he left it up to me. Many, many years later, he would take steps toward retirement at 62 without my specific approval, but thanks to an appreciative boss, Forrest M. Landon, we both were able to continue part-time employment at the paper for more than 40 years.
It’s important to clarify here that these years at the daily newspaper were, in my case at least, not spent as a full-time employee. Except for my first three years before we started our family and later for a few months to help in a temporary staff crunch, I worked part-time and for 20 years of child-rearing mainly from my home. Though computers were not part of our lives then, there was the telephone between 1956 and 1976.
For those years of the childhoods of our daughter and two sons, I continued to edit for appropriate daily paper style contributed materials about local congregations. Charlie took my typed materials to the newsroom. They appeared on the Saturday Church Page of the evening paper, the one read by most folk who lived within 30 miles of the downtown Second Street office. The morning Roanoke Times, sent by mail and early trucks, circulated in the outlying counties.
As our children reached school age, I increasingly utilized the telephone to interview clergy on current religion issues, to profile those new to the area and to provide occasional interpretative columns, for in time I grew knowledgeable. Often too, my work influenced family decisions; our second home in the Hollins area came from a column. As with all news column writers, our families became part of our public persona too.
To return to our decision to seek jobs in Roanoke, my early memories won over Charlie’s. As my mother before me had left the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies as a young adult in 1919 to spend her remaining years in the eastern Piedmont, so I reversed the process.
Summers in my 1930s childhood I visited my mother’s older sister at her large house in Tazewell, Virginia, deep in the Appalachians. Each morning The Roanoke Times arrived on the front porch. When my mother and I returned home on the train to Orange, a late afternoon stop took us to the city’s bus station near Hotel Roanoke.
Those were pleasant memories as I heard delivery boys crying the news in the downtown streets. One year a financial errand took my mother and me to the former offices of the Veterans Administration then next to the newspaper.
And so, we chose Roanoke with the newly-erected Star and designation of an All-America City. It was definitely the place for a young couple to be!
Used to three room apartments by then, we found one at 1802 Patterson Avenue Southwest in a converted square brick with a magnificent view from the rear. We arrived on a late January afternoon after leaving Petersburg in the rain. As we made our long trek across U.S. 460, a cold north wind blew away the clouds and the sun appeared as furniture – mostly inherited from my mother’s family and in storage in Richmond after her death – was unpacked.
The next morning, we drove the mile to the newspaper office. There I learned, as we met editors and reporters, that the woman who had formerly written church news had left under dubious circumstances the previous week. I was shown her desk near the entrance to the third-floor newsroom. I began to learn my job.
The heart of a daily paper’s newsroom was the city editor who directed operations of reporters, making assignments for the day and, as reporters returned around noon for an evening paper, reading all the copy. There were separate desks and reporters for Sports. The Women’s – or “Society” office was also separate. Its editor was commonly a mid-life woman who had attended one of the more exclusive female colleges – Hollins was special to Roanoke – came from an established family who knew the right people and thus developed feature stories about them. Engagements, weddings, the programs of the Junior League and special events at the college were staples of these pages.
Though this would have been a logical place for me – few women did Newsroom reporting and certainly not the possibly sordid police, accident and court stories – there were no openings.
They needed a church news compiler. That’s where I went.