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Changing Times: 125 years at The Roanoke Times

Changing Times: 125 years at The Roanoke Times

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A November 1956 photo of the Roanoke Times news staff includes George Kegley, Buster Carico and Ben Beagle. The only female staff member was the receptionist. The news staff of the competitor World News sat in the background at left.

File | The Roanoke Times

A November 1956 photo of the Roanoke Times news staff includes George Kegley, Buster Carico and Ben Beagle. The only female staff member was the receptionist. The news staff of the competitor World News sat in the background at left.

See the larger photo: Peek inside the newsroom with a larger version of the photo above

125 years @ The Roanoke Times

roanoke.com/125

Working every Sunday in The Roanoke Times newsroom occasionally had its perks for George Kegley.

"One Sunday afternoon, somebody called and said, ‘Elvis Presley is at the station; you'd better get down there,'" Kegley said.

Kegley, who spent nearly 44 years as a reporter and editor at the Times, hustled down to the old Norfolk and Western passenger station on Shenandoah Avenue in Roanoke. It was the spring of 1960, and Presley was just out of the Army, heading home on a train bound for Memphis, Tenn.

A crowd had gathered to get a look at the rock 'n' roll star. Newspaper photographer Oakie Asbury snapped a picture of a local radio reporter shoving a microphone in Presley's face.

"I ran over where he was hanging out on the back of the train," Kegley remembered of his brief conversation with the King. "He didn't have much to say to  me. He was going home."

Kegley went back and wrote a story for the next day's paper. Just another day in the life for a working Roanoke newsman in the '60s.

The post-war boom

The Roanoke Times celebrates the 125th anniversary of its founding on Wednesday. There have been many "golden ages" of the newsroom — from the early years when pages of the Roanoke Daily Times rolled off a hand-cranked press and reported the happenings of a rollicking railroad boomtown to the heyday of investigative reporting that made the paper a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times in the 1980s and '90s.

Perhaps, though, the most pivotal era in the newspaper's history came during the post-World War II decades when the newsroom's ranks swelled and the stories dug deeper.

From the 1950s until the early '70s, The Roanoke Times (and its longtime afternoon sibling, the Roanoke World-News) evolved from a paper that covered local fender-benders to a broad-based news operation that covered most of Western Virginia and immersed itself in some of the most important stories of the day, from desegregation to state and national politics.

During that period, the white-owned newspaper, which at one time would not publish the photographs of black brides and invoked the common newspaper practice of calling blacks "colored," hired its first minority reporters and covered youth issues, including music, movies and sex.

The bylines of many of the legendary reporters of Roanoke newspaper history peppered the pages then: Melville "Buster" Carico, Ben Beagle, George Kegley, Marge Fisher, Sandra Brown Kelly, JoAnne Poindexter, Bill Brill, and Bob "Guts" McLelland. Photographers John Cook, Betty Masters and Oakie Asbury took epic shots.

The Times and World-News were guided by the likes of Barton Morris, who, at 32 years old, was the youngest executive editor in the nation in 1955. Morris, who later became publisher, oversaw the expansion of coverage and the opening of bureaus in Lexington, Wytheville and Richmond. He introduced the Extra section, book page and commentary sections.

Some of those ink-stained veterans have passed on — including Morris, publisher Bill Armistead, editors Bill Atkinson and Horace Hood and a newsroom full of reporters and photographers — but many are still around to relish those days, when The Roanoke Times became a modern, serious newspaper.

"We often observed in those days it was fun to go to work," Beagle said.

Smoke, coal, ink

Given the perilous business climate American newspapers face in the 21st century, it would be easy for present-day reporters to view this story as a nostalgic, rose-colored look at the good ol' days. For those who lived them, they probably were. But it wasn't easy work.

The newspaper has been at the same spot — 201 W. Campbell Avenue — since 1914, and the newsroom has been on the third floor since just after World War II. In the old days, a reporter did a little bit of everything. That meant taking obituaries, lugging a camera (the heavy, famous Speed Graphics of photo lore) to take their own pictures, writing on typewriters, making corrections in pencil and filling in for the newsroom switchboard operator when he or she needed a break.

The sports staff was small, so news reporters had to take reports from high school football games on Friday nights.

"This one kid wrote something about passing ‘a pickle-shaped pigskin,' and that was the end of it," said Beagle, 84.

Then there were the hours. The Times reporting staff — often fewer than 10 people in the 1950s — worked five nights a week, 2 to 11 p.m. Many reporters worked every weekend for years on end.

Reporters might have a specific beat, such as police news or business, but everybody was expected to cover any news that might break. Clarence Whitaker, a reporter whose typewriter was often covered with cigarette ashes, was famous for his work ethic. On a Monday, he would cover the city council, check the police blotter, then write obituaries.

Other reporters carried similar workloads.

"My wife would say, ‘What time are you coming home for dinner?' " Kegley said. "And I'd say, ‘It depends on things that haven't happened yet.' "

Modern-day reporters might have a problem with the old-school dress code.

"Coats and ties," said Kegley, 83. "I don't believe I ever came to work without a tie."

The newsroom ambiance wasn't all that inviting, either. In the 1950s, reporters sat at large, metal desks topped with Underwood typewriters, paste pots, ashtrays and stacks of carbon paper. The spartan accommodations were illuminated with bright fluorescent lighting.

Many reporters smoked and stomped out cigarette butts on the hard, uncarpeted floor. The place wasn't air-conditioned, so windows were opened in the summer, letting in soot and cinders from passing coal-burning, steam-powered locomotives.

"Coal dust would get on your hands, in your hair," said Beagle, who worked at the paper from 1954 to 1992 and wrote his long-running humor column through 2010.

The image of the old newsroom is still vivid.

"Instead of a cafeteria, we had a janitor who cooked chicken and peddled it in the newsroom," Beagle said.

Down the hall in the composing room, or the "backshop," as it was called, large, clattering linotype machines turned pages of copy into hot lead type that would eventually make its way to the   press.

"There were some colorful people in the pressroom," Beagle said. "I won't call them drunks, but they did imbibe a little bit. One year for New Year's, the press foreman put a five-inch firecracker under the managing editor's chair."

Fit to print

Melville "Buster" Carico's relationship with the newspaper goes back to 1928, when he delivered the afternoon World-News in the Virginia Heights section of southwest Roanoke, where he grew up.

He went to work for the paper after graduating from Jefferson High School in 1934, manning the switchboard. He became a reporter on June 18, 1936, the year of the paper's 50th anniversary.

"I've been around for 75 of those years," Carico said recently when reflecting on the 125th anniversary.

If you count his paperboy days, he's been around for 83 of those years. He retired in 1981, but not before becoming a statewide legend as a political reporter. Conspicuous in his red ball-cap (wide-brimmed fedoras were knocked off his head when he climbed into automobiles), Carico began covering the Virginia General Assembly in 1958. During those days. U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. was urging "massive resistance" against desegregation.

"We took a statewide viewpoint but covered it local," said Carico, 95, who lives in Botetourt County with his son, Flip.

If that meant covering the closing of Warren County schools in Northern Virginia during massive resistance, Carico went there. If it meant covering a federal court case in Abingdon for three weeks, Carico was there.

He loved being on the road, dictating his stories from telephone booths on the sides of the highway.

"One time, he called from Christiansburg Mountain and said, ‘Good buddy, the tractor-trailers are running by and splashing the telephone booth and it's too dark to see,'" remembered Beagle, who was often on the receiving end of Carico's dictation.

"He lit matches to see while he dictated his story. Then, after he was finished, he said, ‘The light just came on!' He had his foot caught in the door the whole time" and the light wouldn't work.

Carico was the first Roanoke Times reporter to stay in Richmond while the legislature was in session. He, like many reporters and legislators, stayed at the Hotel Richmond near the Capitol.

"Hell, the place was alive at night," he said. "Back in those days, we used to say the politicians agreed on it at the Hotel Richmond then would go across the street and pass it the next day."

Carico covered 12 national conventions — six Republican, six Democratic — following the Virginia delegation.

"You got to go back," Carico said, with emotion. "I would drive all night on a Saturday night and stop at the truck stops. Nobody was pushing me. I was in my own little world. I did it cheap, so I could go to governors' conferences and expensive places. People liked seeing the little Roanoke Times right there with The New York Times."

Paper and television

Long before the Internet, the newspaper was multimedia. For one thing, two newspapers were run out of the same building. The afternoon World-News had one side of the newsroom, the morning Times the other. The papers had the same owner, the Fishburn family, aka the Times-World Corporation, but had competing news staffs and editors. The papers tried to scoop each other.

"You had the feeling you had to hide everything on your desk," recalled JoAnne Poindexter, who joined the Times in 1973 when the papers were still separate.

Sandra Brown Kelly, who worked for both the Times and World-News in her nearly 40-year career, said the worst competition she ever saw was for furniture.

"I saw fistfights over chairs," she said.

When the Times went to press at night, some of the staff would run across Second Street to the Pipe Room, a bar located in the basement of the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

"A lot of story ideas were born over there," Beagle said. "It was a wonderful place. It had a pond with fish in it. One time, an editor who shall not be named fell into the damn thing."

Times-World's multimedia empire also included WDBJ radio and television — the company started the TV station in 1955. For a time both studios were housed in the newspaper building.

Newspaper reporters always filed carbon-copy versions of their stories for broadcasters. Occasionally, reporters such as Carico would appear on TV as "experts" on news stories.  

The best part about having the TV studio in the building, though, was running into professional wrestlers who grappled on Roanoke's weekly wrestling broadcast, "Wrestling from Roanoke." Many weekends, rumpled newsmen nearly collided with leotard-clad hulks in the men's room.

"One time a wrestler sat on the toilet, and it just collapsed," Kegley said.

Expanding coverage

Changes accelerated in the 1960s. Marge Fisher became one of the first female reporters and eventually became a great political and editorial writer. Brown Kelly joined the paper in the data-processing department in 1960 and eventually worked her way up to the newsroom.

She oversaw the old teletype machine, which spit out national news. She was doing that job on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was shot.

"The bells on the teletype machine would go off, and it wasn't clear if he was alive or dead," Brown Kelly said. "The next day, I had to do one of these ‘man-on-the-street' interviews, which we hated to do. I was allowed to talk to women, but it was always ‘man-on-the-street.' I asked one person for his reaction to the president being shot and he said, ‘I'm damn glad he got shot.' I put it in the story, but I don't remember if it made the paper."

Brown Kelly eventually headed the "women's department," a precursor to modern features departments. The women's section was the place for recipes, social news and other "ladies' news." Under Brown Kelly and other editors, the women's department became the staff that covered "the stuff the other reporters didn't think was real news."

That meant everything from fashion to entertainment to hot-button social issues such as gay couples and abortion.

"At the time, it was very controversial what we were doing," Brown Kelly said. "Now, it's part of the mainstream newspaper."

In the 1960s, Brown Kelly was part of a group of female employees who protested then-publisher Bill Armistead's policy that forbade women from wearing pantsuits. The women's petition prevailed.

By the 1970s, the newspapers were making a ton of money. Staffs were expanded and travel budgets grew. Brown Kelly covered fashion shows in New York City and New Jersey. Roanoke was packed with independently owned clothing and furniture stores, so keeping tabs on the latest trends was important for business leaders and readers.

Entertainment coverage grew. Jeff DeBell, who covered the arts and local media for the Times, annually attended network television conventions in Los Angeles.

Brown Kelly was one of the people who formed the Extra section shortly after the papers merged in 1977.

On the news side, reporters began to specialize in specific areas. Kegley, the business editor, frequently traveled to Washington, D.C., to cover railroad mergers and he even covered two Supreme Court hearings.

Sports, too, was expanding its presence. For decades, the biggest sporting event in Roanoke was the Harvest Bowl football game between Virginia Tech and VMI, when the papers marshalled all forces to cover it.

Under the guidance of sports editor Bill Brill, and with editor Morris's blessings, the Times increased coverage of regional and national sports. Barely a generation after requiring news reporters to write high school football reports over the telephone, the Times was sending sportswriters to cover the World Series, Super Bowls and NCAA Final Fours.

Sometime in the 1950s, another Times sports editor, Harold "Soup" Wimmer, coined the term "Timesland" for the paper's coverage area. (According to one veteran reporter, Wimmer was also the guy who traveled to New Orleans to cover the Sugar Bowl one year, only to send a telegram back to the paper saying, "Typewriter broken. Use AP.")

The faces at the newspaper were changing,too. Poindexter, a Roanoke native who had been one of the first students to integrate Roanoke schools in the 1960s, became the first black reporter in 1973 and eventually became the first black editor when she took over the Neighbors sections in 1989.

Just a few years before Poindexter started work, black Roanokers had protested against the newspaper's policy of not running photos of black brides.

"When I started, the only black employees were janitors or in the pressroom," said Poindexter, 61, who retired in 2008 but still writes a community news column. "Things were just beginning to change."  

Changes didn't come without a few bumps. Some people never warmed up to the idea of persons of color both in the newsroom and in the paper. Brown Kelly said that after she interviewed a number of young blacks for the youth section, a copy editor presented her with a laminated queen of spades card.

"Some people weren't ready for changes," she said. "But most of us were."

Read all over

The Roanoke Times and the World-News were sold to Landmark Communications in 1969, the same year the television and radio stations were spun off. The papers merged in 1977, and by the time of its centennial in 1986 the paper employed more than 600 people. Circulation topped out at 120,000 on weekdays in the early 1980s. The Sunday paper sold more than 140,000 copies.

This was in the days when many people did not have cable TV and only got their local news at 6 p.m. on three or four channels. Since then, competition from cable, satellite and Internet news sources has exploded.

The company has made many changes to meet the challenges. The afternoon paper folded in 1991 and the World-News name was dropped from the masthead in 1995. Two years later,  roanoke.com was launched.

In 2003, the Heidelberg full-color press was commissioned inside a new $31.6 million print facility across Second Street.

Currently, circulation averages just under 80,000 Monday through Saturday and 90,177 on Sundays. According to the newspaper's research, an average of two and a half readers see every paper sold, which means the paper reaches around 200,000 readers or more every day. Online,  roanoke.com is visited 1.8 million times each month by 614,500 unique visitors.

The retired veterans are all happy that they worked for the newspaper when they did.

"I had the most wonderful experience in journalism," Brown Kelly said. "I sort of came at the end of the wild west days when people hid bottles of wine in their desks … and we moved into a time that was more corporate, but still very exciting."

Brown Kelly, 71, who has taught journalism at the college level since retiring and has kept up with changes in technology, acknowledges that newspapers have a tough time in the digital age, when circulation, advertising revenues and staffs have shrunk. Still, she said, there is a place for the paper in today's world.

"Journalism has the same role to play as it always did. It still has to be the monitor."

Carico, a member of the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association Hall of Fame, is also proud of the era in which he labored.

"I am lucky I covered the General Assembly the 25 years I did," he said. "I saw the face of Virginia change from a single-party state to a two-party state, from rural to a business-industrial economy. And I saw the end of segregation and blue laws."

Carico still reads the paper every day and is impressed by what he sees.

"I am very envious of y'all for what stories you do," he said. "You [present-day reporters] have two factors going for you. You're smarter and better educated, plus there's more information available to you. In my day, whatever background was in a story you just knew it. If you had to look up something, you had to go up in the attic where the books were piled with dust. What you can get out of that damn computer these days is amazing."

You get the feeling the old guy wouldn't mind being out there again, agitating the politicians, a reporter's notebook in hand and a red ballcap on his head.

"What I wouldn't have given for a laptop and a cellphone," he said.  

Contact Ralph Berrier Jr. at 981-3338 or ralph.berrier@roanoke.com.

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Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993. He covers the City of Roanoke and writes the Dadline parenting column.

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