Did you have a mentor growing up? Do you have a mentor now?
Sometimes you don’t realize a person is a mentor — whether it is personally or professionally — until much later in your life.
I’ve been lucky in my journalism career because I’ve had not only great mentors, but also some great peers. And now, as I write my final column as an employee of The News Courier, I thought I’d talk about a couple of them.
In April of 1997, I stopped by my friend Dave Mathews’ apartment after class. (Not the famous Dave Mathews. He was always quick to say, “Just like the singer, but with one ‘T.’”) He was thumbing through a copy of the school paper and verbally ripping it to shreds.
He had the bright idea that we should volunteer our services. I didn’t have much else on the ball at the time, aside from a part-time job at a talk radio station in Anniston. So, his proposal seemed like a good idea to me.
It was announced a few weeks later that a planning session for the next year would be held, so my buddy Dave and I went. The handful of would-be journalists ate lunch together and met the paper’s new editor and the paper’s advisor, Clarke Stallworth.
Mr. Stallworth was a state journalism legend, but I didn’t know it at the time. While a reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald in the 1950s, he was nearly killed by the Ku Klux Klan in an ambush. He also extensively covered the civil rights movement and the state National Guard’s takeover of Phenix City.
He had been through the war and achieved greatness, but he didn’t brag about it. Instead, he handed us all strips of paper, which contained the same typed phrase: “What does this story mean to the reader?”
Mr. Stallworth asked us all to tape those strips of paper to our outdated computer monitors.
“When you’re writing your story,” he’d say, “think about what it means to the reader. How can you convey this story to the man sitting at the red light in the beat up ol’ pickup truck or the girl studying at the library?”
Much of the staff at the student newspaper was too immature to care about those strips of paper. I now realize there’s nothing more important than ensuring a story — no matter how inconsequential it may be to the author — reaches the widest audience possible.
I would cross paths with Mr. Stallworth again a few years later after I left my first professional newspaper job at The Gadsden Times and went to work at the now-defunct Birmingham Post-Herald. He was working there at the time as a writing coach and editor of a page called “Y’all.”
When the paper’s owner, Scripps Howard, announced it was pulling the plug on the paper in September 2005, Mr. Stallworth wrote the paper’s eulogy in the form of a beautiful front-page story.
I never got the chance to thank Mr. Stallworth for that strip of paper. He passed away in 2008.