Fayette County

Retiring Herald-Leader reporter's notebook chock-full of memories

I have had what I considered the best job in Kentucky.

I covered floods, droughts and explosions. I reported from Japan, Haiti, Atlanta and St. Louis. I got paid to talk to interesting people and visit interesting places. I succeeded many, many times in convincing editors that some bit of news needed to be pursued on a trail in the Red River Gorge or in a canoe on some river.

Before my retirement — my last day is Dec. 31 — I tackled the tough job of coming up with my Top 10 most memorable stories.

Here they are:

Date: March 12, 1978

Headline: One Thing Certain in Harlan: Miners Won't Obey Injunction.

The story: A long, bitter strike by coal miners was nearing an end.

Why it's on this list: This was my first assignment in Eastern Kentucky. I had been warned that people in "Bloody Harlan" would shoot you first and ask questions later. I interviewed people who had pistol handles sticking out of the pockets, but everyone treated me well.

I had spent years in the megalopolis of South Florida before coming to Kentucky, so I was unaccustomed to a place where everyone knew everyone else.

I went by Junior Deaton's grocery in the Ages community of Harlan County because I had been told he would be a good source. He wasn't there, but later that day, a man walked up to me in downtown Harlan. "I'm Junior Deaton," he said. "You must be Mead."

How did he pick me out on the street? "They said there was a stranger in town looking for me. You're a stranger."

Date: May 12, 1980

Headline: Fleeing the Hotel: Playwright Tennessee Williams Lingers in Lexington En Route to Treatment for 'Vicissitudes of the Body'

The story: Tennessee Williams was in Lexington to see his friend Henry Faulkner, but Faulkner was stranded with a broken-down car in Florida, so Williams had been rescued from the Hyatt and taken in by strangers at a house near Idle Hour Country Club.

Why it's on this list: I didn't interview Williams, I just listened as the country-club types asked him questions. The scene had a sad quality: Williams seemed lonely and willing to say outrageous and entertaining things in return for company and Bloody Marys.

I had shoulder-length hair and a mustache in those days. At one point, Williams looked my way and said, "He looks like Faye Dunaway in drag."

Date: Sept. 27-29, 1981

Headline: Time and the River: Human Hands Slow the Course of the Meandering Kentucky

The story: In summer 1981, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it was closing the locks on the Kentucky River upstream from Frankfort because there was no longer any commercial traffic on that section. (It didn't happen then, although most locks now are closed because they are old and too expensive to maintain.)

Why it's on this list: Photographer Ron Garrison and I were given the dream assignment of taking what was promoted as the last boat trip down the river. Vic Hellard, then director of the Legislative Research Commission, provided and piloted his pontoon.

The first foggy morning that we awoke on the riverbank, I heard the sound of a screech owl somewhere nearby. I had watched a lot of Westerns as a kid, so I thought about Native Americans signaling as they surrounded our camp.

I wasn't the only one. Hellard later told me he was kneeling over a fire when he heard the owl and "waited a few minutes for the thud of an arrow in my back."

Date: March 9, 1994

Headline: Relative's Home had Approval for HUD Housing

The story: A woman and her three young daughters were living in a government-subsidized shack in rural Anderson County.

I've written thousands of articles, but I can't think of another that had such an immediate positive effect on people in need.

I got a call about a woman and her three daughters living in a government-subsidized home where the old wood stove didn't put out enough heat to reach the bedroom where the woman and girls slept.

There were portable heaters, but turning them on made the fuse box very hot. The lights often flickered and dimmed. Walls weren't straight, floors weren't even.

The state inspector who had approved the house for rental described it as a "nice unit." The house belonged to the inspector's aunt.

Why it's on this list: I don't think I've had a more satisfying single day as a journalist.

The day I contacted state housing officials about the house, a supervisor agreed to meet me there with the inspector. By the end of that day, the family was in a better house and the inspector was facing discipline.

Date: April 27, 1986

Headline: Murder Suspects' Lives: Broken Homes, Drugs, Alcohol, Troubled Pasts Mark 2 Women Suspected in 5 Brutal Killings

The story: There was a crazy night in which police found a body, then another and another and another and another. The victims had been shot, stabbed, and run over with an automobile, and three had been set afire. LaFonda Faye Foster and Tina Marie Powell were charged.

Why it's on this list: This was the first story detailing the lives of two women who had committed crimes so brutal that they got nationwide attention.

I particularly remember watching the Today show the morning after the bodies were found. The news reader had to stifle a laugh as he went through the list of the various ways people had been killed.

Date: Nov. 23, 1986

Headline: A Journey of Pain, a Mission of Love

The story: Sandy Tucker, a Casey County woman who, with her husband, had adopted more than two dozen children that no one else wanted, felt called by God to rescue Haitian children who needed medical help.

The Herald-Leader sent photographer Ron Garrison and I to accompany Tucker. The Courier-Journal also sent a reporter and photographer.

Why it's on this list: Before I went to Haiti, I would have told you there was dire poverty in this country, but Haiti was much, much worse, and probably is even worse today.

Journalists are not supposed to get involved in stories they are covering. But seeing so many children with such great needs, the Kentucky journalists ended up advising Tucker, driving her around, trying to interpret for her and carrying children.

Date: Feb. 21-26, 1988

Headline: Divided We Stand: Blacks and Whites in Lexington

The story: Schools had been desegregated and lunch counters were open to everyone, but a months-long investigation with reporter Angela Duerson Johnson revealed a city deeply divided by color.

At one point, we attended a University of Kentucky basketball game at Rupp Arena and tried to count the black people there. It was easy on the floor, when at one point Rex Chapman was the only white player on either team. Using a seating chart and binoculars, we estimated that 99.7 percent of the fans were white.

Why it's on this list: The series of stories was a watershed event for a newspaper that had virtually ignored local civil rights issues.

A black leader called after it was published to say how pleased he was and how skeptical he had been when Angela first interviewed him.

"I thought that girl was deluding herself," he said. "I thought that the paper that used to run 'Colored Notes' wasn't going to spend that much time talking to black folks."

Date: April 3, 1988

Headline: Eastern Kentucky's Tunnel Through Time

The story: Hundreds of thousands of pioneers had entered Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap. Now a tunnel that would eventually carry four lanes of highway traffic had been punched through Cumberland Mountain itself.

Why it's on this list: Photographer Charles Bertram and I were among the first few dozen to walk through the mountain, the first to tell about the 100 million years of history revealed in the newly exposed rock.

Date: March 5, 2003

Headline: Court Orders City to Open Meeting

The story: Tensions were running high over whether Lexington should try to acquire Kentucky American Water. The Urban County Council decided the public didn't need to see a report estimating how much the utility would cost.

The newspaper asked a Fayette Circuit Court judge to force the council to receive the report in an open meeting. She refused, and the paper took the matter to the state Court of Appeals. As the court was considering the request, the council voted to kick the public out. Four minutes later, the court ruled that the meeting must be open.

Why it's on this list: This was journalism at its best, fighting to make public information that others wanted to keep secret.

The police assigned kept the public out and wouldn't let me in, so I rapped on the door. They agreed to inform the mayor and law commissioner of the court ruling. A few minutes later, the doors opened.

Date: Aug. 28, 2006

Headline: The Tragedy of Flight 5191: Crash Kills 49

The story: Early on a clear Sunday morning, a plane with 50 people aboard took off from a too-short runway at Blue Grass Airport.

Why it's on this list: This was, hands down, the worst disaster I ever covered.

I'm an early riser, so I was up, surfing the Internet, when editor Peter Baniak called and told me to rush to the airport.

As one of the first media people to arrive, I was directed to Keeneland Race Course, where a news conference was planned. Baniak reached me there on my cell phone, telling me that area hospitals, which originally had been told to prepare for many casualties, were now being advised to stand down.

I asked if that might be good news. No, he said, it was very bad.

Lexington is a city of a quarter of a million people, but it seemed as if everyone knew at least one of the 49 who died that morning. I knew two: Leslie Morris, who perished alongside his wife, Kaye; and Greg Threet, who left behind a wife and three children, one of them an infant.