"Assigned to general features, I went through my history phase. I wrote long pieces about old buildings and iconic places -- the Union Building, the Arcade, the Anchor, the Strand, the Kearse Theater, the Holly Hotel and the Daniel Boone, the Municipal Auditorium and the Quarrier Diner. Hospitals, historic homes, country clubs and amusement parks.
"I wrote a history of the locks and dams on the Kanawha River, a series on the Diamond Department Store and a series on the history of Kanawha Boulevard from buffalo trail to the day President Franklin Roosevelt paraded by in a convertible to celebrate the opening of the modern thoroughfare.
"I loved the eureka moments of research, when I'd uncover a gem after tedious bouts with microfilm, microfiche and yellowed newspaper clippings.
"The paper gave me an entrée to satisfy my curiosity. After watching a building demolition next door, I interviewed contractor Rodney Loftis to find out how it was done. I drove one day from the West Side to the East End without hitting a single red light. How did that happen? I interviewed the city traffic engineer.
"At the paper, I've learned more about coal, Appalachian culture, World War II and the vagaries of everyday living than I ever learned in school.
"Ordinary people have told me the most extraordinary things. Blanche, a school custodian, told me how her mother sold her for a bottle of wine when she was 10. Katherine, a teacher, talked about begging in front of dime stores with her crippled father every Saturday. Jess, the gritty ex-cop, confessed his dream of performing with the Metropolitan Opera.
"I've also discovered the ordinariness in extraordinary people, how bigwigs have hopes and hang-ups just like you and me.
"In an interview shortly before his 80th birthday, Shoney's founder Alex Schoenbaum, a gruff, imposing man, confided that his entire life, from football stardom at Ohio State to millionaire businessman, stemmed from feelings of inferiority and a need to prove himself.
"He was ugly, he said, and Jewish, and he thought no one would like him. When the other kids had paper swords, he bought a BB gun. That drive to be better made him the man he was.
"Through interviews that took me to some of the seediest bars in town, I reconstructed the enigmatic life of a murdered prostitute. A diary revealed the goodness in her, her frustrations and the dream of starting a new life. Her murder remains unsolved. I hope my story gave her a fitting eulogy.
"For two hours on a Sunday afternoon, I interviewed beleaguered state serologist Fred Zain. He cried when he talked about the charges of inadequacy that brought him down. I felt bad for him. I never would have made it as a hard-nosed, investigative reporter.
"Shortly before his debut in the NFL, I sat for two hours with Randy Moss and listened to him patiently answer questions about the troubles and triumphs of his highly-publicized life.
"I wore a Marshall sweatshirt, as if that would endear me. He wore white from head to toe. He is awesomely tall. I was star-struck. I hugged him, and dropped my notebook and tape recorder. Very professional.
"The minute the interview was over, he bolted. The following week, we met him in Huntington and took pictures over pizza at a mentor's condo. He was relaxed and laughed a lot. I saw a different Randy Moss. And I loved him.
"Don Marsh admired Studs Terkel's first-person profiles. He asked me to do a couple. I liked them. He liked them. I suggested a weekly column, the birth of Innerviews.
"Since that first column in 1988, I've interviewed close to 1,300 people -- teachers, preachers and prostitutes, convicts, nuns, boxers and baseball players, doctors, dog catchers, grave diggers and driving instructors, cabbies, choir directors, coal miners and corporate icons, bouncers, boat captains, barbers, bikers and bricklayers, locksmiths and blacksmiths, shoemakers, watchmakers and knifemakers, maids, mail carriers, models, merchants, morticians and meter readers, painters, pilots and private eyes, garbage collectors and bill collectors, bankers and bums, farmers and philanthropists, fortune tellers and picture framers -- and they've told me the most astounding things.
"They've trusted me to relay the most intimate details of their lives. I'm grateful for all that they have taught me about the complex twists and turns of life, the rewards of perseverance, grace in the face of adversity and the inevitable triumph of the human spirit.
"Fifty years in one place? Hardly. Stories have sent me across the state, to mountaintops and hollows, hovels and mansions, dusty attics and dank basements. I've interviewed people in penthouses and pool halls, on yachts and steamboats, buses and planes and trains, at ski resorts, truck stops and race tracks, in crematories, cemeteries, classrooms and courtrooms and some places that would horrify my mother.
"I've had the most amazing time. I'm waiting for a tipping point that will tell me to quit. But every time I turn on that tape recorder and hear another compelling life story, I am hooked.
"I often ask people how they'd like to be remembered. Well, remember me by the stories I've told. That's who I am. I tell stories. That's all I know."
Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.