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Sandy Wells on 50 years at the Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Aug. 18, 1963, newly graduated from Marshall University, I walked into the newsroom at The Charleston Gazette on the first day of my first real job.

And here I am, 50 years later, writing an Innerviews column on myself, a golden anniversary edition about my so-called "career." Maybe they can use some of it for my obit.

My 50th year also marks the 25th anniversary of Innerviews. I've written nearly 1,300 columns since 1988. (Bring out the confetti and champagne!)

Hardly anyone stays 50 years at one newspaper. Most don't stay with newspapering at all. Change, challenges and the inspiring people I interview have kept me here.

I wasn't exactly stuck in a writing rut. I spent about 15 years as fashion editor and society writer, switched to medical writing for eight years and then settled into general features about people, places and anything else that interested me. I wrote a first-person consumer column. And for 17 years, I covered Golden Gloves boxing. So I've done a lot of different stuff.

In 2009, I officially retired but stayed on part-time. Now they pay me just to write Innerviews. Maybe I'll hang on until the end of the year. Maybe longer. When I think about all the people out there I haven't interviewed yet, it's tough to walk away.

 

"I enjoyed an idyllic early life in Huntington. My father owned a jewelry store, Wellman-O'Shea. I have a fraternal twin sister, Sherry, who still lives in Huntington. Our home on Wiltshire Boulevard was like a French salon, a lively gathering place for my parents' friends, and ours. Mom was everybody's confidant.

"As a kid, I used to write stories in spiral notebooks. At Huntington High, I wrote for the school paper. At Marshall, I was feature editor for The Parthenon. Everyone knew I would end up writing in some way.

"A serendipitous opening at the Gazette brought me to Charleston in the glory days of the state newspaper.

"The Gazette newsroom was like a scene from 'The Front Page.' Interesting characters. Clacking wire machines. Clicking typewriters. Cigarette smoke. Tile floors. Bright lights. (A couple of newsmen even wore eyeshades.)

"Whooshing pneumatic tubes sent page proofs to the composing room. We used paste pots to attach long sheets of copy paper. And yes, there were whiskey bottles in the drawers of certain desks.

"I was fashion editor. Never mind that my fashion acumen stopped with circle pins, madras wrap skirts and Bass Weejun loafers. Before long, I was subscribing to Women's Wear Daily. The paper flew me to New York twice a year to cover haute couture collections at the Plaza Hotel. Editors were royally wined and dined. We rubbed elbows with world famous designers -- Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Adele Simpson, Pauline Trigere. Oleg Cassini, Jackie Kennedy's couturier, was a favorite. We had a great time writing about Rudy Gernreich and his infamous topless swimsuit.

"Back home, I covered department store back-to-school fashion shows. When a hot trend hit, Louise Palumbo, fashion coordinator at Stone and Thomas, was always the first to call for a story. At different times, she dressed me in a minidress, a maxicoat and hot pants. I strolled the streets of Charleston with a photographer trailing discreetly to document the reactions. When I boarded a bus in the minidress, it suddenly got as quiet as a cemetery at midnight.

"For years, I wrote a column called Fashionating that chronicled the goings-on at local parties and what people wore to them. Can you imagine?

"We covered garden club meetings, teas, women's club conventions and the DAR. We wrote lengthy wedding stories that included detailed descriptions of the bridal gown, bridesmaids' dresses, even the bouquets. I learned to pronounce Alencon lace and spell stephanotis.

"On Thursday evenings, I laid out the Sunday Society pages using a ruler and page dummies with the ads blocked in. Years later, when we entered the computer age, the first time I highlighted a sentence and zapped it away with the click of a key, I thought it was akin to Jesus walking on water.

"When Statehouse reporter Don Marsh moved up to managing editor, he immediately pulled me out of the women's department and put me on cityside to cover medicine. I witnessed surgeries, even watched an autopsy close enough to peer into the emptied body cavity. I walked away with an awesome appreciation for the greatest of all machines -- the human body.

"Ned Chilton, our fiery editor, took considerable interest in this new beat and gave me some tough assignments. How many unnecessary hysterectomies are performed in West Virginia hospitals? As if the administrators would tell me! He wanted a story about the sex lives of quadriplegics. The story behind that story would fill a whole column.

"I wrote about penile implants and electroshock therapy. I wrote about a man who had a new nose made from his thumb.

"I wrote about death and dying. I've held the hands of dying patients, teased them, hugged them and cried with them, and I remember them, every one.

"I wrote about everything from gout to the gruesome lobotomy era in West Virginia. I covered every condition and disease known to man. People started calling me with symptoms. When I started diagnosing their problems, I knew it was time to move on.

"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 sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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