To be a member of the editorial team of a community news organization is to be aware that it’s not a nine-to-five job.
Whether you’re shopping for groceries or taking your kids for playtime in the park, you can never really shut off or shut down.
People will recognize you when you’re in the grocery store lineup, at the gas pump or waiting in the doctor’s office, and will engage you in conversations — offering up story ideas, their opinions on local issues, or even throwing out a complaint about your work. I actually don’t mind it.
The best story ideas have often come from those casual conversations. And there’s nothing better than an interesting conversation to help pass the time in a long lineup.
So it was that I was shopping in a local store one Saturday afternoon with my daughter — who was seven years old at the time — when I noticed a man in the same aisle casting strange glances my way.
On this particular day, I was enjoying a “girls’ day out” with my child and aiming to try not to be interrupted by too much work-related chatter.
And this man was acting peculiar enough to give me a bad vibe.
I tried to ignore him and carry on with my shopping.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him walking straight towards me.
He stopped, hesitated, and then asked, “Are you Barbara Dean-Simmons?”
The tone of his voice gave no clue as to whether this was going to be a cordial conversation or a confrontation. And my young daughter was just a few paces away. I hoped this would not be the latter, to ruin our day.
“Yes,” I replied tentatively. His face still serious, he replied, “I want to thank you so much for telling Mr. Chatman’s story.”
I felt a tingle go down my spine.
I had travelled to Canning’s Cove a couple of weeks earlier to spend some time with Second World War veteran Tom Chatman and to talk to him about that time of his life.
Mr. Chatman was a quiet man. He shared with me photos from his wartime years, but he was very soft spoken and it was obvious there were memories that even then, nearly 60 years on, were too terrible for him to speak about.
He showed me photos, but the snippets of information I got from him were just short sentences.
He grew emotional as he recalled how he and two other young men — William Pitts and Maxwell Chatman —walked out of Canning’s Cove on a September day in 1939 to catch the train at Lethbridge to head to St. John’s to enlist; and how when they walked back into Canning’s Cove after the war ended, Pitts was not with them. Tears blurred his eyes. He kept shuffling through his photos, telling me bits and pieces; names of sailors, the ships, dates.
I kept pressing, gently, wondering how I would be able to build a story on scant details and memories that obviously burdened him.
“My children have asked me to tell them about it but I haven’t said any more … than what I am able to tell you today,” he said, his eyes clouded with sadness.
That he even agreed to my interview was, I realized later, a blessing.
I was honoured.
Thanks to Google I was able to piece together information, linking ships, locations and dates of his period of service to try to add the detail he could not talk about.
As a writer, I was challenged, but remembering his face, the emotion that showed clearly in his eyes helped me write a story that was, I hoped, not just about facts and details but how that experience dwelled with him all these years later.
The story was finished and a day later I was already focused on other assignments and stories to meet the next deadlines.
Until that man walked up to me in the store on Saturday afternoon and told me how glad he was that I had taken the time to tell Tom Chatman’s story.
We had a short conversation about storytelling; in particular, how it’s important to tell stories so people don’t forget the past.
He then thanked me again, told me to “keep doing what you’re doing” and walked away.
Once again, I was reminded of the one thing that makes a story and validates the reason for telling it — people.
Many moments stand out for me when I think back on the years I’ve been with The Packet — almost 38 — and the 50 years’ worth of stories in our archives.
I have witnessed historic events, met and interviewed political and business leaders, taught younger journalists and learned from them as well, learned from colleagues and mentors, recorded the changes in our local communities, been on the receiving end of angry phone calls and come up against the roadblock of silence in trying to uncover the truth.
Yet, this past week, as I was reflecting on my years with The Packet, that single moment of a heartfelt thanks for telling that story stands out.
As long as The Packet remains focused on local people and their communities, I am certain we will remain relevant to our communities and the people who live in them.
With that, I think it fitting we start the beginning of our next 50 years with the words “keep doing what you’re doing” firmly etched in our minds.
Barbara Dean-Simmons Regional Managing Editor