Originally published July 2, 2017 in the Suffolk News-Herald
Thirty-one years ago, a scared, dumb kid barely out of college sat in an office in Franklin for his first job interview ever. He had no education and no experience pertinent to the job he sought, but his parents had made it clear he needed to find work — and soon.
As it would turn out, this would be one of the shortest job interviews I would ever be a part of — on either side of the desk. I would eventually come to see the humor Hanes Byerly could exhibit and the compassion he could show. Later, I would experience the teaching moments and the nurture with which this man could surprise his staff. And I would find that he had friends and admirers across a broad swath of Western Tidewater society.
But on this day, the publisher and owner of The Tidewater News was sharp and pointed in the questions he had for the 21-year-old sitting in his office, looking for part-time work as a reporter.
“Can you spell?” he asked. I confidently and honestly replied, “Yes!”
“Can you type?” Sure, I said, and he asked, “How fast?” With no idea what would be a good number, seeing as I’d never typed a page in my life, I said, “Twenty words a minute?”
“So, you can’t type,” he said.
And there began my relationship with the man who taught me the most about community journalism. I quickly agreed to work for $30 a day (my parents were mortified and proud at the same time). I started work the next day, and I never stopped showing up, craftily turning the $90-a-week part-time job into a $150-a-week full-time job without ever even asking for his approval.
In effect, I gave myself my first raise on my fourth day on the job. Mr. Byerly, of course, knew what I’d done — I’ve seldom met a businessman more savvy — but he never said a word about it.
Which is not to say it was easy to work for him. While I was learning to type on deadline, using one of the manual typewriters we had in the newsroom at the time, I recall many times — especially during my first year, when I was still trying to figure out what it meant to be a reporter — when he would take scissors and rubber cement to my stories, muttering (and probably cursing) as he rearranged paragraphs into something less chaotic than what I’d turned in.
But he taught me so much, and soon I found myself with my own beat and responsibility for editorials and sections of the paper.
And then there came the day I got an offer to take the editor’s position at another nearby paper. It was an opportunity I could not pass up, and Mr. Byerly understood. He wished me well and asked me to stop in and say hello sometime.
Twenty years later, all those memories came rushing back when my cellphone rang and I heard his voice on the other end of the phone, asking if I might be interested in coming back to work at The Tidewater News to help the company that had just bought the paper from him. That was Boone Newspapers, the Suffolk News-Herald’s parent company, and it was the path that led me to my current position as editor of my hometown newspaper.
When I learned last week of the passing of this man who started me in this career I have loved so well for so many years, all those memories came flooding back once again.
Franklin has lost an icon of community journalism, a stalwart defender of the community. I wonder how many people in Western Tidewater recognize how seriously he took his charge to tell his readers about their community.
“A sneeze in Southampton is more important to us than a tornado in Norfolk,” he told me one time. The point: Community newspapers should be focused on their own communities. It’s a lesson I have never forgotten, and it’s the enduring legacy of my three years under the guidance of this great newspaperman.
I hope that readers of the Suffolk News-Herald will recognize this philosophy played out in the pages of this very newspaper. That would be my very best memorial to Mr. Byerly.
Community journalism has lost something dear with his death. But I will always remember.
— R.E. Spears III