Call it fate or serendipity, but my friend Dale Short whom I’d met before I was drafted, was the editor at The Community News in Sumiton in 1973 when I returned from active duty.
He called me up to ask if I wanted a job as a writer and photographer. The entry level job didn’t pay much, but Uncle Sam had a job retraining program that supplemented my income so that I earned enough to live on, though I probably qualified for food stamps.
What the job lacked in monetary compensation, it made up for with opportunity.
For the first time in my life I wasn’t doing manual labor, I was using my mental and creative muscles. With Dale as my mentor, I learned to interview people, write stories, shoot pictures, and use a darkroom.
I know that a darkroom is antiquated technology these days, with the invention of digital cameras, but the darkroom was a great classroom back in the day. There I learned how NOT to shoot a picture. These days if you take a bad picture, you simply delete it and shoot another. That didn’t work with a film camera. When you shot a bad picture you’d often spend hours in the darkroom trying to print something decent for publication — and in those days, Mr. Short, was a taskmaster!
“Yes this would look pretty good,” he’d say “if the kid didn’t have a tree-limb growing out of his ear.” So I’d skulk back to the darkroom to use dodging and burning techniques to try and remove the limb. I learned that you should ALWAYS check the background to make sure it doesn’t make the person in the picture look goofy. Unless of course you didn’t like the person and you wanted to make them look goofy.
The Community News weekly often looked like a magazine. We didn’t do hard news, but features, interviews, and eye-popping photo layouts that spanned two full pages.
Dale had worked as a writer for an over-the-mountain newspaper in Birmingham before coming to The Community News, but was fired because the publisher said,“Dale, you just can’t write.”
In 1974, we entered The Community News in the Alabama Press Association’s Better Newspaper contest, and we all got a free weekend down at the State Convention Center at Gulf Shores to attend the awards event.
It was serendipity at work again, because our seats were directly across from the publisher who’d fired Dale.
We racked up that night, as The Community News took first-place honors in many of the major categories including Best Weekly Newspaper, Best Editorial, Best Use of Photography, Best Feature Article, and Best Looking Staff. OK, I made that one up, but we did look pretty snazzy hauling all those awards back to the table.
In all, the paper won eleven awards — which at that time was the most awards any weekly newspaper had ever won at one event.
The publisher who’d fired Dale won a single award, as I recall it was for eating the most crow.
The three years I spent at The Community News was a gift. It was one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had. Even though the job didn’t pay that well, the things I took away from that job proved to be invaluable throughout my life.
It was there I learned that work is not always about the money. Sometimes you learn things that are more valuable than a paycheck.