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There has always been something special to me about the Roanoke Times.
Well, until now.
I say this because decades ago when dinosaurs roamed the planet, I worked my way through college writing about sports for various weeklies. A few months after graduating from Virginia Tech, however, I got the call that changed the arc of my life: The Roanoke Times morning paper and Roanoke World-News had combined into one all-day paper, and the former sports editor of the afternoon World News – Bob McLelland – had suffered a health issue.
He covered high school sports, and while he was recuperating, they needed someone immediately. After a few interviews, I was asked when can you start? I was working for my old friend Jerry Ratcliffe in Danville, and his response was “we’ll figure it out. Go now if you want.”
So I did.
Having just turned 22, I was pretty fired up. I was going to be working for a big daily, and in the same department as many of the writers whose stories I had studied over the years every morning when I picked up the paper.
I drove down Campbell Avenue that first day, walked in the front doors and was told to take the elevators to the third floor. There I met the people whose bylines I had read so often, finally putting a name with a face. I was assigned a desk right near a 26-year-old guy by the name of Doug Doughty, along with others like Jack Bogaczyk, Steve Waid, Dennis Latta and wonderful editors like Rick Maas, Newton Spencer, Tony Stamus and of course the big guy, Bill Brill.
These are the people who taught me to write, and by example, taught me how to be a professional.
I also met someone else that day, the lady in personnel who tells you about all your benefits, makes you sign all the papers so you’ll get paid, and gives you the employee handbook you’re suppose to look at every now and then. Her name was Debbie.
We’ll have been married 40 years in March.
Three years later I would write the required goodbye column everyone pens when they change jobs, go on to a couple more newspapers, then decided a change would do me good. I went back to grad school, got an MBA, then spent the next three decades climbing the corporate ladders of the furniture industry.
Furniture was extremely good to me, yet one of the bigger assets I had was the ability to tell stories, concisely write my ideas in a form so people could easily understand them, and do it quickly as if under extreme deadline pressure.
All skills I learned at the Roanoke Times.
Of all the people I met there, Doughty was the conduit that always made me feel like part of me still worked there. He was that person who let everyone know who had gotten other jobs, who had lost other jobs, and as would happen far too frequently as we all grew older, who had passed away.
As the years would go by, Doug also ended up being the answer to the question many of us ask ourselves when we change careers: What if I had stayed? I didn’t have to guess because Doug never left. He stayed there for 44 years, and he was the guy who knew everyone and knew just about everything about the sports he covered.
When it came to the University of Virginia, he was a walking encyclopedia of every win and loss by football and basketball teams, because he’d been at all of them. Wonder how a high school football player was ranked among the top 25 in the state? Every Christmas for as long as I can remember, I've read that list after all the presents had been opened, written and compiled by Doug. I have even needled him about the one year Lawrence Taylor did not make the list, with him acknowledging that they may have missed one that year.
Local golf is sometimes a tough sport to write about, because the internet doesn’t do the greatest job of tracking down the results of a local tournament, say, 25 years ago. Not with Doug. He’s been at most of them for even longer, and remembers obscure trivia most didn't know in the first place. His weekly "College Notebook" feature is something I find myself looking for on Thursdays, because he usually finds some interesting nugget to mention about area college athletes.
He has a writing style that blends all this knowledge with a conversational style and a touch of smarminess, because at heart, Doug can be a smart alec teenager who uses sarcasm like Picasso used a paint brush. I know this because I’m the same way, which is why Doug and I have gotten along for so many years.
He’s a trusted resource that has been the face of Roanoke sports to many. If you’re wondering why I’m bringing all this up, it’s because close to 40 years after I wrote my goodbye column, Sunday he wrote his.
And it really makes me angry.
Over the last two decades, I’ve watched the newspaper business go from being a group of families who value their human capital and want to put out a better newspaper, to investment firms buying them, leveraging the assets, and then dumping the carcass after sucking every penny possible out of it. Then to make it worse, another company will come in and do the same thing.
It has been happening in other industries for a long time, so this is nothing new. But finally, the last guy to buy a firm sells so much of what is left, there’s nothing much remaining for another buyer to look at, and the business dissolves.
I’ve watched in horror with what has happened to my hometown newspaper, The Virginian Pilot-Ledger Star. It was bought by one company, then merged with the Newport News paper, then the venerable old building you use to see every time you drove through downtown Norfolk was sold, and the staff was told to work from home or go work in the Newport News building.
Then they sold the Newport News building.
Throughout all this, the only thing I’d mention to Doug when we would text was “I just hope you get to go out on your own terms.” He’d always say he was fine, and that he was going to work as long as he still liked it, which if you’ve ever met Doug, means he’d still be writing right up to the day before the funeral. It was in his DNA. He will never quit writing.
But then two weeks ago I saw the story: Doug was retiring. His last day was only about 10 days later.
I mean, we’re not idiots here. That’s not a retirement. That’s making your budgets in December, corporate saying we need to squeeze more dollars out of the carcass, so in January get rid of anyone old and expensive, throw in more furloughs, and take it out of staff. Including a 44-year-old treasure who has been a big chunk of that paper’s institutional knowledge.
So Doug, I wish you the best in retirement. You’ve been a friend, a teacher, and a great example of how to be a pro to many of us. Your spot in several Hall of Fames is well deserved. The Roanoke Times, and sports in Roanoke in general, would have never been the same without you.
I know it won’t be the same for me going forward. I’m pretty sure the next time I drive through Roanoke down Campbell Avenue and see the old building, those feelings of how special everything has been all these years won’t be there. But then again, after reading your farewell column, I saw another story that will probably render that moot.
The Roanoke Times building, the story said, is now up for sale.