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My Final Editorial

How do you say farewell, as editor, to an entire community?

And after 36 years, the last quarter century spent “preaching” from this pulpit, a privilege never anticipated?

This is the last time we will meet in this space and on these pages and the journey to find those farewell words begins now.

And I stumble taking the first step.

I can find no words, but at the same time words fall like raindrops all around me and I stand in their puddles, looking down and seeing my own reflection.

Most importantly, I also see the reflection of your faces all around me. I open my mouth to speak and hear your voices.

The years here with you have so enriched and blessed my life and in ways so deep. I could never have imagined I’d ever feel such meaning and purpose to my life—and all because of you.

Fifty-eight years ago, I was born at Southside Community Hospital. My mom and dad married young. He was still attending Hampden-Sydney College when I came into this world and so the first two years of my life were spent here; we lived in apartments on Beech Street and then High Street and, after my dad graduated, we moved to Richmond, where my parents were born and raised.

That could have been the last I’d ever see of Farmville and Prince Edward County, but of all the colleges to which I applied, H-SC was the only one that offered me admission. So I came back in 1975 and graduated four years later with one detectable marketable skill—some kind of ability to write, which was my passion and joy.

I had big dreams of writing for a daily paper and writing “the great American novel.” The usual stuff that fills the heads of wide-eyed English majors as they gallop off into the real world. And that could have been the last time I ever saw Farmville or Prince Edward County, too, with the exception of homecoming games at H-SC.

But my only job offer came from The Farmville Herald, and so I came back, again. Still convinced that Woodward and Bernstein (and Faulkner and Hemingway) were going to have to make room for my company, I saw myself staying here for a couple of years, at most.

Hired to cover Buckingham County, I was given a list of important county people and told to drive up Route 15 and meet them. I did. They welcomed me with open arms and I began learning the craft of journalism among them. The first news story I ever wrote was for The Herald. At H-SC, I wrote an off-the-wall column—Through The Looking-Glass— for the college newspaper, a precursor of my Rafterthoughts column here.

I arrived at The Herald wholly ignorant of Prince Edward County’s history of “massive resistance” and this newspaper’s editorial advocacy of closing schools. I was in for a numbing shock when a member of the community came up to my desk one day, in my first year or so on the job, and asked, “You know what happened here, don’t you?”

I had no idea what she was talking about. She told me to go to the rare book room at Longwood College and ask for They Closed Their Schools by Bob Smith. I immediately did so, taking a seat in a chair just to the left of the rare book room’s door. Flipping through the pages, I felt as if the world had punched me in the gut. I couldn’t imagine anything like that ever happening. Some years later, I would find an old Polaroid photograph of two-year-old me, playing in the front yard of our High Street apartment. There was a date on the edge of the picture—it was the summer of 1959.

For the blonde-haired blue-eyed boy, the world within that frame was perfect. Beyond the picture’s edge, however, a few blocks down that street, the county board of supervisors was deciding to shut down Prince Edward County’s public school system. For children whose skin pigment was a different color than mine, the world would soon begin crumbling all around them.

Me, editor? I never saw that coming. And, in fact, it never would have come at all except the incumbent, Bid Wall, who was only a few years older than me, decided that life was calling him in a different direction. That happens. Truly, I know. Becoming editor in 1990, writing the editorials, would give me a sense of mission, of ministry, in partnership with everyone in this community—and there are so many—whose heart beat for healing and reconciliation.

A letter from the legendary Oliver Hill in 1994, the civil rights attorney who embraced the cause of  Barbara Johns and her classmates in 1951, acted like a commission to me, a laying on of hands, an ordination. His response to my editorial about  the 40th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that separate schools are unconstitutional was breath on the flame that already burned inside me. The great civil rights attorney let me know and understand that, though my words could never undo the past, they could do something to both address the wounds and contribute to the process of racial healing and reconciliation. And for that, I have stayed, foregoing opportunities to leave for daily newspaper jobs. That decision opened my life in so many directions with so many people. If it was the road less traveled to remain at a twice-weekly rural paper rather then head to the city, it surely made all the difference in my life.

There is no journalist in this whole wide world luckier than I am for having had the privilege, the honor—I feel God’s grace in this, I always have and always shall—to have shared this journey with you for so long and over such extraordinary terrain. What views we have seen together, you and I helping each other through valleys of shadow to reach mountainsides, and more than one mountaintop, where we have watched the sun rise together and felt its light and warmth on our shared human skin. I have felt your heart beat in my chest more than once. Nothing will ever change that. Nothing ever could.

To have been able to work with this community to save the former R. R. Moton High School and preserve the birthplace of the civil rights movement as a museum, to have had any small part in that, is a wonder. As is working with you on the crusade to win passage for the Brown v. Board Scholarship Program in the General Assembly, a 16-month odyssey, in 2003-04. And then there is the Light Of Reconciliation atop the courthouse a few blocks from where I played in the green grass as a small child in a world that seemed perfect to me but would need all of us so very much to address its frightening imperfections. You and I, all of us, we lit that light together. And we did so much else, in between and after. So many people in this community have allowed me to be a part of things that were beyond my wildest dreams, until I found you’d placed them in my soul. Your open hand, your embrace, your trust and your friendship will go with me everywhere for the rest of my life.

This day, Friday, May 29, is my last at The Farmville Herald. I never expected to type those words, I can tell you. The decision to leave is entirely my own, however. I wish this newspaper nothing but success and I hope that each of my teammates here has the same chance that I have had. For my friends and colleagues at The Herald, on each of the building’s three floors, my prayers for your good fortune rise up. I valued the contributions every one of you made. You have been a second family to me. I will carry that relationship forward.

But the time has come for me to step down from this pulpit, to say farewell from these pages, though not good-bye from this life we share. There is a book I shall do my very best to write, A Balm In Gilead: The Brown v Board of Education Scholarship Crusade. The title is based on John Stokes’ reaction on February 18, 2003 when I first told him about the idea. As I fill the pages, I will look down at the words about our civil rights journey together and feel you all around me still. You have neither seen nor heard the last of me. I’m just next door in Appomattox County and I know the way back here, so often has life pulled me toward you since the moment of my birth. You will see me around town, from time to time, on the Sarah Terry Trail, at the Moton Museum or in a Main Street store.
So, back to the question at the beginning of these words. How do you say farewell, from this space and these pages that we have shared together, to an entire community?

You don’t. That’s how. You say what really matters most.

Thank you.

And I love you.

—JKW—