‘He loved what he did’
William Bidgood “Bill” Wall, former owner, publisher and general manager of The Farmville Herald and Farmville Printing, was known as a newspaper industry expert who loved what he did. He is remembered as a man who loved and was extremely good with people, as a councilman who was dedicated to the town, as a boss who was fair, forthright and thoughtful, and as a friend who was valued and trusted.
Wall passed away Jan. 9 in Farmville at the age of 91. He was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Iris Dawn Sutphin Wall, and a brother, Joseph Barrye Wall Jr.
Steve Wall, a son of Bill Wall who worked with him for decades at The Herald, said his father enjoyed being part of a family that was already well-connected in the area.
“My grandfather bought the paper in (19)21,” Steve Wall said. “He graduated from Hampden-Sydney in 1919, bought the paper in ’21, and he put in a little better than 60 years himself. And my dad worked at the paper when he was in high school. He worked at the paper when he was in college.”
For his undergraduate studies, Bill Wall went to Hampden-Sydney College, one of a total of five generations of Walls who have, Steve Wall said.
As is noted in Bill Wall’s obituary, he attended officer candidate school and served in the U.S. Navy, attaining the rank of Lieutenant, junior grade. He was a communications officer on the aircraft carrier USS Salerno Bay.
“Then when he got out of the Navy, he came back to the paper and stayed there really until we sold out in 2015,” Steve Wall said.
The obituary noted that Bill Wall’s return to the paper came in 1954. Under his leadership the paper grew from a single-edition weekly paper to a three-times-a-week publication, becoming the 10th-largest non-daily paper in Virginia.
“And really, when he was first at The Herald, our coverage area extended from Prince Edward all the way to Powhatan,” Steve Wall said. “We were Powhatan’s primary newspaper too at the time, so Dad would go to Powhatan on Friday night’s to cover football. And then he did sports, news photography and general managed the business, so he was a busy man. But he loved what he did.”
Until 2015, “he was still in the newspaper business and of value and contributing,” Steve Wall said.
He cited that his father was a real stickler for true news content, keeping editorials off the front page.
“You didn’t have to get arrested to get your name in The Farmville Herald,” Steve Wall said.
Marge Swayne, a longtime former employee of The Herald, gave insight into Bill Wall’s approach to the paper, its content and its employees by sharing part of her own history with the publication.
“When I came to The Herald in 1992, I was sort of a groundbreaker in the newsroom because back then, women were only supposed to do the social news,” she said. “That’s all they really cared about, and I kind of branched out real quick from that, which, fortunately, they allowed me to do.”
She started as a community correspondent in the mid-1980s and expanded to write about farm life, people in the community and her goats, which she said people seemed to love.
“I really do appreciate both Bill and Steve for giving me the opportunity — this unknown, crazy goat lady from Elam — a chance to have a career in journalism,” she said.
When there was a job opening in the newsroom in 1992, she went up to the second story of the newspaper office, announcing her desire to apply for the opening to Ken Woodley, who was the editor at the time.
“And so I walked back down the stairs and was going down the hill, and apparently he called Bill Wall right away, and I heard this voice hollering at me, ‘Marge!’” Swayne said. “And I turn around and Ken was chasing me down the street, and he said, ‘Bill says you can have the job if you want it.’ So basically they hired me without even taking a typing test or looking at my resume.”
She said she learned on the job.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” she said. “Mr. Wall was very nice because I started doing weddings, which is a whole minefield of its own if you make a mistake, and I made some rather bad errors in the beginning with name misspellings and other things, and he would smile that nice little smile, but I knew behind that little smile there were teeth. If I made the same mistake again, I might have to answer a little more, but like I said, he was always very gracious and very nice.”
Swayne stated that one of the major jobs she inherited after being hired was the management of the paper’s community correspondents, who were very important to Bill Wall and his father too.
“The whole idea of that was that The Farmville Herald was a community newspaper, and in order to provide all of the community news from every area of the three counties that we covered, they got these community correspondents to report each week on the news in their particular community,” she said. “And it was things like potluck suppers and who went to visit and things like that.
“But when I started, there was something like 30 correspondents, which the number was down from what it used to be from what I hear in the old days,” she continued. “And these were, by and large, maybe housewives. Some of these women, they inherited the job from their mothers. It had been in the family for a long time, and they took it very seriously.
“So one of my jobs, which Mr. Wall initiated, was I was to keep a list every week of each correspondent and what they did,” she added. “And the reason for this was, he’d like to take good care of the correspondents, and every year at Christmas, he would hold a big Christmas luncheon for them.”
Swayne recalled that “about mid-November every year, he’d call me down to his office, and he said, ‘Bring the list.’ So he would look over the list and determine from that which gift they would get, because he liked to give them all a gift.”
Bill Wall would always start the community correspondents’ luncheon with a speech, she said.
“He always told this story — which actually came from my husband, who told it to him one time — about the importance of a community newspaper, because my husband was in the Navy 20 years, and he was often out at sea on a ship, and he did get The Farmville Herald by mail,” Swayne said. “And he told Mr. Wall that not only did he appreciate it a lot, but the other guys would stand in line to read it and not because they knew anybody but because of the way the paper was written as a community-based paper — it really brought a touch of home to all these guys, reading the community correspondents. And because of that, really, Farmville became everybody’s hometown.”
Steve Wall said that like his father, he was carrying papers when he was 12, and once he got in the eighth grade, he worked in the summers and in the afternoons on newspaper production.
“Literally, when I got out of Hampden-Sydney, I had about a week off, and then I went straight to The Herald and started in the ad department under (William) ‘Buckie’ (Fore), did some writing, did some photography,” Steve Wall said. “So I was there full-time with (my dad) from ’78 through 2015, and I think that’s 37 and a half (years). And there’s nothing like what great luck I had in being able to share an office with my father for 37-and-a-half years, literally every day. He never went on vacation. And we never argued, never had any problems. We got along royally. Too much alike, I suppose.”
Steve Wall said his dad knew everybody.
“He was a well-connected man,” he said. “If people had a problem and they needed advice, they came to see Bill Wall. And if he could help them, he would, and if not, he’d tell them he couldn’t.”
Recalling more hallmarks of who his father was, Steve Wall said, “Mostly he loved people, and he was extremely good with people, and he knew everything there was to know about the newspaper industry.”
Steve Wall stated that the printing equipment that The Herald used “was as good as you could buy” when they purchased it, and then when they added on the press room and added three more units, it was a sizable investment.
“That was part of the concept of community press,” Steve Wall said. “We bought the press, and we printed everybody else’s paper around here at a bargain rate to keep the machine running and keep our people paid.”
Bill Wall’s obituary stated, “His employees were like his extended family, and they appreciated his fairness and respected his opinion.”
Buckie Fore, who began working for The Herald in 1956 and continues to do so in a limited role now, reacted to the obituary’s description of Bill Wall’s employees by saying, “I couldn’t agree more. We were a very close-knit group. Everybody knew everybody else’s job, and when one person was behind, somebody — whoever was available — would jump in and play catch-up. And it was like that. Nobody had to tell anybody anything. That’s just the way it was. … It was just like family.”
Fore said, “Bill was a good friend as well as a boss, and he and I developed a friendship very early when I went to work at The Herald as a kid right out of high school. Bill was 10 years older than me.”
As the friendship developed, Fore said he and Bill Wall, who loved the outdoors, hunted a lot together.
“At the time, everybody at the newspaper worked five-and-a-half days (a week), and on Saturday at 12 o’clock during hunting season, Bill and I would drift in a canoe (on) the Appomattox River and squirrel hunt,” Fore said.
After Joseph Barrye Wall Sr. died, Bill Wall became Fore’s direct boss, but Fore said their friendship never changed.
“He was a good listener,” Fore said. “He was very thorough, extremely fair, a very good businessman. He had an air about him that I could always tell when he was seriously thinking about something in our talks. But we would debate, sometimes rather briskly, and sometimes he would agree with me, and sometimes he wouldn’t, but whenever he didn’t agree with me, I always remembered he was the boss. So that wasn’t hard to do. We had that kind of relationship.”
Fore and Wall both served their community through elected office — Fore on the Prince Edward County Board of Supervisors and Wall on the Farmville Town Council. Wall served 40 years on the Town Council.
Steve Wall said, “My dad was a key member of council in creating Farmville’s first comprehensive zoning programs, and he was always a member of the finance committee and on the police committee.”
Former Town Manager Gerald Spates, who worked with Councilman Wall for 27 years, said, “He was very finance-oriented, so Bill was chairman of the finance committee for years, so Bill knew the finances of the town very well, and he was a great person to work with. He really was. You always knew where you stood with Bill, and he was very dedicated to the town and probably one of the most dedicated council members we had.”
Spates added, “We didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but we always worked in the best interests of the town, so that’s all that mattered.”
When Fore was considering running for the Board of Supervisors, he went to Wall for advice, and they talked at length about it.
Fore said, “He said, ‘Well, I wish you luck. As far as I’m concerned, I think it would be a good idea.’”
Fore went on to serve 16 years on the board.
Summing up his thoughts on Bill Wall, Fore said, “I loved the man. Like I said, he’s a good friend as well as a boss.”
Steve Wall said he and his father became interested in radio as another means of servicing their advertisers, leading to the creation of radio station WVHL-FM.
“My brother headed that up for a while, and then he left and moved to Florida, and (Dad) and I ran it then,” Steve Wall said.
He noted that an outstanding crowd attended his father’s celebration of life service held Sunday, Jan. 12, at Puckett Funeral Home.
In addition to family and friends, a good number of his “extended family” was there too.
On Monday, Steve Wall said, “I’d say 20% of the folks at the service yesterday were current or former employees.”
To see Bill Wall’s full obituary, click here.