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Newspaper staff reunion sparks discussion of ‘stories behind the stories’

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Attendees at a recent reunion of former and current staff of The Erwin Record look over some old headlines. Pictured from left, Mark Stevens, Donna Rea, Larry Rea, Betty Davis, Keith Whitson, Ray Knapp, Brenda Sparks, Rebekah Harris and Dede Norungolo.

By Bryan Stevens

Sometimes, it’s the story behind the story that lingers longer in memory. A lot of these types of stories got shared this past Saturday when former and current employees of The Erwin Record gathered in the newspaper’s offices on Gay Street for an impromptu but long-discussed reunion.

The event saw a lot of newspaper history gathered under one roof. Once again, it was some of those stories behind the stories that generated the most discussion as writers, advertising representatives, photographers, editors, publishers and other former employees looked through bound copies of former editions of the newspaper to help jog memories.

Two former publishers, Mark Stevens and Keith Whitson, along with two directors of advertising – Betty Davis and Donna Rea – attended the event on Saturday, June 12. Longtime columnist Ray Knapp, and photographer and circulation director Brenda Sparks, came to the event, as well. Other former staffers in attendance included Robert Sorrell, David Thometz and Dustin Street.

Several editors — Dede Norungolo, Anthony Piercy, Rebekah Harris and myself – were also present. 

I’m the current managing editor of The Erwin Record, a job I never expected to hold until a surprise call from Publisher Lisa Whaley earlier this year. On Saturday, I also served as de facto host for the reunion. Fortunately, the event was so laidback and casual nothing formal was really required on my part other than to lock the doors after the event. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Anthony Piercy signs the board to mark his attendance at the reunion.

While I have worked at several different newspapers since the early 1990s, I can honestly say that my different times at The Erwin Record have been among my most interesting years. Of course, there’s an ironic old saying that goes sort of like “may you live in interesting times.” Anyone who has any connection with newspapers knows that the newspaper industry has undergone several transformations in the past few decades. Like everyone else, we are living in some interesting times.

I got into the newspaper industry just as computers were coming into newsrooms, but I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the effects of technology, the Internet, social media and many other influences and impacts on newspapers. The weekly community newspaper still has a lot of life, which means a lot of those stories behind the stories will continue for many years to come. I spotlighted a great many titles affiliated with just as many names, but anyone with an inkling of how a weekly newspaper works behind the scenes knows that titles don’t adequately cover job descriptions. Essentially, weekly newspaper employees are, by necessity, jacks of all trades and inherent multi-taskers. 

During my years with The Erwin Record I’ve written a long-running column on birds and birding, taken a great many photographs documenting moments great and small, covered meetings of the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen and Unicoi County School Board and, for more than a year back in the mid-2000s, I made late-night and early morning deliveries of copies of the weekly newspaper to stores, coin boxes and the Erwin Post Office.

In fact, when challenged to produce some of my most memorable moments, I pointed to some of the happenings as David Thometz and I made the weekly paper route. We usually picked up the papers from the printer in Elizabethton around 10 p.m.  We’d hit all the stores that stayed open late at night and then filled the coin boxes. At that time, The Erwin Record was distributed in a couple of coin boxes at locations in Johnson City, as well as multiple coin boxes in Erwin and Unicoi. On a good night, we finished deliveries by around 2 a.m., which meant we could get a few hours of sleep before heading out around 8 a.m. the next morning to get the newspapers to all the stores and businesses not open late at night. We usually finished that part of the route around 11 a.m. or noon.

Obviously, much of the route took place after dark. You can meet a lot of characters late at night at convenience stores. As a nature enthusiast, I can also report that you run into some strange insects after dark, including fearsome-looking but harmless beetles, giant moths and scorpion flies, an insect that looks quite wicked but is a harmless vegetarian that literally wouldn’t harm a fly.  Many of these encounters with nocturnal insects got documented in photographs, several of which got published in The Erwin Record.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keith Whitson, Betty Davis, Donna Rea and Brenda Sparks pose for a photograph taken by Larry Rea.

Speaking of characters, almost everyone at the reunion shared tales about some of the memorable people they got to meet thanks to their work with The Erwin Record. A lot of laughter was shared as someone recalled taking part in a fruitless stakeout for a story. “We drove around and around and around, and they never came out,” was the gist of that story, as I recall.

Both Donna Rea and Keith Whitson worked for more than 30 years at The Erwin Record. I believe that Keith started right out of high school. I’ve been involved with newspapers for almost 30 years myself, but not all that time was spent at the same publication. In total, the attendees at the reunion represented 250 years of service in the newspaper industry.

Two attendees – Betty Davis and Dede Norungolo – had ties with the Girls Scouts before they landed for a spell at The Erwin Record. The “Girl Scout connection” also became one of those “stories behind the stories” during chats on Saturday afternoon. 

Attendees traveled from South Carolina, North Carolina and throughout Tennessee to make it to the gathering. We missed seeing a few people, but there is already talk of having another reunion event in the future. 

I couldn’t help but notice that many of the people discussed what they have been doing since leaving The Erwin Record. I, on the other hand, made the decision to accept the managing editor’s position back in February. 

Yes, I am back, again, at Unicoi County’s newspaper, but I think I’m right where I want to be. Since returning, I’ve had a blast. Deadlines are stressful, newspaper employees still meet a lot of characters, but it’s worth it to bring stories that matter to readers. The reunion on Saturday simply reinforced my confidence in my decision to return. Both former and current Erwin Recorders know that community newspapers that beat along with the community’s heart will endure.

The Erwin Record’s been around since 1928. That’s more than 90 years of telling the stories of the residents of Unicoi County. There are countless stories behind the stories for every article that ever makes it into print. I see no reason for The Erwin Record not to endure for another 90 years and beyond. 

Photo by Dalena Matthews • From left, Robert Sorrell, Mark Stevens, Keith Whitson, Rebekah Harris, Ray Knapp, Donna Rea, Dustin Street, Dede Norugolo, Betty Davis, Brenda Sparks, Bryan Stevens and Anthony Piercy.