Fresh out of college, with my journalism degree and résumé in hand, I walked into the West Orange Times office 25 years ago this month. I was told to speak to Mary Anne Swickerath, the managing editor at the time and the woman with whom I would form a close friendship and ultimately share office space for two decades.
I had just graduated from the University of Georgia, Athens, and my goal was the same one I had set in the eighth grade — to write for the community newspaper I grew up reading.
I remember the first article with my byline; it was a story about Dr. Phillips High School having three valedictorians for the first time. Many more stories through the years would be about local schools and students: their successes, their fundraisers, their constructions and demolitions.
I wrote many articles on new businesses around West Orange County. I wrote about strangers and about people I’ve known for much of my life: neighbors, members of my church and former teachers.
I brushed elbows with the famous when I was the paper’s self-proclaimed entertainment editor in the mid-1990s. I interviewed people such as Leslie Nielsen and James Earl Jones. I photographed celebrities such as Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Arnold, Sylvester, Oprah and many soap stars.
Projects always have interested me, and one of the first was “Our Friends Overseas” during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. I asked residents to submit photos, information and mailing addresses for relatives who were in the military and stationed overseas.
In February 1998, a tornado tore through Winter Garden, wiping out buildings and homes in a swath from one end of the city to the other. My dad called me in the middle of the night to let me know what had happened. Because he was mayor, he was allowed access to some of the badly damaged areas. Because I’m a reporter, I had him pick me up so I could document the destruction with my camera.
The West Orange Times took more pictures and collected some from residents in the following weeks and months — images of damage, of recovery, of reconstruction; photos of people reaching out to help one another — and we compiled them all in a hardcover book to commemorate the storm and to remember the three residents who died.
A lot of my articles focus on West Orange County’s past, whether I’m writing about the city of Winter Garden’s 100th anniversary (in 2003) or the newspaper’s 100th anniversary (2005), historic homes, World War II veterans, family histories, church and school histories, forgotten cemeteries. I interviewed a survivor of the Holocaust.
One of the biggest changes to my job in the last 25 years is technology and the way in which the news is gathered. When I first came aboard, there were no fax machines, email or Google. Readers came to the office with their pictures and information or submitted them through snail mail. The office had a darkroom for processing film.
Putting the paper together each week was a hands-on process. After writing our stories on the computer and formatting them to the exact column width and font size, we printed them, cut out the words, ran the paper strips through a sticky waxing machine and rolled them onto large pages laid out on rows of paste-up boards. It took many hands to get the job done.
There has been tremendous growth in West Orange County, too. Since my first days on the job, we have welcomed two new high schools and multiple elementary and middle schools, widened our coverage area and changed ownership.
Tuesdays have always been a sacred day at this job — that’s the day we go to press. I remember 9/11 happened on a Tuesday. We were all torn between putting out the paper and watching the horror unfold on live TV. While I was hearing and seeing the news from the safety of Winter Garden, I felt connected to these journalists doing their job, just as I do.
Yes, West Orange County and New York City are 1,000 miles apart, but reporters, no matter what they’re covering, feel the same sense of responsibility to present accurate information.
It’s natural to have an emotional connection to your subjects. I have written obituaries, talked to children with cancer and to parents who lost their child to the disease. You can’t help but be affected.
I have written about retirements and deaths, about the highs and the lows people have experienced. I have photographed students and dancers and artists and business owners and parades and musicians and politicians and festivals and families and pets.
My occasional columns share facts about my life, about my kids. I have been able to participate in unique activities, such as transforming into a zombie for Halloween Horror Nights and chaperoning a World War II veteran during Honor Flight Central Florida’s trip to Washington, D.C.
What I have learned from all the interviews I’ve conducted is that everyone has a story to tell. I am grateful that so many people have trusted me to tell theirs.
In 25 years, I have worn many different hats, but one thing that never changes is the love I have for my hometown and the people in it. My goal has always been to help the people who need it, celebrate the people who deserve it and strive to write stories that entertain, inform and make a difference.