“Punch it over the goal line”

When I was at the N&O, the school system was my beat. It was a full, time-consuming beat because it was one of the favorites by the editor, Claude Sitton. He routinely passed down story ideas for me to pursue.

That was a pain in the ass. It felt as if I was constantly under a microscope, and now that I’ve been an editor, I realize I was. But so was everyone else.

It had two benefits.

  • My stories made the front page pretty often.
  • I got to work with Pat Stith.

Stith was an investigative reporter – the state’s best, I think (although I put Stan Swofford in Greensboro as 1A).

Stith and I worked together on the investigation of a tip that the Wake County schools superintendent was hiring a consulting firm to do work for the school system, at the same time as the consulting firm was hiring the superintendent as a consultant. It appeared as if there was a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours situation going on.

But I’m not writing about that today. I thought I was, but last Saturday, Stith reminded me that the story we were working on was about a state study on what is the most important factor in determining how well students score on achievement tests. But for the purposes of this blog post, that doesn’t matter, except to note that Pat’s memory is better than mine.

Anyway, it was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1980. Pat and I were writing that story, which was to be published two days later on Thanksgiving Friday. We had just gotten the study that day, but we had to finish because Pat was driving to Charlotte to Thursday morning to celebrate Thanksgiving. And because we were a damn newspaper; we put stories in the paper.

We started reporting and writing Wednesday afternoon. The report was controversial and we had a lot of people to find and interview on what was essentially a holiday. We reported and wrote. And we backed up and rewrote. We inserted and we deleted. He listened to me more than I had any right to expect.

Before I noticed, the reporters had all gone. We worked past 11. Past midnight. The copy editors went home. Eventually, the newsroom was empty except for me and Stith.

At about 2 a.m. I heard the elevator door open and someone walking down the hall. What the hell? I thought. Then my girlfriend, who was also an N&O reporter, came into the newsroom, looking for me. I had called her early in the evening to say I’d be late. But I didn’t know I would be this late.

She laughed at us.

I asked Susan if she remembered this, and she didn’t. But Stith filled in the detail: “Susan drove to the office to make sure you were OK, instead of calling you on the telephone, because the switchboard had shut down, and she could not get through to you.”

Telephone switchboard — Yes, the N&O had a switchboard operator in those days.

Anyway, I was fortunate; she loved Stith more than me so I came under a certain cone of protection.

Our story was about finished, and we decided to leave it and go home. Then Pat said a sentence to me that I’ll always be proud of: “The ball’s on the 20; now punch it over the goal line.”

I went back in later that morning to finish the story.