I arrived in St. John, Wash., on May 31 to start a six-week stretch as a reporter for The Community Current newspaper with a back injury that made walking nearly impossible and no idea as to what I had gotten into or what to expect.
It turned into the surprise of a lifetime.
But the trail that led me to “what I had gotten into” started at the 2007 SPJ convention in Washington, D.C. .
I was in the conference hotel lounge — no surprise there — and a woman came bounding up to me and said, “Everyone I talk to says I need to talk to you.”
Big surprise there, my SPJ colleagues would say.
Becky Dickerson identified herself as the founder, owner, publisher, editor and sole full-time employee of The Community Current newspaper in Washington state in a town she always describes as “magical.” We spent three hours talking about the small-town newspaper business — the joys, the trials and the tribulations, while her husband, Todd, a lifelong farmer, sat dutifully next to us drinking beer and smiling. He does both very well.
I recounted my days in Greenwood, Ind., where I joined two partners to launch a free distribution weekly in October 1986. She talked about her view of community newspapering and told what I found to be bizarre stories about turning down ads because she did not have room for them and highly unlikely stories about loyal readers who sent her more money than their mail subscriptions cost and who, upon learning Becky was struggling with health issues, sent her get-well cards with money in them. .
Since “bizarre” and “unlikely” often come into play when people talk about me and my ideas, well, Becky, Todd and I became fast friends.
We reconnected via the SPJ national conference in Las Vegas in 2010, where Becky bounded up to me in the hallway (she always bounds) during a session break and asked if I remembered her.
I did, and we picked up right where we left off in D.C., sans the lounge.
Near the end of our chat, I said, “How would you like some free labor next summer?”
She laughed, and we parted.
In March, I sent Becky an email to let her know that Western Kentucky University approved a $3,000 Research & Creative Activities Program grant for me to travel to St. John and work for the paper for six weeks.
Now the surprise fell upon Becky, who could not fathom the prospect of having a full-time reporter and photographer at her disposal for six weeks to do whatever she chose.
“What are you willing to do?” she asked, mistakenly having arrived in her mind that I was important or that certain things were beneath me. .
My response was the same given to every editor who took me on for a summer gig while I broke from teaching, something I have done 15 summers during the 17 years I have taught full time: “Give me the stories that you cannot do, do not have the time to do or would not do.” .
She did. .
And so along with becoming acquainted with and taken in by almost everyone in St. John, population 523-ish, I covered: the annual fundraiser tournament for the town-owned golf course; the national powerboat races held in a flooded alfalfa field known as Webb’s Slough; the high school graduation attended by everyone in town, not just the family of the grads; the town’s water line and storm sewer upgrade; plans for a traveling photo exhibit from the Smithsonian headed to St. John; a school board meeting; a town visit from state lawmakers; and the potential threat to the regions wheat crop from a fungus called “rust.”
I even took a daylong trip originating in Lewiston, Idaho, down the Snake River into Hell’s Canyon for a story on a longtime St. John farmer who quit turning dirt to become a river guide and outfitter.
Downtime included exploring St. John and the “Palouse” wheat-growing region, hanging out with the Dickerson clan, talking to Todd about farming and the town history or sitting in the fully glass-enclosed sunroom at the “house on the hill” — the name the locals gave to the place Todd’s late father built and where I lived for six weeks — trying to figure out a way I could stay in St. John pretty much forever.
But my time in St. John provided much more than a summer getaway.
It allowed me the chance to keep writing, shooting and editing, something I love as much as teaching, and something that makes me a better teacher for doing it each summer.
And it affirmed my belief in the value of community newspapers that focus singularly on their community — the good news and the bad — and that have a bond with the readers served. The Community Current is among many of those, but its signatures paint a picture of common characteristics that make it easier to understand why these papers survive and even thrive while the death knell for “print” rings out.
By the time I left St. John the first week in July, the spring “white wheat” that grew in wide open fields as far as I could see in any direction reached a height that showed me what Becky told me about the first time we met: “A sea of green waves rolling back and forth” she said about the combination of wheat and wind that enveloped St. John until August harvest days.
A few days after I arrived in St. John, Becky suggested that I see the town doctor about my bum back and the agonizing muscle spasms that came with it. I had tried remedies ranging from a muscle-stimulating device to Kentucky bourbon with no relief, although I always believed I felt better after the bourbon.
After some consultation and a thorough examination, Dr. Tony Lundberg put a move on my right leg that the casual observer would have equated to a professional wrestling submission maneuver.
I left St. John healed — in more ways than I could have imagined. t