By Frances Stebbins
The Roanoke Times, for which my late husband Charlie and I were reporters for more than 40 years, is moving again to a new site though still in downtown Roanoke. The three-story structure at 201 Campbell Avenue Southwest is now occupied by offices of the city’s public school system.
The paper itself has changed so much in content, appearance and distribution that it is hardly recognizable from the morning in early February of 1953 when we, aged 30 for him and 24 for me, arrived to begin our new jobs. The late W.C. Stouffer, managing editor, had hired us from the smaller daily, “The Petersburg Progress-Index.”
He would be a general assignment reporter and I the compiler of “church news.”
A lot has changed since then. It’s been more than a decade since the paper had a reporter to keep up with churches. I worked full time from 1953 to 1956 when we started our family. Our first child, Julia, was born that summer on July 4.
In the three years I worked full time, I actually did three jobs. Although my primary beat was being the “church news” reporter, I also helped out on the switchboard. That was a telephone-answering device with multiple cords an operator plugged in when a light flashed indicating an incoming call. A woman sat at the board from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except when she could take an hour for lunch. That’s when I took over. The many changes in communication made switchboards obsolete decades ago.
Around 1955 television came to the Roanoke Valley big time. Schedules of programs on the major stations, then Channels 7 and 10 , as well as a listing of what was running on the radio stations were carried in the newspaper in midweek. For a time I spent the better part of a tedious day checking the listings against a master copy to catch changes.
My most interesting task was the one that called for reporting. On two Mondays each month during the school year, I walked a few blocks up Third Street Southwest to the First Baptist Church where the Roanoke Ministers Conference held a gathering with a speaker. The group in those days was made up of White, Protestant Men.
In the decades to come I would chronicle the group’s acceptance of Black clergymen, ordained women and non-Christian spiritual leaders including rabbis, and pastors of groups such as Unitarians. This was admirable for the principle of Inclusion, but as more decades passed, the group declined in membership and influence. Finally, around 2005 it ceased to meet.
For many of these years, I worked mainly from home as Charlie’s and my daughter and two sons grew up in a cliffside house in the Hollins area. This worked well, for Charlie brought me home submitted copy. I reworked and edited it by using the telephone, a manual typewriter, and, in time, I began developing my own stories mainly by calling pastors and other church professionals throughout the valley. This enabled me to be gone a minimal amount of time from home when the children were young.
When we arrived in 1953, the third-floor City Room, presided over by the chronically harassed Albert G. Smith as city editor, had no air-conditioning. On hot days, shirts stuck to backs, and the water cooler was much needed. Strangely, at the three newspapers where I worked around the mid-Twentieth Century renovations of the major writing area were in progress.
A major change for the Roanoke newspapers occurred in 1976 when heirs of the Fishburn family, owners of the papers since the late Nineteenth Century, sold them to Landmark Corporation based in Norfolk. My own job was upgraded, and I began working a regular part-time schedule in a new Features Department as such archaic marks as the Women’s Section gave way to jobs like female police reporters.
After a satisfying decade of expanded Religion writing, more changes –not good ones—came to both my husband and me . Ultimately, we were “let go” for good in 1996.
Finally, I want to register my disappointment at the loss of two features of the daily paper which I read regularly. They are removal of the Real Estate Transfer listings which have run in the Sunday edition (I liked to see if I could recognize the streets in our area with its four governments since I’ve spent my adult years here and witnessed the growth of the urban area), and I also will miss the column by Ray Cox on unearthing stories of the past. Charlie and I knew Ray’s parents; he and our daughter were born the same year. How time flies!
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