When I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1997, all the heavy hitters of journalism, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal Constitution, were making me offers hoping to secure a rising, young conservative reporter.
Haha. Just kidding.
“Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” was the usual answer when they saw my clips included paeans to Ronald Reagan.
So it was an answer to prayer when The Hartwell Sun, the newspaper in my mother’s hometown, offered me $8.25 per hour to cover not only city council, county commissioners, Hart County High Bulldog sports and cops, but also the guy who brought the giant fish he caught to the office in the back of his pickup truck. This is before social media turned everyone into their own media agent.
On my meager salary I rented a 1-bedroom shack on Rice Mill Road out by Lake Hartwell, almost in South Carolina. Perched on cinder blocks under a pecan grove, it had one of those gas heaters that left black soot on all the walls in the winter. When you took your pictures off the wall you could tell where they had been. My friends called it the Unabomber shack.
It was a sweet, simple time of life. My future wife and I took long walks on that road. That’s where we first encountered a herd of Great Pyrennees dogs at a nearby farm. Two decades later we started collecting the polar bears. But I digress.
My boss at my first full-time job was Wassie Vickery. She had also been my mother’s first full-time boss some 30 years prior. She was a legend in Hartwell, a veritable workhorse who plowed out story after story after story and then wrote a personal column every week as well.
A brash lad of 23, it would’ve been easy for me to chafe under the leadership of the grandmotherly Wassie. But she quickly won me over. Even in her 70s, she outworked everyone in the office.
“You finally decide to show up?” she’d tease stragglers who entered the newsroom at 9 a.m. OK it was me.
After four decades in this business, you’d think she would’ve grown cynical. And yes, she had developed a quick wit and could spot a phony coming from as far as Elberton. She could give an editor’s strong, motherly dressing down to those who deserved it, usually politicians. But she still got excited when someone in the community accomplished something, anything. And she would turn it into a great story.
She stumbled into her 44-year career at The Sun in 1959 as a clerk who sold office supplies, typed notices and proofed articles before publication. She soon took on writing after picking her daughter up from school one day and crafting a feature story about a janitor at Hartwell Elementary.
Wassie’s mantra was that everyone had a story. And by being the first to write those stories, she felt she was ensuring The Sun would remain the only newspaper in town. She succeeded.
Despite being at The Sun for four decades, Wassie wound up working for her daughter in law, publisher Peggy Vickery. But Wassie never resented it. She didn’t want to fool with the business side. She was a writer and editor.
Her only flaw was that she and her husband, Maurice, the retired Hartwell fire chief, were big Clemson Tiger fans. Death Valley was perched just across Lake Hartwell on the Carolina side.
When she wasn’t writing and editing, Vickery was busy building the library at Hartwell First Baptist Church, now known as “Wassie’s Library.” Of all Wassie’s gifts, the one that meant the most to me was the gift of encouragement. I would litter her desk with my copy to proofread.
“Will,” she would say with emotion, walking toward me with a big smile. “This is so, so good!”
To an insecure 20-something, her words were a soothing balm. She helped propel me to the career I have today.
Sadly, my mom texted me on Monday to tell me the sad news. Wassie had died at the age of 91. The world has lost a fountain of kindness and support. In these angry times of division, maybe more of us could take up her baton.