(I’m proud to bring you a guest column from my friend Steve Beverly, an outstanding broadcaster, writer and professor at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. This is excerpted from his weekly newspaper column.)
Often, in the days leading to Christmas, television newscasts are filled with crowds making final purchases, holiday travel, and charitable community efforts. On December 22, 1977, in Columbus, Ga., what started as a routine story became a game changer for me.
Shortly after our WTVM evening newscast ended, I was preparing to head out for dinner. Then I heard a fire was in progress at a home near the station. I headed out with a young news intern from Auburn University for what would surely be our top story on the late news.
When we arrived, the intern grabbed the camera and began shooting. The firefighters were unsuccessful in saving the house. My first question for the fire captain was whether anyone was inside. Thankfully, no one was. The homeowners were away. It was three days before Christmas and they would find a gutted home when they returned.
After about 20 minutes, the intern and I were about to return to the newsroom. A station wagon approached the scene, and a father, mother and three small children emerged. They surveyed the rubble of what was left of their home. Afterward, I asked the father if he would do a brief interview. He kindly agreed to talk.
He said. “I believe God will get us through this and take care of us. But right now, I’m thinking about our three boys. All of their Christmas presents were in the house and they’re gone.” The home was a modest one. I learned the father worked at a textile mill. He toiled hard at the blue collar job to make ends meet for his family.
My intern and I had to dash back to get the story on the 11 o’clock news. As we were about to drive away, my intern said, “Hold on a second.” I thought he had forgotten a piece of equipment. “I’ve got to do something,” he said. Interns in television newsrooms are unpaid. Their compensation is college credit for their internships. I knew this young man was not rolling in money.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. About 30 seconds later, he returned. We drove away. Curious, I asked, “What did you have to go back for?” He said, “I couldn’t leave without donating something for those kids’ Christmas. I left a twenty-dollar bill on the front seat of his car. I knew he wouldn’t take it if I offered it to him face to face.”
Immediately, I had an empty feeling. I had been raised in a family where helping others was important. But I was so focused on doing the story, I forgot one of my most important life lessons. I felt like a failure in a variety of ways.
The fire was our big story on the late news. During the first commercial break, my producer entered the studio. He said, “Steve, when the news is over, call the captain of The Salvation Army. He wants to talk to you.” At 11:32, I made that call. The captain and his wife were on the phone. “Can you connect us with the family?” the captain’s wife asked. “We can help them with temporary housing, and we want to make sure those children have a full Christmas.”
As promised, a short-term furnished home was provided for the family. The day after Christmas, we visited the family. Thanks to The Salvation Army, the three boys all awoke on Christmas morning to find bicycles under their tree. Both parents were grateful beyond words. However, the father left me with a closing thought.
“Everybody has been wonderful to us,” he said. “And you know, when I went back to my car that night, someone had left a twenty-dollar bill on the front seat of my car. I wonder who did that?” He never learned the identity of his benefactor. My young intern didn’t do his good deed for the recognition.
Honestly, at that time in his life, he did not have much money to spare, but it was an unforgettable act of kindness. You may be wondering, whatever became of that young man. I can tell you that twenty years later, he became executive vice president of CNN International. Today, he continues as a highly- respected news executive in Atlanta. His name is Eric Ludgood. On a December night 37 years ago, Eric taught me a lesson I never forgot. If you are to become a good person as well as a good journalist, you need to have a soul, as well as a nose for a news story.
(Used with permission of Steve Beverly)