Thirty-seven years ago this week, I was selling house paint at Twin Fair, a locally owned big box retail store on Elmwood Avenue not far from my alma mater, Buffalo State College.
Then, just before Labor Day, I got a job in the community journalism field at Bee Group Newspapers.
I was hired primarily as a reporter, but the fact I had my own camera equipment and access to a darkroom made me king of the hill. Jim Schrader, the crusty managing editor of The Bee, saw some potential in me.
Looking back, it was a bold step for both of us. My writing experience had been gained primarily through the campus newspaper and some sports publications. From my earliest forays into journalism until today, I have never been able to separate the concepts of writing a story from taking the photographs that illustrate it. I love that.
I worked for peanuts just to get my work in print. I gleefully accepted front-row tickets in exchange for photos of Rochester Americans games. Clearly, I was ready for the big time.
One of my first regular assignments as a full-time journalist was to pick a controversial topic of local interest and call several residents selected at random from a street directory. It was dubbed “Corner Quotes” and was often like pulling teeth.
Many young reporters are handed the responsibility of writing death notices and obituaries. That was part of my job, and I still have some of the first thank you notes that families sent me afterward. Years later I wrote the obit for a man with developmental disabilities who traversed Main Street in Williamsville each day, greeting everyone with a booming voice. Everyone knew him, but actually, no one knew him.
My headline read, “Douglas Zimmerman dies, best known man in Williamsville.” His mother told me she framed the obit and hung it in the living room.
There were so many recreation-level sports stories coming in the front door that I was given the task of retyping these outside submissions (on paper) in a concise format and passing them along to our typesetters, who typed them into some archaic computer system. The work was tedious, but one of the men who did double duty as an assistant coach and a dad remains my friend to this day. He just called me last week to get a back copy of the paper in which one of his grandchildren was mentioned prominently.
Just as writing and photography seemed inseparable to me, so have being a community journalist and a volunteer firefighter. There’s quite a rush to working at a building fire, finding a second to click off some photos, and then writing about the incident for the local newspaper. Who gets to do that?
I have met many well-known men and women during the past 37 years, thanks to my career choice. The list includes Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Dorothy Hamill and Cal Ripken Jr. and Ralph Wilson and O.J. Simpson.
But the people I remember most are the everyday citizens of Western New York who had a story to tell and the willingness to share a part of themselves with me – and the world. Thanks.