During my first GA shift I made a friend. Her name was Doris Wiggins. She was 94, lived in Columbia her whole life and died on Wednesday, Jan. 24 2012 at Lenoir Woods Health Care Center.
GA (General Assignment) shifts are all about meeting new people. Us reporters on GA occupy the newsroom from 8 a.m. until circa 5 p.m. and (if we’re lucky) work on a story assigned by our ACE –– Assistant City Editor. Occasionally we’re dispatched to cover breaking news: fires, armed robberies and the like. We interview officials and bystanders on the scene… new people.
During my shift, though, four reporters were assigned life stories, myself included. A life story isn’t an obituary; quite the opposite. Instead of announcing a death it celebrates a life well lived. Life stories highlight the personality of the deceased and include memorable anecdotes that give you a feel for him /her. My favorite Doris story? She rode from her farm in Deer Park to Jefferson Junior High on horseback.
Of course, like obituaries, calling people to interview for life stories can be sticky. Doris had died on Wednesday and here I was calling around on Friday. I was apprehensive, to say the least.
I got lucky. The first person I called, Doris’ friend Pam, was gracious and obliging. She began haltingly but warmed to the subject. Doris was kind, professional, efficient, organized. She was a petite lady and dressed beautifully, nary a hair out of place. “She could look as good at 5 in the afternoon as she did at 8 in the morning,” Pam said.
I began to see Doris in my mind’s eye: click-clacking in prim pumps and a smart skirt suit down the hall of MU’s College of Agriculture, where she worked as a secretary to the Associate Dean.
What really made me fond of Doris, though, was finding out she was a dancer. The family obituary had mentioned this and I asked both Pam and Doris’ cousin David (whom I called next) to elaborate. They replied identically: “Oh she loved, loved to dance!” Literally the exact same quote. Eerie.
I heard about her trips in the 1940s and 50s to the Saturday Nighter’s club. I heard about how she liked the fast steps while her husbands (she married three times) preferred slow. I heard about Pam visiting Doris at Lenoir and, even then, noticing her feet tapping whenever music played.
I didn’t know how fond I’d grown of Doris until I stumbled upon her high school yearbook picture. She had been Doris Denham then. Seeing her face on the (virtual) page, full and young and immortalized, honestly brought me to tears. I felt a connection to her, to the life she’d lived, and to the two people who had shared their Doris with me.
I finished Doris’ story around 4 p.m., sat with Emilie for editing, and left the newsroom at 5:15. The story came online at 8 p.m. and I read over it, satisfied, feeling I’d done my new friend justice.