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Most men would have told a bothersome 14-year-old boy to get lost when that kid started hanging around his office and begging for a job.
Pete Hallman was not most men.
The Editor of The Floyd Press, a broadsheet weekly published in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia, took an interest in the bothersome kid with a beat-up twin-reflex camera and a burning desire to become a newspaperman.
“You’ve got to really want it to make it in this business,” he said. “This business is for people who can’t possibly do anything else.”
So he let the kid hang around and work in the ramshackle two-story building that housed the newspaper on South Locust Street in Floyd. When the kid tried to write a story, he would gruffly explain what did and didn’t work, how it could be tweaked to become worthy of publication in his newspaper.
“Just because this is a hick newspaper doesn’t mean we publish crap,” he said. “Make it worth someone’s time to read. If you’re going to say it, say it right.”
Hallman printed The Floyd Press every Wednesday night on a flatbed press in the basement of the building on Locust Street, producing the six-to-eight pages of community news, legal notices, editorials and ads that make up a small weekly for a rural mountain county.
On other days of the week, the same press cranked out legal forms, business cards and other business print jobs for the community. Job printing kept most weekly newspapers out of the poorhouse. The Press was no exception.
“It’s a profession but it’s also a business,” he said. “Don’t forget that.”
Hallman’s mother often complained to anyone who would listen that her son too often forgot the Press was a business but he shrugged off her comments and did things his way.
“We provide a window into the county,” he told the kid. “It’s our job to make sure the window is clean and provides a clear view of what happens around here.”
Hallman taught the kid to operate the clunky old Linotype machine that produced hot metal type, how to use leading to make a six-inch column of type fit into a six-and-a-half inch hole in the page, how to set headlines using the type from drawers in a rickety wooden cabinet in the back of the composing room.
On many Wednesday nights, the kid and Hallman’s son, Randy, would sort papers into mail bags and take them to the post offices in Floyd, Willis and Check so they could be delivered on Thursday.
As Editor of the local paper, Hallman held strong opinions on how local government did its job and wasn’t afraid to call someone an idiot.
“Call it as you see it,” he told the kid. “Don’t play favorites. If you’re going to say it, say it right.”
Hallman’s wife, Ruth, taught English and journalism at Floyd County High School. She also took an interest in the rough-edged kid, giving him a spot on the school newspaper and letting him use his rudimentary photographic skills as school photographer.
Sometimes, the teachings of the Hallmans clashed. Pete told the kid to write like people talk. Ruth taught English and tried to drill the proper use of language into the kid’s stubborn head.
The Hallmans were more than mentor and teacher. They became an extended family for the kid, welcoming him into their home, treating him like one of their own. Yet they weren’t always sure what to make of their adopted prodigy.
“I’ve been proud of you, exasperated by you, grateful to you, mad at you, amused by you, confused by you,” Ruth Hallman wrote in the kid’s high school annual. “You have to learn – the hard way – to see all sides of a problem, but you are learning.”
When the kid wanted to learn more, Pete Hallman called Fred Leoffler, State Editor of The Roanoke Times.
“Got a kid up here with more ambition than brains,” he said, “but he still might make a good correspondent for you.”
Leoffler agreed and the kid started filing reports from the county for the daily newspaper in Roanoke. Later, when the kid applied for a fulltime reporting job with the paper, Pete Hallman wrote a recommendation.
“God knows I’ve done all that I can do,” he said in typical Pete Hallman style, “Maybe you can turn him into a newspaperman.”
The kid left Floyd County in 1965 to pursue his dream of becoming a newspaperman. The Hallmans left shortly afterwards, selling the paper, and moving to Xenia, Ohio. Randy went on to work for The Richmond Times-Dispatch and gained fame as an auto racing writer covering NASCAR. The Press went through several owners over the years and now belongs to the giant Media General newspaper chain (which also owns the Richmond Times Dispatch).
The paper moved out of the old digs on Locust Street long ago. A few years later, bits and pieces of that building went on sale. An old type tray from that building now hangs on the wall of the kid’s den, a reminder of his first, real, newspaper job and the man who coaxed, bullied and encouraged a young man who wanted to write and take pictures.
Pete Hallman, 77, died Thanksgiving day. An email from Randy brought the sad news.
“All three of us kids were with him the weekend before,” Randy wrote, “so we got to say to each other the things that needed to be said.”
On Saturday, the kid will drive back into the mountains, to a church in Floyd, Virginia, to attend a memorial service for Pete Hallman.
He will try to say the things that need to be said.
And he will pray he says it right.
Because this time, Pete Hallman will not be able to tell him if he says it wrong.