What to do when the bus stops in front of your house

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 5, 2004

About four years ago, not long after arriving in Suffolk, I had a chance to go on a bus tour of Suffolk. I’m not certain, but I believe it was a City Council work session and we were touring all the industrial parks or something, it’s not important.

The bus was filled with our city government’s leaders – elected representatives and department heads.

Toward the end of the tour, out on Sleepy Hole Road, the bus came to a halt in the middle of the road. We had stopped in front of the home of Sam Callis.


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For those of you who do not know Mr. Callis, he’s an old, feeble, nearly deaf man who, at least until his health really started to turn south, would frequently appear before City Council to express an opinion about something our city was doing, usually in opposition.

Mr. Callis’ property was in some disrepair. The house sits back some distance from the road. He was in his front yard, appearing to be tending flowers. He looked pathetic.

Our tour director made some wisecrack about Mr. Callis’ home and the entire bus erupted in laughter – me included. It was the highlight of the trip and frankly the only thing I remember about it. It was a sophomoric, mean thing to do, a stunt more befitting a character in an Adam Sandler movie than the leaders of a community that wants to be seen as a &uot;player.&uot;

It disturbed me deeply at the time. My heart literally ached for Mr. Callis and since then I’ve gone out of my way to be polite and accommodating to him when he calls or comes to the office. I try to listen to what he has to say. And you know something? He’s a pretty shrewd guy. He understands the issues and almost always has a valid point to make.

Being new to the community, I wanted to fit in, so I went along with the joke. This is the first time I’ve mentioned or thought of this shameful display since it happened.

What brought it to mind was Thursday’s City Council Investiture when the &uot;bus&uot; stopped in front of my house.

Many of those same people who were present several years ago were present Thursday, all dressed to the nines with TV cameras trained on them, to witness the swearing in of our elected leaders and the selection of our new mayor and vice mayor.

The master of ceremonies was, I suppose, trying to crack a joke. I won’t tell the entire thing – you can catch it on the cable coverage and I didn’t really understand it anyway – but the punch line was basically that if you are a reader of the Suffolk News-Herald, you are a moron.

I’ve spent my entire professional career at small, community newspapers like the Suffolk News-Herald. Resources are typically meager; we have exactly as many people as it takes to get the newspaper out, no more, no less. There’s no fat.

As such, mistakes are sometimes made and they make it into print.

We are also provincial. We feel all news is important. However, what city council does is no more important than which kids make the honor roll at school and I guarantee you it’s not as important to the parents of those kids.

We run lots of what self-styled sophisticates refer to as &uot;chicken dinner news.&uot; This is literally news about chicken dinners, yock sales and barbecues. It’s pretty funny to some people, but it’s those chicken and yock dinners that raise the money that charitable organizations rely on to do the good works that they do in our community. It’s important news and we treat it that way.

With the aforementioned being the case, small newspapers like the News-Herald are pretty easy targets for criticism. And if there’s anything that two decades in community journalism has taught me, it’s patience and humility.

I wake up every day knowing that somebody is likely going to make fun of us for something. It would be easy to retaliate. After all, we do buy ink by the barrel. But it’s not really fair, particularly when the criticism is deserved, which it often is.

And when that criticism or occasional ridicule comes form a subscriber or advertiser, I gladly accept it and urge, if not demand, that others here do the same. We can learn from it. And what’s more, they are the people that pay our salaries. We owe it to them to listen and take their remarks seriously.

In fact, on some level, it’s flattering that someone cares enough about what we do to become so emotional and take time out of their busy day to call and stick it to us.

But it’s a different matter when that criticism comes from someone whose salary we pay.

My company took this newspaper when nobody else would. It was in a sorry state. We’ve invested millions in our product, our building and our employees. We saved a newspaper for this community and have created a viable company that will provide good jobs for Suffolk residents well into the future. Our circulation and readership has probably grown more over the past four years than any newspaper in Virginia. I’m proud of our employees, our readers and the work they’ve accomplished. They pour their hearts into their work. Not that that entitles us to any special treatment, it surprises me, however, that it doesn’t earn us at least

little courtesy from the people whose salaries we pay.

If our new mayor wants to do something to leave his mark on Suffolk, it should be to change the attitudes of those charged with carrying out his and his colleagues’ directives. They need to be taught to respect the people they serve and as Del. S. Chris Jones told the new council Thursday, to listen to them.

Instead of painting every critic as a crackpot and ridiculing him, or having him forcibly removed, how about just listening? You might learn something.

I can’t count the number of times just since I’ve been here that the city has tried to deprive employees or average citizens of their rights and then turned around and sued them when called on it. It’s sheer arrogance and it needs to stop.

And what better time to start than when a new mayor takes the helm?

Along with education, smart growth and quality of life, how about adding humility, respect and simple kindness to our city’s list of priorities.

I hope all of you &uot;morons&uot; who read this paper contact your City Council representative and demand change. If you don’t, when that bus stops in front of your house – and it will – you have no one to blame but yourself.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald. He can be reached at 934-9611, or at andy.Prutsok@suffolknewsherald.com.