Paving the way

Published 10:05 pm Saturday, May 17, 2014

There’s a reason the Suffolk News-Herald has a policy precluding birthday stories about people who are younger than 100. With life expectancy in America near its all-time high and a quickly expanding population of senior citizens, the number of 90-year-olds who can remember and communicate about the old days is constantly on the rise.

Interviewing all of them who live in Suffolk could turn into a full-time job, and their stories would consume more space than we have available to us in the newspaper. Therefore, we have a strict rule that limits such stories to people who are turning 100 or older — and we have had some wonderful articles of the city’s centenarians in recent years.

But we found a reason to break our own rule on Friday, during a visit to the newspaper’s office by 90-year-old Rhomie L. Heck Jr. Mr. Heck’s family scheduled the visit weeks in advance as the start of a sort of birthday walk down memory lane for him.

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For Mr. Heck, a long and illustrious career started — as it did for many people in Suffolk — with a bag of newspapers on his shoulder. Way back in 1938, when he was 14, he delivered the Suffolk News-Herald seven afternoons a week. It wasn’t his choice, he recalled during his visit on Friday — it was his father’s. “In our family, you worked as a kid,” he said.

He delivered about 60 newspapers every day to neighborhoods including Saratoga, Jericho, Hollywood and up and down Main Street. The job lasted for about four years, until 1942, when he handed the route over to his brother and took a job delivering groceries.

Mr. Heck’s delivery career was interrupted by the draft — he still recalls being called to deliver a special edition of the News-Herald after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When he returned home after the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree in education and then began a 15-year career as an inspector at Langley Air Force Base, followed by more than three decades working at Hampton University and Thomas Nelson Community College.

We must admit to feeling a bit of pride in the knowledge that Mr. Heck’s story includes an important foundation laid at the Suffolk News-Herald, and that sense of pride contributed to our decision to break the 100th-birthday rule.

But we recognize and appreciate that the Suffolk News-Herald would not be the paper we know today without the hard work of hundreds — if not thousands — of people like young Rhomie Heck, who at the age of 14 ran a little business that was vital to this newspaper and to the community he served.