Watching a friend move on to next phase

My friend retired this weekend.

I call her my friend, but she’s been much more than that. I’m referring to Heather Ziegler, outgoing Life editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register.

I don’t remember precisely when I met Heather, but it was soon after I was hired as a reporter on the Ohio staff at the Wheeling Newspapers. At that time, she was a city beat reporter for the News-Register, and the Ohio Bureau was without a bureau chief. A few other reporters started to show me the ropes and, within a couple of weeks, Heather had been promoted and became my new boss.

As Ohio Bureau chief, Heather had a lot to teach me. She had started working at the newspapers nearly 20 years earlier and already had filled the roles of obituary writer, librarian and reporter/photographer. But Heather was a Wheeling resident through and through, so I also had some knowledge about Eastern Ohio to share with her. Sure, she shopped at the Ohio Valley Mall and knew the basics about where things were in Belmont, Harrison, Jefferson and Monroe counties, but I was born and raised here, so I knew a lot about the people and places of the area that she wanted to learn.

As Heather helped mold me as a reporter, I helped keep her abreast of what was happening on this side of the Ohio River. My daily routine went something like this:

Leave the house around 8 a.m. and go directly to the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office. Check the incident reports from overnight and then check the jail log. If someone had been arrested for a major crime anywhere in the county, their name, charge and arresting agency would be listed on that log. I would then go to the pay phone on the wall, dial the 800 number for the office and type in Heather’s extension.

She and I would then map out the rest of my plan for the day. If I had discovered a murder arrest or something else that was big news, we would work together over the phone so that she could type up a story for the afternoon paper. Then, I would be on my way to my next stop, making the rounds of all the police headquarters in the county to collect reports. After those stops were complete, I would head to Martins Ferry or St. Clairsville or Barnesville to dig up some stories to write that afternoon. I was usually in the office composing those pieces by around lunchtime, always with Heather there ready to give me good advice.

What did I learn from Heather Ziegler? I don’t believe I could possibly list everything that she has taught me, but those lessons stay with me each day and often are an automatic part of what I do.

Heather taught me AP style. (I already had a good grasp of spelling and grammar and must credit my late mother, Grace, and my Union Local English teachers such as Betty Tucker and Donna Griffin for that.) But AP style is the way we write about the news. I learned much of what I know about that from Heather.

She also taught me to write a good opening line. She explained that you should start a news story with a sentence that is concise, to the point and written to grab people’s attention.

Heather taught me that you can’t sit at your desk in the newsroom and wait for the news to come to you. Instead, you must go out into the community, look around at what is happening and talk to people. You can’t just cover meetings; you must get acquainted with the officials who hold those meetings and with the constituents they serve. She also demonstrated that once you build those relationships, sometimes the news will come to you. People who now know they can trust you to get it right and to care about their stories will let you know when news is happening.

Another lesson I learned from Heather is that a good community journalist must become really embedded in that community. To be a good smalltown reporter, you have to give up occasional Saturday or Sunday afternoons to attend events, visit attractions and sometimes even volunteer your time for a good cause.

To gain the trust of the readers you serve, you have to display qualities such as curiosity and compassion, honesty and integrity, tenacity and determination. You need to be approachable. You can’t be afraid to ask tough questions, even of people who might want to consider you their friend. You must hold everyone you cover to the same high standard. You have to be fair and balanced and give everyone involved in whatever issue you are writing about a chance to be heard and represented in your reporting.

As time went on, our roles in the newsroom changed. First, I replaced her briefly as Ohio Bureau chief as she tried her hand at working on opinion pages. Then I moved on to the post of Marshall County Bureau chief working out of our Moundsville office. Later, I returned to Wheeling, where I became the city editor working at night to produce the morning edition of The Intelligencer while Heather served as the associate city editor who worked day shift and put out the afternoon News-Register.

That arrangement lasted for nearly a decade, with Heather and I working hand-in-hand. Together, we taught new reporters how to do their jobs and supported more seasoned reporters as they explored new things or maybe needed lifted out of an occasional rut. We planned daily editions, weekend newspapers and all sorts of special sections and supplements together. Often, we each contributed our own reporting to those special projects, and we were always there to proofread each other’s work and make suggestions to one another.

We also had lots of fun along the way. Our Ohio Bureau lunch outings were always an adventure, sometimes taking us to Gulla’s in Bellaire or the Alpha or Greco’s in Wheeling. The staffers who were involved — Joselyn King, Michelle Gockstetter Rejonis, Sally Ezell, John Wickline, Gabe Wells and occasional others — enjoyed each other’s company and often roared with laughter while out and about together.

Everyone also seemed to perceive Heather as their newsroom Mom, myself included. A truly dedicated and loving mother and grandmother at home, Heather also has had plenty of love to share with all of her newspaper colleagues. As far as I can recall, she never forgot to make cupcakes for someone’s birthday or to slip little gifts onto our desks at Christmastime. And the potluck dinners she organized on Election Night, when we knew we all would be working quite late, were delightful.

Heather is also the type of person who is always there for others during tough times as well. Probably more times than I would like to admit, she has been my sounding board when I’ve been frustrated. When my dad was ill and when both of my parents passed away, she offered her shoulder to cry on and her unending support covering my duties at work.

Since I have been managing editor at The Times Leader, I have continued to work and talk and laugh with Heather, even though our roles have changed yet again. She frequently has great news tips and story ideas despite her focus on the Life section, and I know she will continue to share those with me during her retirement. I am happy to report that Heather plans to continue her weekly column in the Sunday News-Register while stepping back from full-time employment. Her columns are extraordinary, and anyone who reads them regularly will benefit from the experience.

I am writing this column just after talking with Heather on the phone, and I look forward to our future conversations. Although this was her last official day on the job, I know we will not be cutting ties with one another. I know that I can still reach out to her at any time to seek advice or comfort from a longtime colleague, mentor and friend.

Enjoy your retirement, Heather, and try to resist the urge to chase the next fire truck you see.


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