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Another tragic loss for journalism and our region

A few days ago, I anticipated that the column I would write in this space for this week would be a light-hearted one, focusing on love.

I thought we could all use a laugh or two about how Valentine’s Day might be the perfect occasion to be isolated at home with our spouse or significant other. I had planned to look up some fun facts about the holiday or to dig up some comical stories about celebrations gone awry — but also perfectly.

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, however, I received heartbreaking news. As soon as I was able to confirm it, I knew that at least a portion of this space must be dedicated to sharing that news with all of you. You see, Eastern Ohio, we have lost another one of our own far too soon.

Casey Junkins, managing editor of the Pierre Capital Journal, was found deceased at his home in South Dakota. He was only 42.

Casey had been living in the Mount Rushmore State for less than a year. He was a true Buckeye, through and through.

Born April 13, 1978, Casey was raised in the local communities of Glencoe, Bellaire and St. Clairsville. He truly loved the Ohio Valley, and especially Belmont County. He was a St. Clairsville High School graduate and a huge Red Devils supporter.

Faithful readers will recognize Casey’s name from the pages of this newspaper. You see, Casey spent the better part of a decade working as a staff writer for The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register. We at The Times Leader often picked up pieces of Casey’s work from those sister publications. In fact, I was city editor for the Wheeling Newspapers when Casey came on board, and we sat within arm’s reach of each other for about seven years, working almost exclusively at night with a close-knit crew.

Casey cut his journalistic teeth on the Wheeling city beat. He was smart, curious, passionate and compassionate. But he also could be impatient and demanding when city leaders weren’t as cooperative as he thought they should be. I smoothed feathers that Casey ruffled more than once. To me, though, that simply meant he was doing his job — working to hold elected officials accountable to the people.

Casey really came into his own as a reporter when the natural gas and oil boom arrived in the region. Casey learned the industry inside and out. He visited well pads and studied statistics and delved into what chemicals made up the fracking solutions that companies were pumping into the ground.

Casey also reported many stories about people and their triumphs and tribulations. He was a sensitive soul, and he was always very concerned about disadvantaged children.

That probably stemmed from the difficult life that he led himself. You see, Casey was orphaned just after he turned 13. Each of his parents died of cancer — first his father, of skin cancer, and then a couple of years later his mother succumbed to breast cancer.

After that, Casey felt lost. Although relatives took him in, he ultimately spent some time in the foster care system. As an adult, he acknowledged that the pain of losing his parents made it hard for him to adjust to living with anyone else. But he also often told me how much he appreciated the aunts, uncles, cousins and foster families that helped him make it through his teen years.

After struggling a bit in high school, Casey found employment at a local restaurant and managed to put himself through college. He completed a bachelor’s degree at Ohio University in 2003 in political science and government. Casey then dabbled in substitute teaching before he found what I believe was his true calling as a journalist.

When Casey joined our newsroom, he impressed many people with his talent and ability. There was no subject that he couldn’t grasp. And he had a way of teasing the details out of a subject that made it easier for his readers to understand.

Casey was also quite a presence in the newsroom. He was a rather tall, large young man, and he had a bit of a folksy way about him that let all of us know he was truly one of us from this region.

He was often animated when speaking about something that caught his attention, and it was common to hear him exclaim “Whaaaat?!?” when he heard something surprising.

Casey also spent a few months working for The Times Leader, on loan from the Wheeling papers when we had a staffing shortage. While he was here, he managed to snag a first place award for the best explanatory reporting in the state. He also played a big role in a toy drive that collected more than 500 stuffed animals for use by local first responders to comfort children.

When Casey did not report for work Wednesday, which was completely out of character, his newspaper asked police to check on his welfare. They arrived too late to help him. According to a family member, Casey had died of a stroke.

I am proud to write about Casey here, in what he always considered his hometown newspaper. I also am proud to have played a role in helping him develop his outstanding career.

Most of all, though, I feel fortunate to have counted Casey as one of my friends. I will always miss him and I hope that, if he can see us now, we in the newsroom will keep making him proud.

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