Stories from the Heartland
by Peggy Bair
Hello, my dear friends and readers!
Sometimes, people ask me for my background – what makes me think I have the right or audacity to make stories.
I get it – you want to know who is calling you – who is interviewing you – if you’re going to be treated right at a time when the word “journalist” has gotten stained with the graffiti of those bad words: the media.
To clarify, the word “media” is the plural of the word “medium.” I’m not going to get into a semantics lesson but a medium might be a newspaper while “media” may refer to the body of communicating entities overall. As you already know, there a lots of different types of communication: radio, newspapers, magazines, television, documentaries.
I’m proud to have been born and raised in this beautiful area of the Midwest, home of the champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Kansas City Royals. I have lived here long enough to see two championships of both teams. What a thrill!
My birth was in Kansas City, MO, I was raised in Liberty, MO so dad could be close to where he worked at the Claycomo Ford plant, then Gladstone, MO where we had graduated to the suburbs. My “folks” are from Richmond and Orrick and the Kansas City Northeast side. We are, for the most part, Scotch-Irish but my great grandmother was Jewish.
I have an English degree from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in Creative Writing and Journalism. I also have second bachelor degree coursework in Nutrition Communications from Arizona State University. So, some of my interests include food, nutrition, food sources and healthy nutrition and world foods along with how we view food as an aspect of our cultures. Writing and photography always came naturally to me, though.
I have been married to the most awesome husband a gal could ever have: Terry Bair. This year, God willing, we will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary in September. We have lived in Leavenworth, KS for 30 years, the same house for 26 years. Terry is a graduate of Leavenworth High School and I am a graduate of North Kansas City High School. Terry is retired military 35th Division National Guard and former Leavenworth Police Officer. We have four rascally little terriers that enjoy their life on our quiet little acre atop Pilot Knob.
I landed my first photography course at North Kansas City High School where I spent most of any of my free time during all of those three years, photographing on every format available from 4X5 studio cameras to 2 1/4 square cameras to 35mm film. My basement bedroom doubled as a darkroom. It wasn’t unheard of for me to be up much of the night making fiber-based prints. I had job during school to pay for the habit which involved supplying myself with film, paper and chemicals. What I was doing at the time was a bit unusual for a girl. Photography was largely a male endeavor and occupation still.
Photographically, I’ve received training and coursework from instructors as far ranging as instructors from The Kansas City Art Institute to seminars with Australia’s David Williams and Yervant. I have photographed throughout the Midwest and Colorado as well as in Europe. I have also been a member of the National Press Photographer’s Association and attendee of esteemed storytelling boot camp: The Missouri Photo Workshop. In other words, I’ve had my work bashed and shredded by some of the greatest photographers in the world.
I still have the unrelenting handwritten critiques from the venerable writer and journalist, Charlie Hammer, my mentor and instructor at UMKC. Charlie sustained death threats during the 1960s as a reporter who covered the race riots for The Kansas City Star. He was called a n-lover for reporting the news about black protests.
“Black people in fact had been amazingly patient,” said Charles Hammer, a former Kansas City Star reporter. “How they kept it under control in that era is hard to figure out.” (1)
So Professor Charles Hammer, from whom I learned the greatest lessons of integrity in storytelling and journalism still fights the good fights today: https://www.kansascity.com/article238630278.html
My work has been published worldwide and nationwide as a staff writer and photojournalist for six different daily newspapers: The Leavenworth Times, The St. Joseph News-Press, The Boulder Daily Camera, The Pueblo Chieftain and The Kansas City Star and Times. Additionally, I’ve had photos appear in USA Today, People Magazine as well as being distributed worldwide via the Associated Press. That was, as I have found myself realizing, the Golden Era of Photojournalism. Most of those papers no longer have photographers on their staffs and The Kansas City Star, which formerly had over 22 at least, is down to only three now.
My speciality is human interest stories. For one of my publications, I also wrote a weekly humor column. That said, I also did what any good photojournalist does – and that is whatever assignment I was given. This included sports, studio and illustration. At these times – up until the final transition year 2000 – everything was shot on film.
You could say that I “came up the pike” – which means that I was photographing for newspapers when they were still publishing photos only in black and white via black and white film and darkroom printing. Color was something that came along when USA Today was a start up in the late 80s, along with the quickie stories – what we referred to as 6-inchers – because that’s about how much space they took up in a newspaper column. The idea sprouted that the general public was too busy to read anything longer than a 6 inch story. Print journalism really changed at that time – then even greater in the digital age in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
As a photojournalist, the general rule of thumb at that time was that a reporter would either be assigned or would pitch a story and a photographer would later be assigned to “illustrate the story” – which sort of made photojournalists the red-headed stepchildren of the journalism world. The reporter always took the lead when it came to generating stories.
I began to buck that trend. If I found an interesting story idea, I would pitch it on my own. It didn’t always work the other way around for a photographer to get a reporter to go with the photographer’s story idea. If I couldn’t find a reporter who would take the story, I wrote it myself. A lot of fun stories were generated this way.
Another thing about being a photojournalist who is also a writer: it’s probably natural that I felt like people were more likely to respond to stories that were rich with interesting photographs. Too often, words don’t completely convey the emotions of the story all by themselves. As writers, we do hope for that. But as photographers, we know how valuable richly captured moment can be.
Human interest stories are stories that connect people to other people at a level that helps us understand ourselves and others a bit more – and shows us how we might be connected.
In the following photographs, I am sharing something we used to call “tear sheets” which were, as you can guess, are copies of the published pieces. They aren’t all perfect looking but you get the idea of what some of the stories and photographs were that I pursued. I didn’t wait around for someone to assign me to stories, I went out and got them myself. I would loved to have been a rock musician but alas, I was, instead, born to merely be a storyteller.
I believe that we all benefit from seeing each other in ways that we can all relate to. As a kid, didn’t we all have hope and wishes? Can we relate to this little fella hoping to win a contest with crossed fingers?
As a photojournalist, I have found that images often convey information and emotions of a story that words may not convey as quickly or certainly not in the same way. The combination, then, to me, of photographs with writing has always been an important part of weaving a story together. My background as a writer is of equal importance to photography. These two media go hand in hand and, if a story page is properly designed, writing and photographs are complimentary.
As a writer, I was taught to “show, don’t tell” and as a photographer, I was trained to use visual elements to convey mood and emotion. Some of journalism is tragic and dramatic but I also covered stories and photos about what we encounter in everyday life.
Human interest stories show us the fun of life:
In some ways, I feel fortunate to have worked during what I refer to as a Golden Era of Photojournalism at this point. The days of photo rich stories with lots of copy and dialogue is more a thing of the past. Life became so fast paced that what people felt they needed to know was summed up in only a few characters, a meme or a snapshot.
Nowdays, it seems there is more opinion and pundits and fewer of the kinds of stories that grab the reader and pull them in for a personal visit. Local journalism has always mattered – and now, with so much of it missing, it matters even more. Small town papers like The Leavenworth Times – a Gannett-owned paper – have had their staffs reduced so low that people have turned to each other on social media for information about their communities.
Reporters and photographers at these local outlets brought important information to their communities.
Finding personal stories, to me, is just part of the fascination I have with the variety of people. I can really relate to Anthony Bourdain’s love of people in this ways. His method of relating with people was food. Mine is with photography.
As an example of how I work through storytelling, a photo I captured of three swans floating lazily on a small water feature in front of a funeral home – a scene I’m sure intended to bring a bit of peace to those who visited there – led to another opportunity. When I asked the funeral home about the swans to get a little more background to write a caption for the photo (which was published by The Kansas City Star), they told me that they got the swans from a particular gentleman who raised such creatures. He lived in Carrollton, MO.
I contacted this man who raised the exotic swans – and went down to Carrollton to spend the day at his place.
The result was a photo story of a regular guy who lived in a regular little town in the Midwest with his band of lovingly tended exotic animals, including the fennec fox kits. The photo story was a big hit that won multiple awards including from the National Press Photographer’s Association and the Associated Press.
For some years after I left The Kansas City Star the last time – that on and off relationship I both relished and that exhausted me with its unpredictably long hours that comes with the never ending cycle of journalism – I focused more of my work on commercial enterprises.
I was unable to take the storytelling out of the storyteller, though. So my portrait and wedding work was heavily journalistic.
In recent years, though, the journalism that is in my blood gave rise to the pull to write and photograph stories. I began to write about and photograph blues musicians at www.bluesinsight.com In the hearts and souls of musicians, I feel that kindred soul-connection and rebelliousness, that urge to tell the truth about how life really feels, how it really excites – how it really hurts.
And with that, like so many, I bid 2019 a hard good-bye, saying “don’t let the door hit ya…” thinking that 2020 was shaping up to be a fantastic year. I had just invested in more studio gear, invested in a marketing campaign for more commercial work and lined up more music artists for stories and band photography.
I met with a new client at a restaurant in Liberty. I made a date to attend the band’s concert a few days later.
I would end up postponing.
A different story had appeared on the horizon. Not a big deal. It was on the other side of the world. Wuhan, China.
I felt terrible for what these Chinese people were going through. I’d had the pleasure of meeting Chinese journalists in my career and know several location Chinese business people.
Terrible videos were emerging showing police arresting their people in China for not wearing masks on the streets. A doctor’s frightened eyes stared out from a hospital bed where he was tethered to instruments. He warned of a dangerous virus. A few days later, he was dead. It was a Corona virus, they said.
As I watched the daily reports coming out of China and the pandemic spreading across the globe, it became apparent that any travelers would soon bring it to the United States. Having been a member of the media for so many years, I had learned to brush aside speculations and sensationalism. It was just like the flu, wasn’t it? I had had a flu shot. Was that it?
It wasn’t. A group of Leavenworth County locals had left for the Middle East and Italy in late February. They returned on March 7th. They were not screened when they arrived back home. They had skipped the Italy leg of their trip. Other people I knew were hurrying back from various locations overseas.
By March 9th, I had a sleep study at Providence Medical Center. I took my own hand sanitizer to the sleep lab. There were only two of us patients in the entire wing. No one else was concerned. I did the study overnight and left through the emergency room doors before 6 a.m. the next morning.
Later than day, an emergency patient came through those same doors and became the first death in the state of Kansas that tested positive for COVID-19. Later that day, two local Kansas City medical experts appeared on a Steve Kraske KCUR podcast. They spoke words intended to calm and assuage fears and panic. Financial experts followed to dissuade anyone from having financial fears. It was all going to be a “wait and see” situation.
But I had questions. In the coming days, as the news began to intensify, my doctor sent a no-nonsense email to us (her patients) telling us exactly what was going on, sharing with us a health protection plan since this would be a 12-18 month ordeal. A vaccine, even if developed now, would take over a year to properly prepare it to be safely available. It was the first piece of real truth I had seen that someone had finally spoken.
Rallies and debates had no audiences, people began hoarding, of all things, I thought: toilet paper, which I still do not understand, since it cannot be eaten. One man, my local grocery store manager told me at mid-March, came in only to buy four of the largest packs of toilet paper they sold: $100 worth of toilet paper, then he left.
Within a week, then one more, as the green appeared on the hills of the surrounding countryside, the pall of a new reality began to settle over all communications – the news, social media, the radio. The countenance on the faces of the experts and officials who were reading from pieces of paper and teleprompter told a bigger story than the words coming out of their mouths.
This was becoming dire. Italy’s COVID numbers were out of control as was its death toll. Then, the first cases came to the United States, then the news conferences came daily. And social media blew up.
Where people used to gather, people could no longer do so.
Where people used to celebrate, they no longer could do so.
Election primaries were postponed.
The Olympics were postponed until 2021
Where people once had plans, they were suddenly adrift.
The COVID-19 had arrived and caught us very much unprepared, in denial and gripped at the neck by our complacency.
We began to count our sick – then our dead.
It – “the beast” as CNN’s Chris Cuomo referred to it – sits outside our homes where we have been told to avoid, then pounced on the unsuspecting, seemingly at random.
A tiny, silent – brainless…heartless – enemy both taunts us and robs us of our freedoms.
In the space of what seemed like only days, we no longer could eat out, entertain in or out of our homes, have schools, proms or ceremonies for our students, no weddings for lovers – and cannot even gather to bury our dead. We lost our jobs, our businesses, and most of all, the hugs and kisses of those most close to us.
Denial appears to be the last visitor to leave, though. It has lingered, long after reality’s last call.
In this altered world, there are scary stories everywhere. There are news conferences by government officials and medical experts and news pundits rambling on about how people should and should not conduct themselves. The speed at which gossip spreads takes a mere millisecond to punch the return button on a keyboard.
In the midst of this massive sea of information and misinformation, I’m finding people grasping at normalcy in a world that is no longer normal – not knowing when “normal again” will return, if ever.
It is within this Rod Serling world that I am drawn inexplicably back to the front lines with my fellow journalists on stories that need to be covered. With the downsizing at so many newspapers over the past 10-15 years, the numbers of us to tell stories has dwindled to sadly low counts.
I can’t in good conscience, not step up at this important time where there is more to be written about the people whose lives are, frankly, just as important as those who just won the Golden Globes and the Oscars and the whatever-other-people-of-the-year-or-the-thing-or-the-place award. The minimum wagers are the ones who make all the details in our lives turn smoothly who are now giving us the hope we need for our collective future.
Who we are, our resilience, our compassion, our creative spirits – those stories are how we find our way.
More than just my bio about who I am and what I have done – which I share here only so you will see that I’m for real – more than any of that, I want you all to know that when I encounter you, that safe-distancing, a mask or gloves doesn’t take away my passion for people. Please know:
I see you.
I respect you.
I will reflect you.
I am here to tell your stories – to chronicle the heart of our heartland.
Stay strong. God help us all.
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: THIS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ARTICLE IS PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT LAWS. NO PART OF THIS ARTICLE CAN BE COPIED OR REPRODUCED AND DISTRIBUTED WITHOUT EXPRESSED WRITTEN PERMISSION/RENUMERATION OF THE AUTHOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED ©2020. REFERENCES, CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS AS NOTED ABOVE. ©2020 Peggy Stevinson Bair