Speeding down Highway 51 on March 8, 2019, I remember a feeling of being caught up and overwhelmed in the moment. I was riding in a white van, only a handful of cars behind the President of the United States.
The reason for his visit was tragic. Arguably the greatest natural disaster in Lee County’s history had happened days prior, an EF-4 tornado that claimed the lives of 23 individuals and touched countless others.
And I, along with my boss, publisher and friend Michelle Key, were part of the presidential press pool covering his visit to see the areas affected by the storm and talk with community leaders who were leading the recovery efforts. It was beyond surreal in the career of a person who works in local, community-oriented journalism like myself.
That opportunity, plus the countless others this job has afforded me during the last nearly four years with this paper, is something that would not have been possible without God’s blessing and an old copy of the Observer that happened to be on my grandparents’ dining room table.
March 2016 was a turning point in my life. An internship opportunity with another local newspaper had fallen through and I was only a week away from Auburn University’s deadline for journalism majors to have their internship finalized. It was the only thing between myself and that coveted white piece of paper saying I had paid my dues and was ready for the real world.
Down on my luck and needing a distraction, I went over to my grandparents and watched a Braves spring training game with my grandparents Harrison and Peggy. The game went into a rain delay, and my grandfather asked me to bring him the paper from the dining room table for him to read.
Picking it up, I had a profound realization: Why not intern with the Observer? I pulled out my phone and gave them a call that Thursday morning. Within minutes, I had an interview scheduled the next morning for an internship.
I think I made a decent impression on my interview. Only two hours after I left the office, I received a phone call from former Observer Associate Editor Rebekah Martin that I had received the internship. My relief could not be overstated.
Although I grew up minutes from Opelika in nearby Salem, I was unaware of how much news actually happened and took place in the 36801 zip code. That summer proved to be a magical experience for me as the scales were lifted off my eyes and it was revealed to me how wonderful this city and its citizens truly are.
In August 2016, I was offered a full-time job with the Observer as their staff reporter to replace my friend Anna-Claire Terry who was leaving to follow her dream of being a lawyer. That fall, Rebekah, Fred Woods and I formed a bond as an editorial board and I felt as if I were a part of something truly special.
As time passed, I grew more confident in my abilities, learning to ditch my printed off sheet of questions I’d take for every interview. I also developed lasting bonds and connections with people across Opelika, which was another special part of this job.
Things changed considerably in my life in 2017 and 2018.
I married the love of my life, Jessi, in June 2017. There was an abundance of changes at the Observer the rest of that year. Six months later in January, I was promoted from staff reporter to associate editor and found myself the lone full-time employee working under Michelle.
I was unsure of my future with the Observer at that point, but found myself increasingly passionate about seeing the paper through these major transitions. Michelle’s dream of expanding our coverage into Auburn and around the county was something I’d always believed we should do. I’m proud to say we have realized that goal during the last two and a half years.
Within days, we’ll have released a special graduation publication honoring seniors from all of our county’s schools, from Loachapoka to Smiths Station and Glenwood to Lee-Scott Academy. We are publishing news each week from all corners of the county. The Observer is truly hitting its stride now, as not only an Opelika news source but a county news source, and that’s a statement I make with pride.
Today marks my last with the Observer in nearly four years here. That’s 1,465 days, 87,900 hours and more than 5.2 million seconds, exactly.
Starting next Tuesday, I’ll be starting in my new role as the Administrative Assistant/Assistant Communications Director for the City of Smiths Station. I have become great friends with Mayor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland and his administration, and the role is something that will allow me to continue writing while increasing my knowledge on planning and zoning, grant-writing and many other functionalities of local government.
I cannot thank Fred and Michelle enough for all the opportunities they have given me during my tenure with the Observer. Both believed in me and made me feel appreciated constantly.
To everyone past and present affiliated with the paper, including our fantastic Staff Photographer Robert Noles and top-notch Ad Salesman Woody Ross, thank you for your efforts to help see this paper thrive.
And to all of our faithful followers, readers and subscribers, thank you for your continued support of our paper. Under Michelle’s leadership, I believe this paper will continue to grow and thrive in the years to come, and that it will continue to serve as a destination for quality, trusted community news for all Lee Countians.