Long years ago, I watched a huge crowd of reporters gather in the parking lot of a high school in Grayson where a troubled teen had just killed his teacher, a janitor and had held his classmates hostage with gun in hand and enough ammunition for a horrendous blood bath.
Police tape had been stretched across the parking lot, holding back growing numbers of big-city reporters. They had been dispatched to cover the first of what has become a long series of school shootings in this country.
Those reporters stood there, corralled like livestock by a flimsy ribbon of yellow police tape. Then came George Wolfford, a reporter for the Independent, a small daily newspaper in Ashland. He was an older fellow, wearing a Fedora hat, complete with one of those colorful bird feathers.
He had already been to the bowling alley in Grayson, which he knew was a popular hangout for high school kids. There, he collected exclusive interviews with students who had been in that classroom during the shootings.
Now it was time to talk with teachers and administrators. After all, this community was trying to make sense of a horrible tragedy. It was George's job to provide the information that would help with that.
I watched George weave his way politely through that throng of reporters until he got to the police tape. He lifted up that strip of plastic and, without a word, walked underneath, across that parking lot and through the front door of that school, disappearing inside. The reporters from those top news organizations stood there with their mouths agape.
George didn’t consider a rather fragile strip of plastic a sufficient barrier to keep him from doing his job.
This world-class journalist died Tuesday.
George spent his entire career, some five decades, at the Independent. He was one of the most recognizable figures in northeastern Kentucky. He was admired and respected for writing stories that were always fair, balanced and accurate. His readers appreciated that. And the people he wrote about did, too.
I worked alongside George for a few years at the Ashland paper early in my journalism career. He made a lasting impression on me and many other young reporters who had the good fortune of crossing paths with him.
In fact, all these years later, I can’t help but grin as I fondly remember the day George showed those big-city reporters how a country boy does it.
Roger Alford is editor of Kentucky Today.