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Published: Friday, February 15, 1991
Page: P5A

THE PHONE IN THE ASSOCIATED PRESS BUREAU IN CHARLESTON RANG ON a spring morning in the early 1980s. It was Wally Warden, editor of the Williamson Daily News.

"BOY, HAVE I GOT ONE FOR YOU," HE SAID. I was the AP's West Virginia news editor at the time, and Wally and I had been friends for a couple of years already. But from the tone of the voice at the other end, I knew this wasn't just a social call.

We'd recently installed a computer link between Wally's paper and the AP, so he could send Daily News stories to us. Wally thought this was pretty nifty, and sent us more than we wanted most every day.

If we thought a story would interest somebody elsewhere, we'd edit it for the wire and send it out to the state, sometimes to the nation, and sometimes even further.

Wally had taken to sending us a daily list of "news from the heart of the billion-dollar coalfield." That was the tag line on each day's list, cribbed from this newspaper's masthead. He'd sign off each list this way: "From the AP's Williamson, W.Va., bureau." Of course, there was no AP bureau in Williamson, the county seat of Mingo County. We got our share of good stories from Williamson, but Mingo was a coalfield county in the midst of a seemingly permanent recession. County government was widely assumed to be corrupt. A joke around the newsroom was that some day Mingo County would export more felons than fuel.

Wally understood. But he had a story to tell - of a state that produced seven times the energy it used, yet remained poor during one energy crisis after another. A state where New England industrialists had taken the money and run, leaving the local political bosses to fight over what little was left.

I'd never thought Wally was a saint - just a friend. I'd seen him drink a beer on occasion, and when his brother ran for the county school board I had to wonder if the newspaper could really stay objective. But as Wally once told me, "In Mingo County, it isn't a case of the White Hats versus the Black Hats. There are no White Hats here." Still, today's story - a three part series - was something special. No, not the subject: just another tale of someone whose political connections had permitted him to take care of his cronies while spurning the common people of Mingo County. It told of court cases fixed for children of the powerful, and prison sentences for children of the poor.

But it was told with a fervor I hadn't seen before. It was, quite simply, the best thing I'd ever seen Wally write.

He wanted the series to run on the AP wire - reaching people far beyond Mingo County - at the same time it ran in his newspaper.

The chamber of commerce probably wouldn't have approved, but Wally didn't care. It was a story that needed telling.

It was also a story that, I guessed, would produce yet another award for the Williamson Daily News, a small-town paper with a curious combination of pride and perversity; it just couldn't seem to play along with the local powers that be.

The deal was done - the series would begin Monday afternoon in the paper and the same time on the wire. By Tuesday, it would be in print across the state and beyond, probably read by millions of people.

But on Monday morning, the phone rang again. "Don't run that story," Wally demanded.

Why, I asked genuinely perplexed - but also a little worried that the AP news report from West Virginia that day would fall back on a familiar formula of traffic fatalities and political posturing "BECAUSE I SHOWED HIM THE STORY LAST NIGHT, AND HE'S AGREED TO resign. The story served its purpose - he's gone, and maybe the next person will do better by Mingo County." No one else read that story. No one gave it an award. No one knew that one of the best pieces of journalism produced in the state that year would never be read.

It wasn't broadcast on radio or trumpeted by a television STATION THAT'S "ON YOUR SIDE." IT WASN'T THE SUBJECT OF AN editorial in one of those self-styled crusading newspapers that regularly congratulate themselves for their commitment to public service. The lead story the next day in the Williamson Daily News was a routine traffic accident.

Wally Warden died this week. I will miss him; Mingo County and West Virginia will miss him; and so will millions of people who never KNEW HIS NAME. Wayne Davis is on leave from the Associated Press in Washington AND IS TEACHING THIS YEAR AT MARSHALL UNIVERSITY.




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