Heath Harrison: Departing after nearly a decade

Published 5:43 pm Thursday, May 9, 2024

“Hello, I must be going/
I cannot stay, I came to say, ‘I must be going’
I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going — la-la!”
— Groucho Marx, as Capt. Spaulding, from the 1930 film “Animal Crackers”

It’s hard for me to believe, but, this edition of The Ironton Tribune will be my last as managing/community editor as I depart this region.

A lot has taken place since I first walked in these doors, nearly a decade ago, as a reporter.

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A familiar, 90-plus year-old bridge, so much a signature part of the city’s skyline, came down in 2016, replaced by a newer, modern span.

Over the years, the county’s auditor, Jason Stephens, ascended, not just to a legislative seat, but also became the state’s speaker of the House in 2023 and a force in Ohio politics.

Long-needed investments began to take shape in the form of funding to Appalachian counties and infrastructure in places such as Ironton and South Point, as well as the end of the long-delayed Chesapeake Bypass project finally in sight.

Several companies moved into The Point industrial park and other areas in the county, while opportunities to create the workforce of tomorrow grew at both Collins Career Technical Center, Ohio University Southern and Tri-State STEM+M Early College High School.

While familiar staples for the region continued like clockwork in the form of the Ironton-Lawrence County Memorial Day Parade, the county fair and other events that we always eagerly anticipated covering.

One of the biggest complaints we often hear in media is a lack of “good news” and it is always our aim to always give a focus to the positive, whether it was the numerous charitable events and organizations in our area or the achievements of students and others.

Sometimes, these stories in themselves became a tradition, that we always looked forward to, such as the yearly walks I did with Bill Neville, a World War II veteran, each Thanksgiving across the Oakley C. Collins Memorial Bridge, or the interviews each year as children saw their Christmas become brighter at events such as the South Point Christmas project.

Through these journeys, I got a chance to meet people from all walks of life, who make this community work, whether officials, volunteers, teachers, artists, musicians, historian, fitness experts, emergency personnel, small business owners and so many more.

And, as the years passed, we saw many a subject we met as a student develop into a community leader and show the future holds promise.

Not all headlines were pleasant ones, though.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020, not only closing businesses and limiting public gatherings, but created true challenges filling a daily newspaper and finding visuals.

The opioid crisis continued to grip the region, with most in the area impacted and knowing someone who had died as a result of it.

One of the darkest times I can recall on this job is standing in the dark with Sheriff Jeff Lawless outside a home in Decatur Township in 2017, as he gave me the details of the horrific quadruple homicide that took place there, as well as manhunt for the perpetrator that was underway.

Yet it was in the following days that the spirit of those in the county could be seen, rallying to the needs of the family of the victims and supporting the law enforcement officers putting their lives on the line in the search.

In addition to keeping the reader up to date on breaking events, a journalist serves another function – acting a scribe for history, making sure the details were recorded accurately. At The Tribune, we have archives back to the 1800s, which we have consulted regularly, and, during times like COVID-19, the thought occurred to me many times that 100 years from now, future researchers and writers will be consulting what we have done here to get an idea what Lawrence County life was like in the early 21st century.

As with any job, there are always challenges and frustrations, and, in covering this city and county, I met numerous people, who were always so appreciative to see their stories highlighted. I thank them, as well as the loyal readers and advertisers who kept this paper, here since the Civil War days, going and keeping Lawrence County from becoming one of the local news deserts without a paper that have appeared in too many areas of our nation.

In my time here, it has been an honor to see The Tribune and its staff recognized for General Excellence multiple times by the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors awards and there are so many I have worked with whose contributions to this publication were immeasurable.

Particularly notable among the current staff are:

• Mark Shaffer, my fellow reporter, whose experience and knowledge has balanced out our coverage and kept us well rounded. As is the case with most small town papers, he’s required to do a lot of multitasking – with such things, in addition to his reporting, as editing, photography, obituaries, layout and, perhaps most importantly, keeping conversation interesting with his vast knowledge of comics, toys and pop culture.

• Kandi Thompson, whose graphics mastery has kept The Tribune the best looking paper in the region and has made Tri-State Living the popular publication it is. While her visual skills are legendary, Kandi’s talents extend to her institutional knowledge of this region, guaranteeing that not just the paper, but its special sections surrounding events such as graduation and the parade come together year after year.

• Jim Walker, the longtime sports editor of The Tribune, here since the 1970s. Not only does Jimmy bring together a sports section that amasses awards year after year, but, in becoming a local journalism institution, he has built relationship and made contacts with so many in the community, he brings a wealth of knowledge and resources outside of the paper’s sports section which has been an immense help.

There are many more who helped make our coverage what it was over the years: Michelle Goodman, my predecessor as editor, who hired me; Jessica St. James, one of the most skilled photographers I’ve worked with; Bonita Creger, whose customer service skills endeared her to the community; Bo Elliott, who kept the paper printing as long as it was done locally; Kelli Woods Jameson, who dummied the paper and built ads diligently, Dustin Melchoir, a solid reporter who also kept our website on top of things; and the late Benita Heath, who showed just how special feature writing could be, among many, many others, including our stable of freelance writers.

It has been a joy getting to know the people of Lawrence County over the years and I will miss many of the regular visits to those I encountered. Thank you for your support and the privilege of bringing you the news and I hope to visit this community again someday.

Heath Harrison is the managing/community editor of The Ironton Tribune and Tri-State Living and has worked at the paper since 2015.