Friday, August 28, 2015

Horror in Roanoke Evokes Memories of an Old Friend – Tragically

One of the first things I did Thursday morning (8/27/15), after the shock and disbelief and rage and outrage had fallen into place, was to call my dear friend Robin Hardin in Detroit.

I wanted to make sure "Robby-Rob," as I love to call her, was doing all right emotionally. My concern was prompted by of one of those weird, six-degrees-of-separation experiences that you never expect will stretch out to involve you personally – until it does.

Alison Parker and Adam Ward, killed on live TV. (CBS News)
You see, the senseless, nauseating murders of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward and the wounding of their interview subject Vicki Gardner this week during a live TV segment in Roanoke, Va., sent America's media mob scrambling for the archives. As it turns out, the last time a working U.S. journalist was gunned down in this country was back in 2007. The victim was the editor-in-chief of the Oakland Post in Oakland, Calif., a man named Chauncey Bailey.

He was a friend of mine.

And Robin Hardin is his ex-wife.

In the torrent of reportage over the deaths of Parker and Ward, the name of Chauncey Bailey was almost certain to be dropped frequently and mindlessly by the national media. He's a human footnote, a casual point of reference. It's got to be hard enough to carry around an undercurrent of grief over the murder of an ex-spouse, an incessant pain eight years this month and counting, without having to hear his name thrown in your face every time you turn on a newscast. Some people might rejoice over the memory of an ex's demise. Robin Hardin is not one of those people.
Chauncey Bailey was a fighter – and one heck of a journalist.

Like Parker and Ward, Bailey was shot down outdoors and in broad August daylight, with the ruthlessness of Walter Palmer going after Cecil the Lion. Like Parker and Ward, Bailey was simply doing his job as a journalist at the time, investigating the finances of an Oakland business called Your Black Muslim Bakery when he was assassinated on 14th Street by a masked gunman. (Eventually, in 2011, two men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for their role in the murder.) Unlike anyone I've ever known or worked with, however, Chauncey Bailey was uniquely, absolutely one of a kind.

He and I were contemporaries at The Detroit News in the 1980s and '90s. Away from the office Chauncey was warm, conversational, surprisingly funny. With a keyboard or notepad under his control, however, he could be as abrasive as a Brillo pad. He was aggressive, articulate and fearless, never afraid to ask the toughest question regardless of the consequences. I admired that quality a great deal.

There's a reason I gravitated toward feature writing. Some people shy away from that "going-for-the-jugular" question, fearing vicious retaliation or the bruising of feelings; Chauncey seemed to live for the moment – not so much, I sensed, to be deliberately confrontational or piss people off, but because he had a story to unearth. The truth must be told, and truth was one thing from which Chauncey Bailey never shied away.

In one legendary newsroom incident, a young News reporter named Darrell Dawsey had convinced editors to let him write a neo-hip-hop, urban oriented column called "Buckwhylin';" Chauncey thought it was demeaning, and told him so. Words were exchanged. Fists flew. At some point an industrial-sized wastebasket was used as a weapon. There they were, two brawny black men slugging it out in the middle of a newsroom that was almost entirely white. It must have looked like a prize fight. Even I felt the fallout from that encounter.

Robin Hardin, kissing her ex-husband farewell. (SF Chronicle)
Chauncey and Robin went their separate ways long ago, divided by time and distance. Yet the two remained good friends, a rarity for a long-divorced couple. I wouldn't say Robin continued to carry a torch for him, but she spoke of him often and warmly in conversation. To my knowledge she has had few if any serious relationships since. Because I knew them both well, Robin and I often recounted stories from their happier times.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I am living proof that a man can have a close female friend who is a friend only. I have known Robin – who now, ironically, works for a television station – for going on 30 years, and we never have had a romantic interlude. Not that the thought hadn't crossed my mind, you understand: Robin Hardin is a tall, stunning, exceptionally intelligent and delightful woman. A man would have to be a fool. But God places people in your life in the role they need to play, and in Robin's life I was cast in the part of good friend. I'll never forget the look of shock and disbelief on the face of my girlfriend, Karen (who later would become my wife), when I explained our relationship the first time she met Robin, who had orchestrated a pre-dawn, three-state road trip to surprise Karen on a holiday weekend. "Well, that's a relief!" Karen exhaled. Robin was my "best person" at our wedding.

And now, with no significant movement on gun control since her beloved Chauncey was shot down in the street, two more families have to deal with soul-shattering anguish. This time, the deranged, cowardly scumbag not only snuck up to shoot his unsuspecting victims in the back, but also took time to videotape his actions so he could post the deed on social media.

Several calls to Robin's home went unanswered, which is not unusual. She is a private person, given to occasional periods of reclusiveness, and almost never cleans out her voicemail to accept new messages. I was slightly more worried than usual, however. And then, Friday morning, my phone rang. Robby-Rob.

"WHUZZUP?" I exclaimed jubilantly. We both laughed about 20 seconds before another word was spoken.

"It's been a rough week," she said, as I anticipated. "It's one thing if your relative or friend dies of an illness, or is killed in an accident. But to have someone who is killed like this, just shot and killed, that makes you part of a special club."

A club nobody should ever have to join.


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