Waddle, 65, is quick to point out that he is not actually retiring. He is simplifying, winnowing the three hats he has been wearing down to one.
He is giving up his roles as president of the Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism, and as Anniston coordinator for the Knight Fellows in Community Journalism program through the University of Alabama.
He will instead focus solely on teaching journalism at Jacksonville State University, where he has held the Ayers Chair of Communication for the past two years.
“People are being very nice about my retirement, but it’s not a retirement when you keep working. It’s a transition,” Waddle said.
That remaining hat fits well, said H. Brandt Ayers, publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co. “Chris has always had a kind of professorial style. I’ve often thought that teaching would be just a perfect role for him.”
In nearly three decades at The Star, Waddle has frequently been a polarizing figure. He admits there are still folks who hold a grudge, particularly over his work advocating for incineration of the local chemical weapons stockpile.
But there are points that most people can agree on:
Chris Waddle loves his family.
He loves his dog.
He loves the natural beauty of this place.
He’s smart as a whip.
And you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that whip.
It was 1982 when Waddle came to work as managing editor of The Star. Ayers remembered the job interview: “He was engaging, very bright. I was impressed with his credentials.”
Those credentials included stints as city editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.; Sunday magazine editor at The Kansas City Star; and managing editor of The Kansas City Times, during which time the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes.
“We have a reputation for fighting above our weight class,” Ayers said. “That’s a load of credentials for a paper our size. I really liked that idea, and I really liked Chris. To get somebody that smart, and that experienced, to maintain our reputation for excellence … It’s been a good marriage,” Ayers concluded. “Not without some bumps and unexpected turns – but all in all, it’s been a good relationship.”
Any list of highlights of Waddle’s tenure needs to start with the chemical weapons incinerator. “We had a difficult job of telling that story,” Ayers said. “The coverage that Chris directed, and the lengths to which he went” – including two trips to Johnson Atoll in the Pacific to witness an incinerator at work – “that had a calming influence.
“There was a ragged fringe that gave us hell – constantly – but the quality of reportage that Chris developed and managed, over time, I think had a calming effect,” Ayers said.
And now, with most of the weapons safely destroyed? “I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty rewarding,” Waddle said.
And then there were the courtesans.
Ayers remembered one of his favorite funny stories. “We had a Christmas parade, and on the hoods of the automobiles were the Little Miss winners, dressed like they were 18-year-olds, in lots of makeup. Chris, in his account of that parade in an editorial, objected to the way these girls were ‘painted like courtesans.’
“I could feel the breeze of mothers throughout Calhoun County thumbing through dictionaries to look up the definition of ‘courtesan.’”
A delegation of mothers, complete with signs, was waiting outside the newspaper office the next morning.
They refused to be mollified – at least one of them to this day.
Gilbert E. Johnston Jr., a lawyer in Birmingham, has come to know Waddle over the years while working on various lawsuits involving The Star. “Through that experience I have formed a high regard, a very high regard, for Chris. … He is a progressive voice in a state that sometimes suffers from the dearth of such voices,” Johnston said.
“He is a big-picture guy. He looks for stories that reflect more than just the specific facts of a situation. He likes to find elements that put the story in historical context, or somehow touch on a human condition, or, even better, appeal to the reader’s sense of humor. Chris has a well-developed sense of humor. He’s got a great laugh, when something sets it off.”
A more lasting legacy is Waddle’s instrumental involvement in establishing the Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism, which in 2003 joined with the University of Alabama to offer a master’s program in community journalism. Much like a “teaching hospital,” The Star would serve as a “teaching newspaper” to the Com-J students.
“Chris was a critical element in the development of the Community Journalism program and in building the strong partnership among the university, The Star and the Knight Foundation that made the program possible,” said Dr. Loy Singleton, dean of the College of Communication and Information Sciences at UA.
“His love of education as well as his passion for community journalism has been a driving force behind the program. … More importantly, his own award-winning career as a reporter and as a manager has provided our students with an outstanding model to follow.”
Added Jennifer Greer, chair of the journalism department at UA: “What I think we’ll miss the most about Chris as we go forward is his ability to challenge us all – the students, the faculty, the staff – to look at things in a different light. He was always fun to watch in the classroom because he'd question students and make them defend their positions, even if he agreed with them. He did the same to his colleagues. It could make you crazy at times, but he made us all stronger. The Com-J students will all tell you how much he made them think.”
Kiri Walton is a member of the most recent class of eight Com-J students, who finished their studies on the same day that Waddle retired. “A lot of people in our generation think that going into journalism means big, glamorous magazine jobs, like on ‘Sex and the City.’ A lot of people forget the power of a community newspaper,” she said. “You can really change the world through a community newspaper. Professor Waddle emphasizes that. You don’t have a lot of professors nurturing that these days. It’s more, ‘Oh, that girl can do video!’
“Yeah, I can do video – but I use it as a way to build community.”
Before they headed off for graduation, the 2010 Com-J fellows presented Waddle with a gift: a potted cactus.
There were already several cacti in his office, along with a floor globe and the only couch in the newsroom. Waddle doesn’t collect cacti because he’s prickly. No, that’s too easy a metaphor.
Rather, he has an affinity for living things, and unlike most office plants, it’s hard to kill a cactus.
Waddle’s corner office looks out on the woods of McClellan. One of the things he is proudest of is The Star’s leadership in redeveloping the former fort. “We were the first company to buy land and to build here,” he said.
The building was designed with an eye toward preserving the surrounding land and trees.
Inside, there are viewing windows overseeing the massive printing presses – something that Waddle specifically requested. One of his earliest memories growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, is of walking past the newspaper building downtown, stopping to watch as the presses rumbled and ran.
But here we are talking about the past. Hasn’t Waddle told us this story is not about his retirement, it’s about the future?
Ah, the digital age. “This is the most exhilarating time to be a journalist I can remember in 45 years of being in the profession,” Waddle said.
And that 45 years has covered a lot ... the civil rights movement ... George Wallace on the stump ... D.C. in the days of Watergate.
Waddle can still remember the smell of the ink in the old composing room at the Birmingham Post-Herald, where he entered the profession as a copy editor in 1965.
“We are making the transfer from old, industrial-based journalism, with its big, heavy printing presses and its big environmental footprint. … The digital age is greener, faster, safer, more economical, more friendly to the user, who’s told us over and over that he or she wants to access information on demand,” Waddle said.
“Resistance is pretty hopeless in this revolution. As we get to the end of the road, we want to make sure we don’t lose the ability to think critically, perform public service, seek truth and justice.”
His plan is to do that chiefly through teaching, but also by “thinking, writing and criticizing” on his blog (one-journalist.blogspot.com).
He has taken his classes at JSU paperless. He has interviewed Star reporters and editors for posting online at iTunes U.
“As a teacher, as long as I go where my students are – and that’s digital – I can communicate ideas and values,” Waddle said. “Journalism can do the same thing.”
While this story is not supposed to be about Waddle’s retirement, he will nonetheless have more free time now.
Time for Jack, the exuberant Labradoodle.
Time for the garden, which last week was producing field peas, Kentucky Wonders, bell peppers and tomatoes.
Time for grandchildren, the first of which is almost 2, the second of which is due in November.
Waddle passed along his passion for the outdoors to his son, Hardin, who is now a wildlife biologist, married to another wildlife biologist.
His passion for politics went to his daughter, Virginia, who worked in Montgomery as an advocate for health and education issues before she passed away two years ago.
Waddle’s wife of 44 years, Sherrell, is retired from teaching and working for the state of Alabama. “She’s always been a tremendous support in my life and career,” Waddle said. “I cannot think of this career without her.”
Last Friday, Waddle finished cleaning out his office, leaving the couch to be fought over by the remaining denizens of the newsroom.
On Saturday, he was in Texas to celebrate his mother’s 92nd birthday.
Then it was on to Denver for a journalism educators’ conference.
“We had some fun and interesting times together,” said Ayers. “Even though he has been more and more distant from the office in recent years, it’s hard to think of Chris being completely de-linked from The Anniston Star.”
Ayers paused to let that thought sink in.
“But the story has a happy ending,” he continued. “As the Ayers Chair at JSU, Chris is still linked to the Ayers name. He’s still available to show off his skills and intelligence.”
Contact Lisa Davis at 256-235-3555, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Davis named president of Ayers Family Foundation for Community Journalism
From staff reports
Bob Davis, editor of The Anniston Star since 2006, is adding another title. As of Monday, he replaced Chris Waddle as president of the Ayers Family Institute for Community Journalism.
In June, the board of the Ayers Family Foundation for Community Journalism selected Davis for the post. "I’m thrilled to have this opportunity," he said. "I hope to continue the good work the school has done. The board has challenged us to reach out across the industry, and I’m excited to find new ways to do just that."
The foundation in partnership with the University of Alabama operates the Community Journalism Fellowship Program, a one-year master’s degree course of study that began in 2006. Fellows spend part of each year working and learning at The Star. Details about the program are online at: http://comj.ua.edu.
Davis, 45, is a native of Alabama and graduate of the University of Alabama. He is on the executive boards of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and the Alabama APME.
Assisting Davis with the graduate students will be Tim Lockette, The Star’s assistant metro editor. Lockette has a bachelor’s degree in English from Jacksonville State University and a master’s degree in English Education from the University of Florida.