Sunday, May 3, 2020

My friend Donnie

By 1990, I'd been at The Dispatch for 14 years. I only had 16 more to go.

But in that 14-year span, the newspaper had already gone through four photographers: Gareth Wetherill, Scott Crowder, Glenn Roberson and Scott Hoffmann. For some reason, during my tenure there up to that point, The Dispatch had been blessed with exceptionally talented photographers. They stayed at the paper for an average of 3.5 years. Each.

The photojournalist at work.*
And for some reason that I can't quite fathom, I'd managed to become fairly good friends with all four of them, even though my interest and knowledge in photography approached something akin to zero. I was a sports writer and I guess maybe they liked sports well enough, so maybe that was a connection. That, and the way that disparate personalities can somehow seem to interact with one another on the sly.

So when photographer No. 5 showed up, I was more than a little apprehensive. Could we work together? Could we be friends? Or would we simply be workplace colleagues?

Turns out, I was worried about nothing. True enough, Donnie Roberts was a baseball fan – he even played the game in high school and he followed the Cincinnati Reds (I followed the Philadelphia Phillies) – but as time went on, I learned he had a taste for music that ranged from Pearl Jam to Underhill Rose, a sense of humor with a twist for thoughtful, offbeat eclectic comedy, a sharp nose for news and a photojournalist's eye for the precise shutter click that told the story. He also had an artist's touch with his camera.

Photojournalism at .7 of a second. One of my favs. How did he do that?**
So we became friends. There was a span of several years – I think I was already retired – where we played golf together once a week. We did that until a shoulder issue took him out of the game.

My wife, Kim, and I had him over to the house every Super Bowl Sunday for a run of several consecutive years, maybe a decade's worth. Kim would make the chili and chocolate mousse, Donnie would bring the craft beer, and I provided the television. Or, when he finally got an HD TV (and I didn't), Kim would still bring the chili and mousse, but we'd watch the game at his place.

Kim said he was always smiling. His smile remains his signature to this day.

What was evident throughout all this was that Donnie was continuing The Dispatch trend for exceptional photojournalism, whether it be in sports or hard news. He developed (OK, so maybe that's a deliberate pun and throwback to the pre-digital darkroom days) a rapport with many of his subjects, earning both trust and confidence. It was local journalism at its best and I bet he won more than 50 press awards in his time with the newspaper, maybe even more.

Photojournalism as art.**
And it could never end.

But a little more than a week ago, Donnie emailed me that, after 30 years with the paper, his job was being eliminated by Gannett/Gatehouse, which owns The Dispatch, along with 240 other newspapers in its conglomerate, including USA Today. The cuts were nationwide.

Donnie's last day was Friday. It leaves The Dispatch without a photographer, perhaps permanently. It leaves our community with an enormous void.

All you have to do is go to his Facebook page and read his farewell story. Then read the comments. There's more than 100 of them, from colleagues, friends and subjects, which tells you more about the impact a single man can have on his neighbors than almost anything else.

I don't know what lies ahead for my friend. He's hinted that, at age 59 and after 30 years, he's not really interested in going back into newspaper work, or even freelancing. As a 30-plus-year veteran of journalism myself, I can understand that. The Nikon might feel more like an albatross around his neck these days, I don't know. Maybe he can teach his craft somewhere. Or maybe something totally different and rewarding will appear for him out of the blue. I hope so.

Donnie had a remarkable run at our little newspaper, and because he did, so did we.

Thank you, my friend.

Kim, myself and our friend.***

* Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images

** Photo by Donnie Roberts (Who else?)

*** Photo by Melissa Egelnick


  1. The Dispatch will never be the same. It will never be as good. This cut aimed and hit more than bone - this was a direct stab into the heart of our community newspaper. Where ever Donnie wants to go to work, what ever he wants to do, that employer will be the luckiest employer in the world to reap the benefits of the worst mistake Gannett has ever made. They know not what they have done.

  2. Having worked in media, particularly radio, but also newspapers, I am saddened that once again the mega company comes in and "knows" best. I've seen it first hand when the mega giant comes into the local market and slashes without thought. I've seen the slash and I've felt the slash myself. Lexington and the Dispatch, without a photographer and especially Donnie Robers is depressing. When I first read about his departure, I thought he was retiring, but to read that he was eliminated, without a thought is hard to take and frankly abhorent. Unfortunately, it could be just another nail into a local paper. Good luck, God Speed Donnie...Lexington and Davidson County were better for your keen eye and we will be lesser now because you're gone.

  3. Cannot replace the irreplaceable.