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Wetter and better for my time in Wilson

The soaking sensation faded, but the smell lingered. It was the stench of standing water, like sour milk and mildew — stale, musty and moist.

I was walking back to the car when I stepped into the flooded ditch. Torrential rain made the parking lot one big puddle, and as I sloshed through the water, I didn’t notice when the asphalt gave way to grass until the grass gave way to the trench.

Powerful storms pummeled Wilson with 5 inches of rain that day, most of it within the span of a few hours. The intrepid Brad Coville and I had just covered a water rescue at Wilson Medical Associates. More than two-dozen people were stranded at the clinic, with a long stretch of Glendale Drive buried under 2 feet of floodwater.

A crew of Contentnea firefighters arrived and ferried patients, doctors and nurses to higher ground on a flatbed trailer hitched to a dune buggy. My story in the next day’s paper called it "an unorthodox but effective solution.”

Brad, the Times’ photo editor and all-around go-to guy for breaking news, had waded into the nearly waist-high water to capture compelling images of the ride through the flooded street. I followed two other Contentnea members on foot through a maze of soggy parking lots so I could interview the patients when they disembarked.

Mark Robinson of Wilson told me about the ordeal in colorful terms. His comment ranks among the best quotes I’ve ever transcribed: "It was kind of like a sad version of ‘Gilligan’s Island.’”

After talking with several patients, I dialed Brad on my cellphone and told him I’d meet him in the car. He was still on the line when I walked into the watery ditch between the parking lot and Tarboro Street.

In an instant, I was submerged up to my neck.

I said a strong word that shouldn’t be printed in a family newspaper and tossed my phone and notebook to dry land. I didn’t stay in the ditch long, and when people would later ask me if it had been difficult to climb out, I truthfully replied that I didn’t know if I’d climbed, crawled or leapt.

My waterlogged phone worked long enough for me to tell Brad where I was before it died. He drove me back to work, and dripping with dirty water, leaves and bits of muck, I trudged into the newsroom like Pig Pen from the "Peanuts” comic strip.

Naturally, the co-workers were curious. I admitted that my inattention, not my dedication to getting the story, is what dunked me in the ditch. I hadn’t seen where I was going. It was entirely my fault.

Nevertheless, they were helpful and sympathetic. Jon Jimison, our editor, brought me a dry change of clothes. Sportswriter Randy Jones lugged a space heater to my desk so I wouldn’t shiver. Janet Conner-Knox, our veteran political reporter, later dubbed me Splash — further proof the nicknames that stick aren’t self-applied, they’re earned.

I finished my story and stuck around to update the website after the paper went to press. The night left me with an intermittently functioning iPhone I’d soon have to replace and soiled clothes I’d throw away, but it also left me with one of my fondest memories of working at The Wilson Times.

Humiliated as I was, I also was touched by the outpouring of concern and support my colleagues showed. My mishap was a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things. They came together like it was an emergency.

The staff of this family-owned paper is itself a sort of family — bound not by blood, but by common purpose. I said this to the publisher, Morgan Dickerman, on Thursday, and I meant it in all sincerity.

This isn’t the family you’re born into. It’s the family you choose. That’s why it was so difficult to leave.

As you read this, I’m living and working in Rockingham as editor of the Richmond County Daily Journal. After watching Jon deftly shape and patiently guide the Times’ coverage for nearly two years, I wanted a chance to run my own newsroom. I wanted to be that kind of leader.

I’ve met some wonderful people during my time in Wilson, folks I will never forget. The police department surprised me last Friday with a plaque given in appreciation of my fair and accurate coverage of public safety issues. That means as much to me as any of the journalism awards we’ve won together at The Times.

Wilson County is fortunate to have one of the state’s best local newspapers, and I was just as fortunate to be a small part of The Times’ team. I want to thank everyone I’ve worked with at the paper and in the community.

I’m not much good at farewells. I guess that runs in the Times family.

"We don’t say goodbye around here,” Morgan told me last week. "We just say, ‘See you later.’”

With parents and a sister in eastern North Carolina and lifelong friends in Wilson to visit, I know that’s a promise I can keep.

I’ll see you later.

Corey Friedman was online editor of The Wilson Times.
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