On Feb. 12, 1976, I walked into the newsroom of the State-Times, then the evening newspaper in Baton Rouge. I was excited, nervous and late for my first morning at work.
As a 13-year-old, I had a profitable State-Times paper route. Now, I was 21 years old and going to work there.
Sitting at my desk, I looked across from me, and there was a bald guy with thick glasses and a big mustache that curved at the ends. A rebel-flag coffee mug was on his desk. Whoa. This was someone I should keep at arm’s length.
We were introduced. He was Bill Bankston, the police reporter. We said very little to each other.
A few weeks later, my city editor told me to go with Bankston on his police beat. There wasn’t much conversation as I rode with him in his car.
He introduced me at the jail, the courthouse and a couple of other places at City Hall. I received several curious looks from folks. This was the mid-1970s, and law enforcement and the court system were in the infancy of social change.
While Bankston was a jovial guy in the newsroom and on his beat, I could not get the thought of that rebel flag cup out of my mind. I kept my distance.
In a few months, he was named assistant city editor, which meant he was my boss. “Oh, Lawd,” I thought. As it turned out, he was a kind editor. He would point out things to me that I missed or add a couple of words that made my stories better. (A couple of my stories confounded him so much, he would suggest I start over.)
Maybe he wasn’t a bad guy after all. The cup, however, which followed him to his new desk, still bothered me.
Everything was going well until he assigned me “the story.” He wanted me to go to a neighborhood north of LSU, to interview some people who claimed they had seen an unidentified flying object.
Surely, he was joking. A young black man was going to knock on doors in an all-white neighborhood and ask: “Ma’am, are you one of the people who saw an unidentified flying object?” The police would be there in 10 minutes.
I refused to do the assignment. Bankston pleaded with me to do it. I refused. Finally, he took me to the managing editor. I still refused. I was suspended for the rest of the week.
My respect for Bankston grew from that moment on. I should not have disrespected him — because he generally gave me great assignments that were helping me grow as a reporter. He never showed me any hard feelings after the event.
Some years later, I was going through one of the worst times of my life, and it was noticeable. My close friends knew it. One morning, I called in saying I wouldn’t be at work. I was at one of my lowest points.
About an hour later, my doorbell rang. When I opened the door, there was Bankston. He had never been to my house.
We sat in my den, and he told me that he could see that something was very seriously wrong with me. Yes, it was. Life sucked, and things were going downhill daily.
For some reason, he began to talk about his childhood. He talked about some of his disappointments in life and other personal things. I was stunned by how he opened up to me.
His intervention and those of other friends lifted me up. Our friendship was cemented. Somewhere along the way, the cup figuratively and literally went away.
A few years later, Bankston and wife suffered the loss of their first child. He was crushed but somehow he managed to get through it. I was happy when they raised a wonderful daughter.
Bankston’s strength and kindness helped shape me as a reporter and, to some degree, as a person.
My friend, Bill Bankston, died a few months ago. I just thought you ought to know about a pretty good guy and how lucky I was to get to know him, rebel flag cup and all.
Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.