My first correspondence with Randy Wilson was during my junior year at Northern Arizona University. I had written an article which I was particularly proud of about a woman who was walking across the country to dispel stereotypes about obese people for a feature writing class with Mary Tolan. Mary encouraged me to reach out to Randy and Larry Hendricks to see if they’d publish it in the Daily Sun, and Randy responded with a note to include more details.
“There's a lot of telling here but not much showing,” he wrote. “She's been on the road for 800 miles -- get her to recount in detail her encounters, her conversations, the aches, the pains. Your story describes her cause but not the stories from her journey that readers in Flagstaff who are obese or know obese people (ie, all of us) will be most interested in. Find a scene and lead with one that will put readers right on the road with her.”
I made a few changes then crossed my fingers and sent it back.
On February 21, 2014, I got to see my byline on the front page of the paper for the first time. I came onboard as an intern a few months later and then the following summer, fresh out of college and eager to learn more about how a newsroom worked, I officially became an employee of the Arizona Daily Sun.
As managing editor in charge of numerous aspects of the paper, Randy still managed to invest a lot of time in young reporters. Following his unexpected death this past weekend, the office has been a whirlwind of everyone trying to figure out who takes on which of his duties to make sure the daily paper continues to come out.
A few months back I wrote a column here about the impact my mom’s death had on my life and how I seem to be attending more funerals than weddings as the years go by. Randy came in to the office the next morning and, after complimenting the piece, struggled to find words of comfort.
“I wish I could say you get used to that, but I don’t think you really do,” he said.
We may not ever fully get used to his absence, but at least his memory lives on in the words printed each day by those he mentored throughout his long career.
My last memory of Randy is of him scouring through stacks of paper in his office. I was proofing pages and asked to leave early to go to a writing workshop with Mary Sojourner, a fabulous writer with deep ties to Flagstaff and the Arizona Daily Sun. She and Randy had a decades-long relationship of disagreeing with each other, but “my god, was he a good man,” she said.
With only one page left to proof, Randy smiled, peered up at me through his glasses and said, “There’s no reason to stick around for the puzzle page.” As I drove away, Randy’s office gleamed in the dusk, a wall of black offices, empty, save for his. I thought to myself how no one should work that hard. The next day, I got an email from Mary telling me that Randy had died of a heart attack.
News of his death crept slowly, and I didn’t quite feel it until Sunday when I read our publisher Don Rowley’s editorial, “Remembering Randy Wilson’s love for news.” In it Don wrote, “I don’t know what we’re going to do without Randy’s steady, mentoring hand in the newsroom. But I know that we will have to figure it out. Randy wouldn’t expect any less than carrying on the journalistic excellence that was his hallmark.”
From the moment I met Randy, I knew there was a standard, that every story, no matter how small, should be impactful and important. This week has been such a strange and surreal experience. The newsroom hasn’t felt the same, and I don’t expect it to for a few weeks, months maybe.
In the weeks before his death, among the handful of reporters finding opportunities elsewhere, he’d close his Monday morning memos with us coming back smaller but mightier. And that always stuck with me. He believed in the importance of the role of journalism. He believed and trusted his reporters to do their jobs.
Smaller but mightier, Randy, we will try.