death

Remembering Clem Ferguson, the 96-year-old honorary flight attendant

Most television news reporters try to avoid clichés, but we tend to stumble upon one when people ask what we love most about our jobs.

The recurring answer? “Meeting people and telling their stories.”

I can’t deny it. I love that part of my job. Nearly every day involves meeting someone new; nearly every meeting involves learning something new. I continuously meet people who make me think, laugh, smile, and even cry.

And on the rare occasion, I get to meet someone like Clem Ferguson.

This past April Fool’s Day, I was assigned to tell Clem’s story, and it was a great one. Clem, I was told, was a lifetime Georgian who had finally received the chance, after 96 years, to live her childhood dream.

That dream? She had always wanted to become a flight attendant.

Clem’s nursing facility, Christian City in Union City, Ga., arranged for her to receive honorary wings from Delta Airlines. The previous week, I learned, Delta employees had taken Clem through a sped-up “training day” and bestowed upon her the title she had long desired. I reached out to the airline and received video of the experience; to shoot my story, I simply needed to interview its star.

The interview turned out wonderful, but weeks later I remember everything else. Clem smiled the entire time and sparkled with gratitude for so many things in her life. She seemed genuinely touched by the opportunity to be interviewed for the local news. She also made sure I didn’t leave without looking at photographs of her five sisters and now-deceased husband.

This did not feel like a typical interview. It felt entirely disarming, so much so that when Clem poked fun at me during this little off-air exchange, she caught me completely off guard:

I cannot say it any more simply: Clem made my day.

Through my story that night, she made the days of many others.

I posted the piece on Facebook shortly after it aired. In three weeks, that post has reached more than 300,000 people, and the accompanying video has been viewed more than 100,000 times. I would like to take the credit, but in this case I think I must give it to Clem.

I’m sure, at some point in your life, someone has made your day like Clem made mine. At 9:00 that morning, I did not know she existed. By 1:00 that afternoon, I felt privileged to cross her path. By 9:00 that night, I was still beaming from the experience.

Three weeks later, I received unfortunate news that left me feeling the opposite.

This past Wednesday, Clem Ferguson passed away. I found out two days later while on vacation in New York, and it stunned me. Clem may have been 96 years old, but she had shown no signs during our interview to suggest the worst. She had displayed the charm, vibrancy, and sincerity of someone who possessed no plans to slow down.

When I heard the news, I felt genuinely sad.

To be sure, Clem by all accounts lived a full, rich, and happy life. She lived for nearly a century and did not seem to express any regrets.

Yet I still felt pained by her passing … largely for the rest of us. Three weeks earlier Clem had brought a beautiful joy to my world, and I imagine she had affected numerous people similarly through the years. Sadly she will no longer be able to do so for anyone else.

But I hope you watch Clem’s story below. I hope she makes you smile. And I hope, no matter what your profession or situation, you acknowledge and appreciate the Clems in your world who brighten your days when you least expect it.

I feel thankful she was able to brighten mine.

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

PODCAST EPISODE #35: Jeff Hullinger, WXIA-TV, on witnessing an execution

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This is one of the more difficult interviews I have ever conducted.

But for journalists — and, truly, anyone — it is an important interview to hear.

For three years I have come to know my co-worker Jeff Hullinger as verbose, eloquent, wry, and sardonic. Starting a conversation with Hullinger means beginning a singular journey of quips, observations, and insights that can only come from someone of his experience and expressiveness. He has spent three decades as a broadcaster in Atlanta; he has won 19 regional Emmys, interviewed everyone from John Elway to Mikhail Gorbachev, and called the play-by-play on the radio for a Super Bowl.

Last week Hullinger did something he — and 99.9% of journalists — had never done: he witnessed an execution.

The state of Georgia had scheduled the death of Kelly Gissendaner, who had been convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, Doug. About a week before the execution, Hullinger learned he had been named of five area journalists who would serve as witnesses.

He did not back away from the assignment.

“I think, sitting in an anchor chair, I have a responsibility to represent this station publicly,” Hullinger told me, “and I take that very seriously. You have a responsibility to both yourself and your co-workers. I think word in action becomes significant.”

He added, “This is something that no one wants to do, from an intellectual standpoint. [But] it’s something I have to do.”

Hullinger joins me on this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

I honestly would not have normally felt comfortable asking someone in his situation to speak about what he experienced. I felt compelled here by two factors. First, Hullinger had already done a beautiful job of recounting the evening, through Twitter and then on the air. He seemed willing, in that window, to speak about it, although he later told me he would not do so after this podcast. He did not want, I think, to feel bound to the experience for the rest of his career, constantly asked to re-tell his story.

“I can’t tell you how many requests I’ve had to come speak, and I’m not doing any of that,” he said. “My responsibility was one night … and I am done.”

Secondly, I believed in our rapport. Hullinger and I have talked about so many subjects over the years, and I trusted that he would entrust me with conducting an interview in a sensitive, professional way — the same way he had handled his assignment.

This interview — and his perspective within it — is extremely worth your time.

Hullinger discusses how he balanced his objectivity as a journalist with his emotions during a horrific act. He describes the otherworldly experience of entering a world few will ever view.

“We had been told by the state that this is a rather bloodless, painless, clinical, procedural thing, where there isn’t really a lot of emotion,” said Hullinger. “It was none of that. It was unbelievable … all of the razor wire, all of the check-ins, all of the freedom that has been denied. Even our ability to go to the restroom was not allowed. We had to ask men who would not make eye contact with us. It was a horrifying, terrifying place to begin with.”

Then he made eye contact with Gissendaner, and he felt the need to compose himself.

“I closed my eyes for about 20 seconds, just to say, ‘Okay … Understand what this is, and what you’re about to see.'”

Perhaps the above quote is the best way to listen to this podcast: understand what it is, and what you are about to hear. Hullinger’s descriptions are sometimes extremely graphic; his emotions and perspective, though, are critical to absorb for any journalist and anyone seeking to get a better understanding of a profoundly difficult issue.

“I think sometimes we put the issue of death way behind us,” he told me. “The truth is, it is always near us.”

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3 GREAT STORIES OF THE WEEK: Starring Bill Gates, finding meaning, and giving back

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

I’ll be honest: I found the coolest story I read this week in an in-flight magazine.

Perhaps I have just been traveling too much.

I have taken two trips, involving six flights, for work in the last two weeks. Eventually I found myself with nothing to read, so I picked up the US Airways in-flight magazine … and I found a gem.

The famed author Andrew Carroll gave the magazine an abridged introduction to his just-released book, Here is There. I found it engrossing. In the article, Carroll recounts a few true but hard-to-believe stories from U.S. history, such as:

  • the time the brother of John Wilkes Booth saved the life of the son of Abraham Lincoln
  • how a group of Confederate rebels tried unsuccessfully to set Manhattan on fire

Carroll is a terrific storyteller, and I have since purchased Here is There and am awaiting its arrival in the mail. I decided to include his abridged introduction as an honorary great story this week, and — believe it or not — the in-flight magazine version can only be found in virtual magazine format online.

So you too can now experience the joys of getting inspired by an in-flight magazine, completing with the ads for two-karat tanzanite rings and indoor kart racing.

Enjoy!

And now, the 3 Great Stories of the week:

Bill Gates: ‘Death is something we really understand extremely well’ (5/17/13, Washington Post Wonkblog): This is a classic example of where a story is best served by a straightforward Q&A format.

Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein goes in-depth with Bill Gates, still the world’s richest person according to Bloomberg News, about his latest ambitious endeavor: the literal eradication of polio across the globe.

But the interview really gets fascinating when Gates discusses the ways in which different countries treat the reality of death. Some of his assertions are simply haunting, such as the following:

When you’re running a poor country health-care system, you can’t treat a year of life as being worth more than, say, $200, $300 or else you’ll bankrupt your health system immediately. So, with very few exceptions, you do nothing for cancer. If you get cancer, you’re going to die.

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