Memorializing someone you never met
Updated: Jun 28, 2018
As a news reporter, you sadly cover a lot of death. Reporting the "who, what, when, where and how" are usually straightforward details. It's the follow up stories I find to be incredibly difficult to tell. You have the impossible task of capturing the meaning of someone's life in a memorial story. In less than two minutes, I must attempt to describe who the person was, what impact they had, and how they will be remembered. It's so important to get it right, and do that person justice -- because they are no longer here to speak for themselves.
Today, I had the tall task of memorializing David Mains, a fire captain in Raymond, who clearly had a profound affect on his community. He was a 10 year firefighter, architect, and father of four. He died in a motorcycle accident while attending a rally with club members. He had a great smile, was quick to make a new friend, and was a true community servant. Somehow he had time to be the Raymond Fire Captain and Fire Inspector, while working a full-time job, having a family of five, and volunteering for organizations like the Special Surfers. One detail that didn't make it into the story is that he has a child with down syndrome. When I asked the Fire Chief, "What do you want people to know about David?" he got choked up and said simply, "He was a father, and husband." The picture above was taken at a daddy-daughter dance he attended. The Chief smiled when he said instead of wearing a suit to these kinds of occasions, Mains would wear his firefighter uniform. He took it as a sign that Mains took great pride in the department.
The story gathering process is different in every situation, but in this case I didn't want to directly approach the Mains family right away. His wife, who was injured in the crash, is still in the hospital. I didn't know if his children would be home and who would be caring for them, so I simply didn't go. Instead, I reached out to a few people over social media who were involved in an online fundraising campaign to cover funeral and medical expenses. (Amazingly, this fundraiser brought in more than $30,000 in about 24 hours. I think that speaks volumes about who Mains was, and the impact he had.) The Fire Chief did not want to do an on camera interview. It's not ideal to have audio-only interviews for a TV broadcast, but in this case I did not want to push him. The Chief helped me find a friend of Mains, who is in the same motorcycle club. The friend (pictured below) was willing to do an on camera interview, and he also provided some great personal photos to include in the story.
I am always so grateful when people trust us, and open up to us about some of the most painful experiences in their lives. It's never easy, but I think they see the greater good. They understand that by doing the interview, they are helping us, and helping the community, understand and remember their loved one. The approach I try to take in these situations is listening more than speaking, and giving the interviewee all the time they need to express themselves. I thinks for some people, sharing the story is part of the grieving process. I also think about how I would want a reporter to treat me if I were in their position. I would only open up to someone who acted with compassion and sensitivity -- and that's what I always strive for in these delicate situations.
Writing the story is the hardest part. Today I must have sat at my computer screen for at least 30 minutes thinking about it before I typed a single word. I read online tributes about Mains to try and get a better "feeling" for the situation, and tried to focus on a single theme for the story. What I ended up focusing on is how Mains served his community in so many ways. In his death, that community is giving back to his family, and coming together.