Twenty-one years ago today in Montgomery, AL, as a fledgling "college-boy" newspaper editor, I published a news story that for the week rocked the Montgomery-area and became a news sensation around the country. What happened?
Well, former Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar had been speaking at an engagement the week before where he let slip to the now-defunct Alabama Journal that the Montgomery Police Department maintained a list of people in the city who were "known AIDS victims." After the speech, the mayor said they really didn't keep such information. The local news media dogged the mayor for several days about it.
At 1 or 2 a.m. one night when I was headed home from school, I was out talking to some of my police friends and one of them began talking about the media attention surrounding the "AIDS list." As we talked he asked, "Do you want a copy?" I did.
The editorial page editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, Ken Hare, who also had been a professor of mine for my one and only journalism class, (I was a poli sci major who spent most of college working on the paper) suggested that I make a hand-written copy of the list and take it to the mayor. If you will recall, 21 years ago there were typewriters and ribbons where forensics people could go back and trace machines to… So, I made a hand written copy and took it to the mayor the morning of Sept. 23, 1987.
The mayor was very angry when I walked into his office. As I walked in his secretary was calling the Chancellor's Office at Auburn University Montgomery to direct the chancellor to call the mayor as soon as he got in.
I was 21 at the time, and the first thing the mayor did as I walked in was ask about the scanner I was carrying, wanting to make sure it was not a tape recorder. You see, I was really there to tell him the list wasn't as secure as he thought it was. If they were keeping it to help make themselves aware of the dangers and unknown at the time, they really should have been treating everyone as though they had AIDS as we do now when someone gets cut, etc. But we just didn't know things like that at the time, particularly not in the Bible Belt of the Southeast.
And so, once the mayor realized I wasn't recording our conversation, he let in. He never sat down. Was squeezing the hell out of his cigar the whole time. "Let me see this list." I handed him the hand written version. "Hell, anybody could have written this," he said as he threw it back across his desk at me.
He then proceeded to tell me that my source was a SOB and that I was guilty of "Intellectual dishonesty" because I wouldn't tell him which officer had given me the list. Finally he said, "I don't have any more time for you just get the hell out of here."
As a result of this, I came up with an important journalistic tenet about protecting sources: "It's important to protect your sources, especially when they carry guns." In 21 years, I have not ever breathed the name of that officer and I never plan to do so.
When I got back out to my paper's offices at school, there was a call waiting to go see the chancellor. When I got to his office with the previous year's editor, the chancellor asked/wondered if we were "Trying to be a real newspaper or be a college newspaper." We responded that we were doing everything we had a write and obligation to do under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Pretty brazen stuff for college kids.
For the next week we did newspaper interviews, TV interviews and radio talk shows. I looked over my shoulder everywhere I went.
At Christmas, I sent the mayor a Christmas Card. It said, "I found your name on a list, my Christmas Card list." At the time I thought it was funny. A few nights later I was coming home from school and went into the 7/11 at the corner of the Bypass and Buckboard Road where we lived at the time. As I was going in, four MPD officers were coming out. As I bought my Pepsi and returned to the car, they turned left onto the Bypass and as they drove off into the night, over the local frequency Channel 4 in Montgomery I heard, "Keep it up and you won't be around to eat your Christmas dinner."
I don't know if they were talking to me or playing around with each other. But I never messed with the mayor about anything again after that.
And as time progressed and I went to work for Gov. Guy Hunt, the first GOP governor elected in Alabama since Reconstruction following the Civil War, Emory and Anita Folmar became pretty good friends of mine. As a matter of fact, they sent the nicest wedding gift when I got married the first time.
So, 21 years later, I sit here in the NorthPark Center Apple Store thinking about how much the world has changed. I got out of the news business and into the PR business and have been much happier ever since.
A few years after this, I was named the "Foremost Student Iconoclast" for the college campus there in Montgomery, not just for the AIDS list, but because of changes we brought about in the paper for the school. We were bold. We decided that contrary to the administration's view, there was a world going on beyond the boundaries of the campus, and we planned on being a part of it.
So, for the past 21 years, I've been on both sides of the equation. I've attacked the establishment and been a part of it at times, too.
And today, I'm happy to say I'm not part of either. I'm in a different place in life and enjoy it. Okay, it's about time for my One-To-One session, learning Photoshop Elements and Final Cut Express. Things no one would have even thought possible as we moved from IBM computers to Macs the summer I became the editor of The Aumnibus, the college paper of AUM.
Here is the Journal article from 21 years ago today–and the subsequent political cartoon they did about moi, too.