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Gina Stafford

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Knoxville, Tennessee stopped being my home on June 1, almost 26 years to the day since I moved there.

Leaving was a little bit scary, a whole lot stressful, and very exciting. My entire professional working life had been spent in Knoxville, but a fantastic new opportunity that I am immensely grateful for was waiting in Chattanooga.

So, I wasn’t moving too far away–about 100 miles–to keep in close touch with close friends. And I wasn’t moving any farther away–also about 100 miles–than I already was from family in my Middle Tennessee hometown.

I ended up in Knoxville in the first place, straight out of college, very coincidentally.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English-Journalism from Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville in 1992. Those of voting age in May 1992 will remember the economy was terrible then, when Bill Clinton eventually was elected president on a campaign focused on: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

For all the obstacles I had cleared and all my persistence in completing college, employment prospects were slim. I graduated cum laude with a 3.6 GPA and had a decent resume for a new college grad: managing editor of my college newspaper, section editor of the yearbook, internships, honor societies and one of three “Derryberry Award” nominees for most outstanding graduate in my class.

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With my hero and inspiration, Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps until her death in 2013.

I’d even won campus funding for a distinguished journalists lecture series I put together that brought print and broadcast news leaders, even the iconic White House correspondent Helen Thomas, to campus.

In Cookeville.

Following commencement, I spent May driving from Cookeville to Nashville or Knoxville or Chattanooga pounding the pavement.

Quite by accident while in Knoxville, I happened upon the Knoxville News Sentinel building and went inside to the Human Resources department. Brad Riley popped my starry-eyed bubble: the newsroom there did not hire people as reporters without prior professional journalism experience; and they had a file cabinet full of resumes of working reporters who wanted to be there. The opening they did have, however, was in the circulation department: an hourly job in the call center, taking subscription orders, delivery complaints, temporary delivery stop requests and so on. It paid minimum wage. Not exactly what I thought hard work in college was supposed to bring. Tennessee Tech is a fantastic university–especially if you want to be an engineer. For those of us not good at math or numbers, engineering isn’t an option, no matter where we went to college.

At Brad’s suggestion, I went ahead and completed a job application–hedging my bets in case that opening went unfilled while I kept looking for a little while longer.

Back in Cookeville, I heard the local daily newspaper serving that town of about 40,000 had an opening for a reporter. I got an interview with the editor. It went well, but he told me he was interviewing three other people and would make a decision in about a week. He also told me it paid about minimum wage to start.

So, the money was the same, but the two scenarios were very different. I could hope to get the reporter job at a small daily and build a clip file that I would seek to parlay into a job at a larger paper, eventually. Or, I could hope the job as a customer service representative for the Knoxville News Sentinel would, by putting me down the hall from the newsroom there, lead to an opportunity work as a reporter. Never mind the long odds, since the paper had never hired a reporter without prior professional experience.

I was just naive enough to believe I could will myself into the newsroom at the News Sentinel, so without waiting to hear back from the Cookeville paper, I went to Knoxville, interviewed for and accepted the offer of a job as a customer service representative.

I had split days off: Saturday and Wednesday. Daily start time was 7 a.m., except for Sundays, when I worked 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. I started in June. On Halloween, I used the employee costume contest to lobby for a reporter job. I wore my college graduation garb–plus a cardboard sign around my neck that read, “Will Write For Food”–when I stopped in to see the editor, the incomparable Harry Moskos. I also handed him a list of the “Top 10 Reasons to Hire Gina” in the newsroom. He laughed and made sure his managing editor, Vince Vawter, saw me, too. I was pretty hard to miss, traipsing around in a mortar board and flapping graduation gown.

By January, still putting on a customer service headset at work every day, I decided my big gamble was turning out to be a big bust. I was going to look for a reporter job, no matter how small the newspaper, and start over.

In February, I actually saw a job ad in the paper where I worked for a reporter opening at the small daily in Middlesboro, Kentucky, about an hour north of Knoxville. I sent a resume and cover letter, got an interview and was offered the job. By then, I had met my future husband–workplace romance, since he was a manager in the News Sentinel’s circulation department–so the only downside I saw to Middlesboro, Kentucky was that we might not be able to see each other as easily.

I gave two weeks’ notice to my customer service supervisor. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the managing editor approached me in my headset about three days later and asked if I might still be interested in coming to the newsroom. Yes, of course, I told him. He said he had heard I had accepted a reporter job in Kentucky, and I said if there was anything he could do to expedite the possibility of hiring me onto his team, that would be appreciated. He did.

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Plucky reporter girl.

And that’s how I came to be the first reporter hired by the News Sentinel without prior professional experience.

Not everybody in the newsroom was as excited as I was. A couple were resentful. I hadn’t “paid my dues” as they had. I understood that and I was as green as grass with a lot to learn. But I did learn, and I developed a thick skin as my writing got better. I worked with some fine people, and I made a lot of great friends. If you know me, you know that I say newspaper people are the best people, and I say it because it’s true. I agreed completely with the aforementioned, and now deceased, Helen Thomas that being a reporter “is the best job in the world.”

Still, after about eight amazing years of going places, seeing things, and meeting people I never could have otherwise, I wanted to advance professionally. I saw little chance of that where I was, and I became open to new possibilities. This was long before the economic decline the print media finds itself in now–my decision to consider leaving the newspaper had nothing to do with that. In my last couple of years there, health and medicine was my beat, which meant I knew the administrator and PR people for every hospital, physician group, fitness center and nursing home in Knoxville and its surrounding counties.

Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville, about 30 minutes from my house, recruited me to a position as PR manager with a pay raise and an opportunity where I believed I could make an impact. I felt I did from the first day and I learned a lot about a whole new career area: public relations. That’s not to say I was OK with walking away from journalism. Far from it. Being a reporter wasn’t just a job, it had been my identity. There was a big adjustment, and it took a while. And when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 happened, I never missed being in a newsroom more.

I believe I established some relationships with the news media and created some new communication approaches for the hospital that made a difference. We also dealt with a couple of crisis situations that gave us all some helpful insights. But after a few years, I wanted new challenges. I had begun preparing for them by enrolling in graduate school–toward a master’s degree with a science communication concentration–at UT Knoxville. A couple of my professors there and a couple of PR friends told me about an opening with the University, working for the UT system president’s administration, and suggested I look into it.

I did, and I was hired for the most challenging new job by the single-best mentor I’ve had to date. The mentor was my new boss, Hank Dye, whose name was familiar across the state in my line of work. 15865974740_6092e09dc0_o

He was the Dye in Nashville agency Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, and I could write a book about all I learned from him.

Generally, it’s accepted in PR that your job is to work to gain attention for your employer or, if you’re with an agency, your client. The first thing I realized in working for the UT president’s office is that you don’t have to seek attention for the University. It’s there 24/7, and everything happens in a fish bowl. And because our office worked with our counterparts at every UT campus and institute, statewide, Hank Dye aptly described it as like playing a game of “Whack A Mole.” Deal with one situation over here, another pops up over there. Something was always happening, and fast.

Every word said or written for public consumption mattered. I expanded my professional portfolio exponentially. I love to write–finding just the right phrasing to strike just the right chord–and the opportunities to do that, and other things I love, and to make an impact were fortunately frequent.

I loved the job, the fact I worked to advocate for higher education, and my adopted hometown of Knoxville. I had no plans to leave, until another opportunity–to advocate for higher education in a new way–arose in Chattanooga.

I was recruited to an opening there, and when I considered the long list of pluses–new and greater responsibility, leadership I already knew and liked, opportunity to work with students and faculty, continuing years of service with the University–I talked with my husband about it. I also talked with best friends and mentors. We all agreed it was the opportunity worth the big move it would require.

I don’t mean big as in far or foreign. I mean it would be a new city and the end of living in Knoxville after 26 years, for me, and for a lifetime, for my husband, Bill. But he was completely on board, and we both jumped into high gear from the time of the job offer in mid-April, until I was to start at UT Chattanooga on June 4–the day after my birthday.

UTC Day 1

UTC Day 1

I took that as another good sign that my decision to join the Office of Communications and Marketing there was the right one.

Neither Bill nor I have ever worked as hard as we did in the 30 days into which we crammed getting our Knoxville home of 24 years on the market, selling our house, finding and buying a Chattanooga house, moving me temporarily into an on-campus apartment at UTC, and then getting all of our stuff finally under one roof at our house in Chattanooga. I’m not sure we will ever be able to do that again. We don’t have it in us.

We’re still getting our new nest made, and I’ve been on the new job for a little more than a month–but everything is great on all fronts. As life flew by at 240 mph through May and June, I saw blog after blog to be written, but I had no time to write anything other than my name on real estate offers, mortgage applications and new job paperwork.

The big adventure continues, and I’ll be back here soon. For now, I’ve got to get back to moving right along…

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Downtown riverfront in Chattanooga, my scenic new hometown.

 

 

4 comments on “Moving Right Along

  1. Jack Britt says:

    Wow! You can write! The Whack-A-Mole story made me laugh, because I had heard it from Hank many times. It kinda reminds me of moving from NC State to UT. Hope you have great fun at UTC. Having fun in a job is energizing and rewarding!
    Jack

    Like

    1. Thank you so much! So far, so great. 👍🏻

      Like

  2. jdjutvolstwccom says:

    Gina, I really enjoyed your blog and finding out more about your past. I know you will do great things at UTC and the future is nothing but bright for you. Tell Bill I said hello and I will be keeping up with you on FB and Blogs! God Bless!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Jerry! Hey from Bill, too!

      Like

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