No one anywhere at any time in the next few days or even weeks can say something to ease the pain being felt in a newsroom in Greenville, S.C. WYFF is a place with which I have at least a token familiarity.
Memorial Day is like most holiday observances. In a TV newsroom, assignment editors scramble to develop a working menu of stories. While retail stores are usually thriving with people, government offices are closed, schools are out and public servants are taking the final day of the weekend off with their families.
The typical roster includes retail sales compared to year-ago Memorial Day weekend totals, patriotic events, gas prices and holiday weekend travel, holiday festivals, crime or major holiday accidents, and weather-related stories (usually with increasing heat as June approaches or when heavy rains put a damper on Memorial Day cookouts).
The weather was a significant part of news coverage on this Memorial Day. Subtropical storm Alberto came inland in the Panama City area Monday and began its ascent toward Alabama. Gulf Coast stations, Dothan, Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville were all monitoring the progress closely. The Carolinas, likewise, were hit with pelting rains that went all the way up the Mid-Atlantic coast and created flooding in Virginia and Maryland.
No one in any newsroom anticipates a holiday will leave a staff heartbroken. Monday, at WYFF, tragedy struck.
Mike McCormick was an 11-year veteran at the Upstate South Carolina station. He started his career at WYFF as a reporter in the station’s Spartanburg bureau. In recent years, he became a weekend anchor. I never met Mike but I occasionally exchanged conversation with him on Twitter when interesting weekend stories developed.
Aaron Smeltzer was a talented videographer who joined the WYFF staff earlier this year. As happens when anyone signs on at a new television station, a few weeks are needed to become part of the culture. From all reports, Aaron had done just that.
Both men were 36. They were in the prime of their careers. McCormick, in particular, was a well-known face and voice to viewers in Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville.
Monday morning, their assignment was to report on the impact of heavy rains in the lower portion of Western North Carolina. They stopped to interview the fire chief of the small village of Tryon, NC. As is routine, they packed up their gear and were headed either back to the station or to another interview.
One of the offshoots of continuous showers is softening of the soil around even the oldest trees. I had personal experience with that approximately 10 years ago. A huge oak tree suddenly collapsed and crashed in my front yard during torrential rains. Thankfully, the tree fell away from my home.
No more than ten minutes after they left Tryon, a nightmare occurred at mid-morning. Aaron and Mike were traveling when a huge tree, softened at the roots by the constant downpours, fell and struck their SUV. They likely never saw it coming and had no time to react. Both men, with so much ahead of them, were killed.
I have no idea what the instant reaction was like in the WYFF newsroom. I wasn’t there. Yet, I know firsthand what the emotions are like when one has to report on the tragic death of a personal friend. I can surmise tears flowed from even the most stalwart men and women on the WYFF team. Mike and Aaron were two of their own. They were not supposed to be the lead story of the evening news on Channel 4 Monday night.
I had no doubt the voices and the emotions would be heavy from WYFF veteran anchors Michael Cogdill and Carol Goldsmith Monday night. I have known Michael for 33 years. He was a rookie reporter with WECT in Wilmington, NC, when I was news director at the opposition at WWAY. I badly wanted to hire him away. At that time, managements in Wilmington did not smile on “stealing” on-air journalists. Michael’s wife-to-be Jill Kremer interned with us at WWAY.
Carol is the epitome of professionalism. She has connected so well with women in the Piedmont area of South Carolina because she is a mom. When I served my fellowship at WYFF, she told me some interesting stories about her early days as a reporter while covering the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
I observed how Carol was always ready to answer the bell regardless of the story. I well remember a Fourth of July that was your typical “slow” news day. In the final hour before news time at 5, not one but two major breaking stories developed. A fire erupted in an apartment complex that left more than 20 people without a place to stay. Almost simultaneously, a Greyhound bus accident on I-85 near Anderson SC forced first responders to set up a triage on the interstate as traffic was backed up for miles.
That day, the WYFF news team was a machine. No sign of panic evolved. No worries surfaced in having to rearrange what appeared to be a routine holiday lineup. Carol and 5:30 anchor Tim Waller, who was subbing for Michael on the holiday, were cool and reassuring to viewers in the midst of what could have been two tragedies.
The difference Monday: Mike and Aaron were part of the family. Imagine attending a family reunion one day and receiving word the next morning that two of your relatives are gone. Mike and Aaron were in that newsroom early Monday morning. They will never return.
Someone has to do the obituary. Someone has to decide what to say about two colleagues, who to offer tributes and how to treat the kind of story that is not taught in college textbooks.
Michael and Carol had to tell their viewers that a regular guest in their homes would no longer be dropping in during the early evening or pre-bedtime hours. They had to give people a frame of reference about another member of the WYFF family they never saw but who was integral to every story he shot and edited.
Earlier in the day, I posted on our local West Tennessee Today Facebook news page a sentence that reflects how I would fell if I were back calling the shots in a newsroom. “When tragedy strikes a TV newsroom,” I wrote, “the news has to go on but hearts are breaking.”
In TV news, you take a lot of brickbats from viewers who hate the media and feel no one in a newsroom has a heart. Trust me, hearts are more than heavy in Greenville and will be for a while.
Michael and Carol and the reporting staff will have to go on detailing routine stories. Meteorologist John Cessarich will be keeping viewers updated on the aftermath of a storm called Alberto and the local weather. People are already gearing up for the hopeful fortunes of Clemson and South Carolina in football this fall.
Yet, for days, weeks, even months, things will happen that will bring back the memory of two men in their mid-thirties who were brothers in a special family. New people will be hired to fill their slots on the roster—but they can never take the places of Mike and Aaron.
Memorial Day 2018 will be remembered for years by the men and women who work for WYFF. In TV news, you cannot put up a sign that reads Pardon Us While We Grieve. The news will continue on Tuesday and beyond on Channel 4.
In an era when some who act out of misguided emotion attempt to minimize the sincerity of those who offer thoughts and prayers, the outpouring the WYFF family is feeling today is from people who genuinely are offering prayers for the two men’s families and the staff. A news team is in many people’s homes more than some in their real families.
My father was a minister and his gift was knowing the right things to say to families who were in the midst of grieving, especially in times of sudden tragedies. I remember many times in eulogies he turned to Psalm 147:3, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
That healing will not come tomorrow, this week, or probably next. For those of you who live in the Greenville area and regularly watch WYFF, remember that a lot of people you see on Channel 4 in the days ahead are hurting inside. They may not know you personally. However, you know them. Offer a prayer for them. Be a family to them at a time when they need it most.
God bless and comfort the WYFF news team, the entire station staff and the families of Mike McCormick and Aaron Smeltzer.
WYFF 11 p.m. newscast Monday, May 28