When Mr. Kirk put me on the spot

The first day of high school can be exciting and traumatic for lots of kids.  Mine was.

On my first day of high school, in 1971, Phil Kirk — my journalism and English teacher — put me on the spot.

“Your mother said you would be our photographer,” he told me and everybody else in the class.

She did?  That was news to me.

I was possibly the youngest and smallest person in the room.

He was also the youngest — the youngest person ever elected to the NC Senate in North Carolina.

I got a really nice note from Mr. Kirk the other day, and it was fun thinking about that time when he scared me a little and taught me a lot.

These days, with a digital camera in every phone, it’s hard to believe that a fifteen year old had never taken a picture before, but most of us back then had not.  Shutter speed.  F-stop.  Film speed.  All Greek to me.

I wanted to be on the newspaper staff not for photography, but so I could write stories and editorials.  He put me in the sports department, not because I wanted that either, but because that’s what was needed.

My first assignment was to interview Coach Pete Stout about the football team.  I wasn’t much of a student of the game, so I asked Mr. Kirk what I should ask him.  I still remember the look on his face.  Many others have given me the same look many times throughout my life.  It’s the figure-it-out–do-you-have-to-ask-me-everything look.

“Ask him if they plan to pass a lot,” he said.

I had other assignments.  I remember interviewing Harold Isenberg, the superintendent of the Salisbury City Schools.  I thought it was clever to record the interview and turn in a verbatim Q & A.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I thought I was the first person to ever think of that, that I was actually inventing the Q & A.

Mr. Kirk was less impressed.  “Didn’t take much effort,” he said.

I won’t even begin to describe my performance in his English class that year.

The photography was not a topic for discussion.  Mr. Kirk had worked his way through high school and college with my mother at The Post.  They were close friends for many years.  The Hornet staff needed a photographer.  They had struck a deal.

I’m guessing that neither senators nor teachers were well paid in those days, because I’m pretty sure I remember Mr. Kirk spending his Christmas break working on South Main Street at Belk’s.

Down on North Main, next to our family store, Zimmerman’s, was a store called Carolina Camera.

My dad got me a used Minolta, a used enlarger, some chemicals, pans, a dark room light, and some bulk film.

Dad advised me, when taking a person’s picture, to “get close.”

He gave me a few lessons on how to put film in a camera, adjust the settings, and develop pictures.  My father was a good photographer and these things came easily to him, so his teaching methods were fairly straightforward.  My learning methods could be a little tedious.  He eventually gave me a book and told me to just read it and figure it out.

Our bathroom became the dark room.

I didn’t take many sports pictures.  Fortunately, The Post provided some of those, along with the more skilled annual staff photographers at the school.  I was assigned the basic pictures of clubs, projects, features:  the people in the school, during school.

One day, a few months into the school year, Mr. Kirk asked me if my mother was telling the truth when she told him that I stayed up all night developing pictures.

“Uh, yeah.”

He might have had some sympathy, but I doubt it.  Mr. Kirk was such a hard worker; he probably thought I needed to work a little faster.

James Barringer, The Post photographer, tried to give me a few pointers.  He was nice enough to say that the problem with my pictures was the camera.

Bill Billings, whose father, Horace Billings, was sports editor, was the photographer for the school annual.  Bill’s pictures were excellent.  Mr. Barringer said that’s because he had a better camera.

I’m not so sure about that.

I’m not sure I had much aptitude for it, and I’m quite sure I had no idea what I was doing.  I had trouble figuring how long to expose the prints or how long to leave the paper in which pan.  When I could get a picture clear enough to identify the people in it — it was good to go.  I still cringe when I think about some of those grainy globs of gray I called pictures.  Sometimes they were so bad that David Wilson, the annual staff photographer, came to the rescue and retook the picture.  He knew what he was doing.  He used a light meter (whatever that was).

Mr. Kirk, our senator, might have felt bad about this abuse.  Perhaps that’s why he was nice enough to take me on a fascinating field trip to Raleigh to watch the legislature in action.  We had lunch in the cafeteria with Jim Holshouser, where I listened to his lawmaking buddies joke about Holshouser running for governor.

Two years later, Holshouser became the youngest, and first Republican, Governor in NC in the 20th century.  I felt like I had been there when the idea was hatched.

Mom thought Mr. Kirk’s political skills would take him as high as Vice-President of the United States.  She said he would never become President because of his limited oratory skills.

She got that wrong.  I’ve heard Mr. Kirk speak.  I also went to a Bill Cosby concert when Cosby was in his prime.  I can’t decide who was funnier.

He served as chief of staff to two governors: Holshouser and Jim Martin, and chief of staff to U.S. Representative Jim Broyhill.  He was president of the NC Chamber of Commerce, and longtime chairman of the North Carolina Board of Education.

More recently he was Vice President of External Relations at Catawba College, and he is currently Director of Brady Energy Services, spokesperson for the Yadkin Valley Winegrowers Association, and an awesome keynote speaker.

It’s been fun watching a former teacher build such a career.

On election days, I consistently vote Democrat, but I might split my ticket once in a while if more moderates like Mr. Kirk ran for office.

Consider this breath of fresh air from a bygone era of politics, back when there seemed to be a lot more cooperation and compromise between the two parties:  Former Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, has said of Kirk, a Republican: “If there’s a single person in this state who is more involved and at the center of every issue, I don’t know who it is.”