Wednesday, July 23, 2014

This week: Geneva, NE

The best and worst interviews ever

What seems like 100 years ago, but has really only been 23, I worked for a small county newspaper in the middle of south-central Nebraska. The town:  Geneva. The Paper:  The Nebraska Signal. Geneva is about one hour south of York on Highway 81 in Fillmore County. I was hired as a typesetter, one of only seven employees, but with a degree from the University of Nebraska, I was soon reporting and writing stories. During my year writing about the people and places in this slice of small town Americana, I met many interesting people and learned a lot about public service and community. It was also during this single year that I had the best interview I’ve ever had and a few weeks later quite possibly the worst interview ever.

Let’s start with the best. In May of 1992, Dr. Charles F. Ashby of Geneva had been practicing medicine in Fillmore County for fifty years. Take that in for a second. FIFTY YEARS. Half a century. The Superbowl hasn’t been around that long. The Nebraska Medical Association was giving him an honor for his 50 years of service and I was scheduled to interview him. We met at his expansive home on the outskirts of town after both of us finished work, a one-story ranch-style home. The home had a large open floor plan with living room, dining room and kitchen all together. At the back were floor to ceiling windows that framed the backyard. A cement patio was there, but I don’t recall seeing any patio furniture, however, the grass beyond the patio was perfectly thick and green and beyond that was a forest of tall trees. Mrs. Ashby welcomed me into the home and invited me to sit at the dining table and look out the window to see if her adopted wild turkeys were roaming the back yard. They were. Dr. Ashby, who wore suspenders with his dress shirt and pants, came into the space and sat at the table with me.

To my total surprise, the first thing Dr. Ashby did was light up a cigarette. I’d never met a doctor who smoked before or since. He caught me staring at the cigarette and told me he started smoking in the Navy and since he wasn’t dead yet, didn’t see a reason to stop. When I asked him how medicine had changed over 50 years, he said the biggest change he saw was something I took for granted; the change in Penicillin. When Dr. Ashby started Penicillin was a dark and unpurified liquid and a lot of it was required to work. Penicillin was only given by injection and had to be injected every hour. Not the drug we know today.

During this interview I had two significant distractions to fight against. The first were the two turkeys in the backyard. Every now and then the male would display his beautiful tail plumage. Not every day you see a live turkey wondering around. 

The other? During the interview, Dr. Ashby held the cigarette in his left hand with his arm resting on the back of the chair. As we talked, the ashes on the end of the cigarette kept getting longer and longer. It got to the point where I was watching the cigarette and not listening to the doctor anymore. I was pretty sure the ashes were going to break off and fall onto the floor. Then his wife came over, grabbed the ashtray off of the dining table and held it under the cigarette. She tapped his hand with her fingers and the ashes fell into the tray. She placed the tray on the table and walked back to the stove where she was cooking dinner. The doctor kept talking without missing a beat. This mini-drama would play out one more time during my visit.

The hour and a half I spent at the Ashby’s was enjoyable. Dr. Ashby told hilarious stories about his mischievous youth growing up in Fairmont (his wife said the town pretty much raised him because his father, also a doctor, was too busy to do it), tales from his time at Delta Upsilon fraternity in Lincoln and tales from the Navy. Most of these stories were “not ready for prime time” if you get my meaning, and didn’t end up in the article, which is too bad, because I felt like I had this wonderful experience that I couldn’t share with any one. Sadly twenty years later, I have forgotten what those stories were; I just remember my stomach hurt when I left because I was laughing so hard. I also remember his wife invited me to stay for dinner. I wish I had.  


A few weeks, maybe a month, later I received a phone call from a woman at the Assembly of God Church in Geneva saying that one of their members had just returned from a missionary trip to Columbia, South America, and had given a presentation of the trip at the church. The member thought that other people might find it interesting and asked if I would interview him. At the time I’d never been out of the country and the thought of traveling on a mission was intriguing. I wanted to know more so we set up an interview.

The gentleman’s name was Chet Frey and he spent 10 days in Palmira, Columbia (Population 400,000). The church sent a group of 11 men who came from various Nebraska towns to Columbia, as I was told by the woman on the phone, “to build a school.”  This was the information on which I based my questions.
We met at the church and the interview was in the office. Frey wore jeans, cowboy boots and a denim shirt to the interview, your basic Fillmore County farm attire. He looked very humble and unassuming. The first few questions I asked were simply fact gathering. Where are you from, what do you do for a living, how long were you there, the usual. Then I asked what Frey did on his trip (these are NOT direct quotes).

So, I was told you helped build a school.
Yes, well, it was a church, but there will be school rooms along with it so the kids can go to Sunday school.
Um, OK. Do you have any construction or building experience?
Uh, Ok. How did that work out?
Ok, I guess.
So what did they have you do? Hammer nails, drill holes?
Oh, no I didn’t do any of the construction.
Umm, OK, well then who did?
Oh, they had some locals they hired to build the school.
So, what did you do then?
I led the prayers with the children.
Oh, so you speak Spanish?
No. They had an interpreter who would translate the Lord’s Prayer to the kids.
And what else did you do?
I passed out literature.
Anything else?
Nope, that’s about it.

At this point, I just wrapped up the interview, said thank you and basically tried to get out of there as fast as I could.

In my head I remember this as being one of the shortest articles I wrote for the paper. However, I pulled a copy out of my archives and it is actually much longer than I remember. After re-reading it, I’ve decided I’m a better writer than I thought I was, only because I got a lot of mileage out of very few words, not because the story was any good.

I felt deceived by the woman who called me. I had visions in my head of someone who went to physically build a school. I thought he would be hammering nails into walls and putting in windows and doors, you know, sweat equity. What they were really doing was proselytizing and it made me extremely uncomfortable. The fact that they didn’t speak the native language made the article read like a comic opera. Here is an excerpt:

Frey’s job was to hand out literature and go door to door meeting and talking to people. Not an easy thing when the population speaks Spanish.
“It was frustrating ‘cause I didn’t know any Spanish,” said Frey. “Some of the fellows had taken some Spanish courses and were able to converse with them a little bit, but it was difficult.”

I felt I was fair in what I wrote. I stated the facts and used Frey’s words as much as possible. Unfortunately, this interview and the resulting article have always left a bad taste in my mouth even after all this time. I don’t blame Mr. Frey. I got the impression from his body language he was shy and didn’t want the attention a story would bring. He didn’t want his photo taken either. He was just doing something he believed in and felt he made a difference during his two weeks there. I have no problem with that. My distaste is with the Assembly of God church for sending a group of people to a foreign country simply to increase their congregation’s numbers and the woman, I don’t recall her name, who misled me about the trip’s purpose. There are people in organizations, many with religious affiliations, who are doing extremely hard work building wells, schools and hospitals, and providing medical care, food and education to people in need around the world. This story didn’t do those people justice.

Funny how these two completely different interviews happened in the same year, for the same publication and took place over 20 years ago.