Buster Carico

Mel “Buster” Carico was already a legend in journalism when I went to work for The Roanoke Times as a copy boy in 1965, shortly after graduation from Floyd County High School.

Carico started his 45-year career at the Times as a clerk in the mail room and later worked the switchboard at the paper. But he was a natural-born newspaperman and became the most famous political reporter in Virginia.

I also wanted to be a reporter and the copy boy’s job was my entry into the newspaper and also a way to help pay for classes at The University of Virginia‘s Roanoke campus on Grandin Road. I would volunteer to work the phones, take dictation from reporters in the field or anything else to get into the game.

Most of the reporters and editors saw me as a pesky, over-eager, 17-year-old kid.

Not Buster Carico. He’s work at his desk with his tie loose and a red baseball cap on his head and call me over with his trademark Virginia twang and say “hey good buddy, give this guy and call and see what he knows.”

Carico, along with Ben Beagle, taught me how to coax information out of a reluctant source. They let me write inserts for some of their stories and showed me how to tighten the prose.

At Carico’s urging, I applied for an internship at The Times for the summer of 1966. He told city editor Jim Echols to “give the kid a chance.” I got the job and — three months later — morphed into an 18-year-old, full-time reporter.

As the youngest full-time reporter at The Times, my ego could — and too often did — get out of hand but Carico and Beagle would bring me back to reality. When Echols dressed me down in front of other reporters for screwing up a story, Beagle and Carico took me across the street to the bar of the Ponce de Leon hotel and patiently explained what I did wrong and how to avoid doing it again in the future.

“You’ve got the makings of a good reporter,” Carico said. “You ain’t there yet, but you could be.”

When I won a Virginia Press Association award in 1967, Carico pulled me aside and said “listen good buddy, it’s nice to get an award but we don’t do this for awards. We do it for the readers. That award was for yesterday’s news. What are you doing for today’s news?”

In the days before laptop computers, reporters would call their stories in from the field and dictate them to a “rewrite man” on the other end of the phone line. I typed a lot of Carico’s stories over the phone. He’d dictate several paragraphs and then ask “how’s that sound?” If a kid like me would suggest a change, he’d listen. Sometimes he would agree. If he didn’t he didn’t mince words.

“That’s crap,” he’d say. “Leave it the way I said it.”

Carico covered the General Assembly as a one-man bureau, often leaving in the dawn hours to drive to Richmond and returning late at night. One day he turned to Dick Hancock — who became city editor when Echols left — and said “let the kid come with me.”

In Richmond, I watched Carico work and marveled at how politicians he often skewered in print would still seek him out.  He suggested stories and told me “get to it.” Then he would go over my copy and show me how to turn it into a good story.

“Don’t bury the story in a jungle of words,” he said. “Get the point and let the story tell itself.”

I took that advice with me when I left The Times in 1969 and joined the staff of The Alton Telegraph in Illinois. I got that job because legends, mentors and friends like Buster Carico took a brash, overeager kid and helped turn him into a newspaperman.

On Wednesday night, the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association inducts 93-year-old Carico into their Hall of Fame.

That induction is well-deserved…and long overdue.

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