I grew up in the small town of Oglethorpe, Georgia — the kind of place with just enough nothing to do that your mind can run free. And back in the 1970s and 1980s when I grew up in that town, there was even more nothing than there is today.
But I’m thankful for all the nothing my hometown offered me: Skipping rocks at Oakley’s Pond. Dodging water moccasins in Town Creek. Riding my bike to the Suwannee Swifty. Bagging groceries at the C-Mart IGA. Playing baseball in the kudzu patch. Lying in the grass. Watching the stars.
That’s just enough nothing to give a fella time to think and space to imagine.
My head became filled with stories, but I wasn’t the talkative type. I’m still not. So I spilled them onto paper and, later, into word processors and computers. In fact, I still remember the first fictional piece I wrote:
Please excuse Chris’ absence from school yesterday because he was real sick and was definitely not skipping school to go fishing at Oakley’s Pond. He also may need extra mashed potatoes at lunch today. Thanks!
Poetic and prophetic. I’ve never been much for school or rules. I conform when I have to, but I don’t like it. I don’t even consider myself an “out-of-the-box thinker.” I prefer to think of myself as the guy who crushes the box and plays with the bubble wrap.
I began my newspaper career in 1989 as a part-time sportswriter for the Times-Recorder in Americus, Ga., with no intention of going into the business. I just needed beer and pizza money during college at Georgia Southwestern. In 1990, I became the sports editor at the little weekly Citizen and Georgian in Montezuma, Ga., then went into the business full-time as a sportswriter at the Daily Times in Valdosta, Ga. — high school football capital of the universe. I returned to the Times-Recorder in 1993 as the sports editor and became news editor in 1995.
It was also in 1995 that I started writing a weekly newspaper column under a pen name — Bo Hunter (the same pen name I would later use for my first novel, “Oya’s Wake”). I even wore a disguise in my column picture because if people hated it, I wanted them to hate it on its own terms and not based upon what they thought of me as a journalist. I stepped on a few toes and found pleasure in discovering that sacred cows make the best hamburgers. I remember one perpetually grumpy reader came in, put his arm around me and said, “Chris, you’re the only one up here who’s got any sense. BUT I HATE THAT DAMN BO HUNTER!”
“I’ll pass it on.”
In 1997, I landed a job as a copy editor at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. But that meant giving up Bo Hunter and my column writing. Copy editors don’t write columns, you know. Until 1998, that is. That’s when my editor let me fill in for a columnist who went on a two-week vacation. I’ve been writing a weekly column there ever since.
In 2011, when I hit the age of 40, the newspaper business had severely contracted across the nation. You were either unemployed or very employed, and I had gotten very employed. I was burned out. Then a job opening caught my eye: Director of Communications at The Fuller Center for Housing back in Americus. It involved everything from media relations (I know them folks!) to photography to social media to website work and more. It would be quite the change and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. Then, in my interview, Fuller Center President David Snell said, “What we really want is someone to tell our story. When people find out what we do, they tend to like us.” (I’d later learn how true that is.)
That’s how I began the easiest job in the world — explaining to folks how The Fuller Center works. It truly is different from other charities in that it partners with families to help them have simple, decent homes. It’s charity that uplifts and empowers rather than diminishing pride and creating more charity cases. Millard Fuller, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who died in 2009, had a brilliantly simple vision for helping people help themselves and it is thriving today. In today’s polarized America, there are few organizations that bring so many people together from the far left to the extreme right and everywhere in between. It’s because no one is against helping people help themselves.
Even though I’d fled the journalism business, the Ledger-Enquirer wanted me to keep writing my weekly column that now runs on Sundays. The Fuller Center allows me to do that as a side gig. And, quite frankly, with all the stress that had come with added duties in a contracted newspaper environment, writing a column was about the only thing I enjoyed about the job anymore.
This was not just a career transformation. It also got me closer to a beautiful woman from Perry, Ga., whom I married in Key West in 2012. I’ve since made this nice little town in the heart of Georgia my new home. Our blended family now includes her two children and my son, great kids who make us proud and keep us thankful.
I’ve angered politicians. I’ve gotten threats. I’ve had a racist smash his newspaper box to bits in a newsroom because he hated me so much. I’ve had a coffee cup thrown at my head. Preachers have informed me more than once that I am going to hell. I’ve had editors spike my column for various reasons. I’ve also had a blind man cry on the phone with me after “reading” my column through the National Federation of the Blind’s Audio Newspaper Service. I’ve had sweet little old ladies tell me, “Give em hell, Chris!” I’ve gotten thank-you’s from cops, soldiers and a more than a few folks who got a chuckle or a resurrected memory out of my words. I like making folks mad. I like making them happy. I like making them think. I like challenging the status quo. For all of those reasons, I keep writing.
And I hope you keep reading.