Bill McKelway’s first job in newspapers was in the composing room of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1971, when pages were put together with hot-lead type, long before computers took charge. Whenever an editor from the newsroom would pass by, McKelway would slip them a story he’d written and ask, “Hey, look at this. Do you think I could be a reporter?”
On Friday, as the longest-tenured reporter in the newsroom, McKelway announced his retirement.
McKelway, 68, spent the past 44 years telling Virginia’s stories from its coalfields to its courthouses, often giving voice to the state’s most marginalized residents.
“I’ve loved every day. Even the worst days, because they make the best days better,” McKelway wrote in a letter to his colleagues Friday morning, explaining his decision to retire at the end of the day. “Don’t forget the opportunity this work offers to bring hope and joy and a listening ear to people left behind.”
As news of his retirement spread on Twitter, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., called the veteran reporter “one of the most inquisitive and humane journalists ever to take up a pen.”
McKelway, who was born in Washington and graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1970, brought a sense of compassion to his reporting. Reporters, many of whom he mentored and encouraged, would often stop and listen to his phone calls as he comforted a widow or a mother whose child was accused of some awful crime.
“For anyone who’s had the privilege of sitting near Bill in the newsroom, they know there’s no one more gentle and patient at coaxing people into telling him their life stories,” said Times-Dispatch Editor Paige Mudd. “He is a masterful storyteller and a kind soul. His compassion comes through in his relationships with colleagues and sources and in the richly detailed tales he weaves. There’s just no one like Bill. We will miss him terribly.”
Sometimes people show up in the newspaper lobby, in need of a ride or a meal or a sympathetic ear, and ask for McKelway.
McKelway said he is setting down his notebook in favor of getting involved in charity work and having more time with his family. He has missed more than one Thanksgiving dinner while chasing a story.
“I’ve been very selfish relative to my family in terms of what seemed to be priorities,” he said. “I was always running after the siren or situation somewhere that needed attention from a newspaper standpoint.”
McKelway’s first published story for the paper was a profile of a bouncer on Grace Street and his last was a report on a wrongful death lawsuit alleging police brutality in South Boston.
In between, he traveled across Virginia, earning people’s trust and telling their stories. His work received numerous Virginia Press Association awards and, in 1984, he was named United Press International’s Virginia Journalist of the Year.
“I’m fascinated by people’s stories and what they endure,” McKelway said. “I just love a story that’s an indefinite tale of a life lived in an odd way, and the oddity of what life can throw at you and how people deal with it.”
A major factor in the suddenness of McKelway’s departure: He was horrified by the idea of a farewell tour or some big going-away party.
In 44 years, he’s grown accustomed to being the storyteller, not the story.
“My whole life has been ‘remove yourself.’ It’s not about the reporter,” he said. In the note to colleagues, he explained: “I’m trying to do this in a way that doesn’t interrupt the already too hectic pace of things here, that doesn’t make me the center of attention and then leaves me an emotional wreck with cake icing stuck to my ear hole and a balled-up napkin in my pocket.”