Sunday, August 31, 2008

Betsy Kling and daughter are doing great!

Betsy Kling stopped by the newsroom Friday to say hello .. and to give the rest of us a chance to see her little bundle of joy, Josephine Frances, born in mid-July.

With Betsy's permission, I snapped this great photo of mom and baby hanging out in the newsroom.
She told me that it's been great having the Olympics on .. because it gave Betsy something to watch as "Josey" or "chicken" -- as she's been called -- has kept mom and dad up late.
By the way, reporter Paul Thomas .. a.k.a. "Dad" and "Betsy's loving husband", doesn't seem to get much of the credit or attention here .. but Betsy says Paul has been a great help .. and a great dad .. and has "the diaper stuff down pat" Betsy says.
Expect Betsy back on the air in the fall .. while Paul is already back in the newsroom -- a bit tired.


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Anyone else seeing this fire?


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Firefighters fighting blaze, news crews fighting to get there

If you haven't been outside in the last half hour in Summit County, go out right now and look East.

See all the black smoke? It's a big fire .. in Brimfield ... but it can certainly be seen for many, many miles.

I took this picture from Summit Mall to send to WKYC, which was still trying to figure out where it was.

At first, I called Akron dispatchers, and they told me it wasn't their fire but they were getting a lot of phone calls. Then I called Cuyahoga Falls dispatchers and was told that they knew nothing about it, had gotten no phone calls, and didn't have time to look out the window the rest of us.

I've since learned that it's a company off State Route 43 in Brimfield .. just north of I-76. Might be a recycling company just behind a Mexican restaurant. One of our producers is on the ground there and sending back photos and info for WKYC.com.

Still, I've never seen a fire that's a full county away and yet the smoke is that clear in the distance.

I just spoke to our nightside videographer, who ironically lives very close to there, but he's still en route .. and probably won't reach the scene for another half hour.

More later ... Eric

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Cooey's murder claim a bit late in the game

Of all the local death row inmates, Richard Cooey has been the one whose name just keeps popping up.

First, he tried to escape from prison and got a lot farther than most folks thought he would, and then he actually came within hours of death before some judges granted him an extension on one of his legal claims.

Earlier this year, Cooey even claimed he was too fat to be killed.

Now comes a new story .. and maybe the most believable of them all. Cooey claims he was already an experienced killer before he murdered two Akron college students in 1986, according to a new report from the Associated Press:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A prosecutor in Ohio tells The Associated Press that she is launching an investigation into a death row inmate's claim that he committed an unsolved murder more than two decades ago.
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh says she'll ask police to look into the claim by Richard Cooey, who is scheduled to be executed Oct. 14 for killing two college students in 1986.
Cooey says he killed a man who hit his sister but was never prosecuted for it.
Documents obtained by the AP indicate Cooey made the claim to prison employees while awaiting execution five years ago. The allegation was not investigated at the time.
Cooey's attorney Eric Allen says he needs to study the claim before commenting.
In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, Cooey argued that he is too fat to be put to death. He said executioners would have trouble finding his veins and that his weight could diminish the effectiveness of one of the lethal injection drugs.

It doesn't sound like this revelation could stall Cooey's date with death, but it does add fuel to the fire for police to interview him again sooner than later.

Still, what the AP doesn't report -- and maybe doesn't know for sure -- is how many times local police have already interviewed Cooey behind bars. For that matter, as much as I'd like to interview the guy for a news story, he scares the hell out of me. Anyone who can do what he did to those two women 22 years ago has to be considered as "pure evil."

Still .. while this claim is new news to most of us, this may be old news to local police ... I'll have to check with some sources and see what I can find out.

A return of "Akron-Canton News" .. at least on-line

It's not quite an evening newscast .. nor is it "live from Akron" like we used to be .. but through the power of technology (and some help from WKYC director Frank Macek) ... I present to you Akron-Canton News -- the on-line edition.

The video player on the upper right side of the screen will provide all of the most recent Akron-Canton area stories we've aired at WKYC. Right now there's 20+ video stories in there from the last week+ .. everything from politics to crime to the Inventor's Hall to a sit-down interview with a local doctor. And you can jump ahead or go back to watch the stories in the order that you like.

Or you can sit back and watch them in sequence and get a full plate of news just from our area. I'll continue to load the other video player on this blog with my most recent story for those who just want the latest big story from the area.

Still, the Akron-Canton News player is at least a start .. and my hope is to add a few copy stories that I'll read from our Akron newsroom to kind of round-it-all out.

Anyway .. it's an experiment .. one that we can advance and tweak to make better.

So tell me what you'd like to see, and I'll work at it!

Eric

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Seriously folks ... it's time for local police to get help

Twice in the last six days, I've been left holding the bag by local police departments that had easy opportunities for positive press. In the spirit of giving you the punchline first: it's time for some local cop shops to get a PIO: Public Information Officer.

Both times, the departments made good busts and would have received positive press for catching the bad guys .. yet neither got much play on the air because of gaffes on their part.

Cop Shop #1 sends out a press release that they've busted a child killer and lists a lieutenant's name and phone number as the contact. Knowing this is a big story, I call the # on the press release and leave a message that I'm on the way. When I get to the department, the dispatchers keep me in the lobby for 45 minutes and then tell me, "the lieutenant says he doesn't want to do any interviews because it's not really his case and detective so-and-so knows a lot more about it so why don't I come back after 3?"

Seriously folks. A government agency sends me a press release and then doesn't want to talk about it?

Open holster .. insert foot.

Cop Shop #2 makes the opposite mistake. Their officers made a major arrest of an armed defendant which should be really good news and probably a lead story. Yet, when it came time to notify the press, the lead detectives didn't know what to do ... so a secretary got out the yellow pages and started to call "the media." Unfortunately, after calling a few of the agencies, she assumed that all the media talks to one another and therefor we'd all know to come to the cop shop for the story.

Seriously folks. A government agency with a big arrest thinks the best way to get all the media there is to just call a few? That's like ordering food and assuming that if I tell the waitress what appetizer I'd like that she'd automatically know what to bring me for dinner and dessert.

Bottom line: I like the officers at both of these departments (I'm intentionally not naming them) ... and I know that neither of the slights was intentional. I was still able to find other stories each time to fill up our news, but I couldn't help but think that these agencies dropped the ball.

Still ... Seriously folks. It's time for some of these agencies to train a PIO who knows how to deal with the media. It's a process that works quite well with other government agencies so that the right information gets out in the right manner.

With so few reporters left covering Akron full-time (radio, TV, and print), agencies really need to take advantage of the opportunities they have to get positive press.

Seriously.

Olympics? Yeah, I watched that!

Internal memo that came out today:


"NBC Universal tallied 214 million total viewers for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing over 17 days, solidifying it as the most watched event in U.S. TV history, according to Nielsen. This tops the 1996 Atlanta Olympics at 209 million viewers and the 2004 Athens Games at 203 million."

Think folks will still be able to recall the name "Michael Phelps" in January?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Stow actress hits big screen again and again

I got a call today from a very proud father.

Ronald Keeling is pretty excited for his daughter's latest big screen role. Haley Bennett plays the character of "Kendall" in the upcoming movie College, which hits the big screens this weekend. (photo courtesy: fanunity.com)

Bennett is a graduate of Stow High School, and her filmography includes a role in Music & Lyrics (see photo courtesy: actressarchives.com) which featured Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore.

College probably won't win any Oscars, as its description adds it to the ongoing genre of college men in pursuit of campus co-eds, but it should be entertaining .. and should allow Bennett to show off her personality. To be honest, Drake Bell of the Disney Channel's Drake & Josh is the only actor in the movie I've ever heard of .. but he should be enough to sell some tickets.

Just as College comes out of theaters, Bennett will be back in the title role of The Haunting of Molly Hartley due out at Halloween. She'll play a high school senior who moves to a small town only to have her past haunt her.

Again, not an original story line, but it's still strong enough for the big screen .. and should be yet another chance for Stow's own to shine and hopefully launch her to even better roles .. and keep a big smile on a proud father's face.
Break a leg Haley!

Consider yourself warned ... ALL speed tickets are now $100

The speed cameras will be back tomorrow (Wednesday) as Akron Public School students return to class.

Yet, unlike the first two years of the program, there will no longer be a grace period where tickets only cost $35.

ALL tickets -- even those on the first day of school while your daughter is holding an apple for the teacher -- will cost you $100.

Lt. Richard Decatur of APD told me that the grace period was scrapped as Akron parents are now keenly aware of the program, which is supposed to include a sign warning you that you're approaching a speed camera.

Of course, some have argued that the program is unfair because it fines the owner of the car versus the driver .. while others just feel it's too expensive. The courts have ruled in Akron's favor so don't expect the cameras to go away any time soon.

By the way, I tried to find out which school will be targeted on day one .. but Decatur wouldn't budge ... so keep your eyes open tomorrow .. and let's all get our kids to school safely.

Monday, August 25, 2008

So .... how'd you get here today Mr. So-And-So?

It seems the weekend's "Child Support Days" was a big success .. drawing nearly 1,000 people who were trying to rectify their delinquent child support and get their lives back on track.

Among them were 415 people who were intent on getting their driver's licenses reinstated since one of the first penalties for falling behind is a license suspension.

Can I just state the obvious?

How many of these 415 drove to the church with a suspended license hoping to convince the courts that they deserve their license back?

Can anyone say "irony" ....

Internships important but shouldn't be so costly

I just said goodbye to a couple of great college kids who interned with me this summer in the Akron newsroom. Both were hard workers, and I think they learned a great deal about the news business by tagging along for the summer.

That's what internships are supposed to be: hard work to gain real experience in the workplace. So in this case, I think my duo of Kent State and U of Akron proteges did real well.

My gripe isn't with the interns .. it's with the colleges that send them to us and other local businesses.

Why are these students paying their respective universities a full price for three credit hours -- as much as $1,000 each -- when the Internship doesn't really involve campus at all?

The students put in their time (and gas $$) to take part in what should be a valuable work experience, while the company (in this case WKYC) puts in the time to give the interns training and experience.

Yet, it's the campuses collecting the $$ for what -- in many cases -- ends up being a paper turned in at the end of the semester.

Is the cost of that really worth a $1K?

With today's college students already struggling to pay the bills, couldn't colleges decrease the cost a student pays for internship hours considering the college itself has very little overhead?

Again .. most students aren't going to complain .. because they know how much they need the experience. Also, the universities themselves love to market the internship opportunities their students receive.

So why not make it easier to do both?

Watching from the outside .. it just seems like the best way to encourage students to succeed in internships is to make the course more affordable.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Room service anyone? UA students directed to local hotel

Well .. at least somebody is staying at the Radisson.

With classes set to start tomorrow (Monday), the folks at Zipville had a problem with too many students applying for campus housing .. and not enough rooms! That's even with the additional rooms at the Quaker Hilton.

Well .. at least for now ... campus folks tell me that new students are being parked at the downtown Radisson -- at least until U of A leaders can determine who actually showed up for housing ... and where some extra space might be.

I'd expect shuttles to be available throughout the day to get students from West Mill Street to the main campus and back.

Still .. imagine being a new freshman .. expecting your first fun night in the dorms .. and instead, you're at a local hotel for a few nights with cable TV.

Actually, the more I think about it . .the more it sounds pretty good!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Parents' child support stories run the gamut

I wasn't surprised by the turnout at today's "Child Support Days" as much as I was by the stories I heard. gamut

Fathers (and yes, mothers too) pleading their life stories to total strangers in hopes of getting their financial lives turned around to a positive end. (photo: parents meeting with case workers during "Child Support Days")

Many were nervous. Make that VERY nervous.

They were worried that they were playing a risky game of real-money Monopoly .. and would be heading directly to jail (do NOT pass "GO") after going through the metal detectors .. and long before they could plead their cases. (Maybe the "child support office" should be a new property on Monopoly?? I mean, who visits the 'electric company' anyway?)

I met a mom who owes $14,000 for her daughter .. but who says she can't afford even the $50 minimum monthly payment because as the widow of a veteran, she only collects enough money each month to pay her rent.

I also met a father who says he fell behind because he had knee surgery and literally couldn't get out of bed to go to work. When his knee heeled, he tried to return to work driving a truck and a snow plow, but found his driver's license suspended for missing child support payments .. which in turn prevented him from being able to work and get caught up.

It's those kinds of vicious circles that were a common theme in parents' stories today.

In all, Summit County has 57,000 open child support cases. Some cases involve parents with more than one child .. so that's a LOT of families involved.

Let's hope Saturday's second day of the program is an opportunity that others take advantage of as well.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Colleague gives outsider's take on News miscues

Yesterday's media merry-go-round with the Stephanie Tubbs Jones death watch has gotten a lot of web chatter.

Ed Esposito takes the whole industry to task in its rush-to-last-rights ... while my former co-worker, Chris Hyser, offers a rare outsider's view by one who used to be on the inside. Chris spent 11 years at WKYC (and time at WJW and WAKC before that) producing the evening news .. so he's got a good grip on how the process works during big news days.

I'd expect that yesterday's news cycle will become good fodder for college journalism classes to ponder in the days to come. It would be a very good topic for next month's "Ethics and the Internet" seminar at Kent State as well.

Ashley Spencer settling in on Broadway

As many of you know, Stark County's own Ashley Spencer, who was runner-up on NBC's Grease: You're the One That I Want last year, is now starring in Grease on Broadway. It's the role she always wanted, albeit a year later than she'd hoped.

Playbill.com recently sat down with AS to talk about getting the starring role. Click here to read it. (Photo courtesy the same article)
Having met AS twice, I can just hear the excitement in her voice as she talks about living the dream.

As you'll read in the article, while AS came up short on NBC, it still launched her Broadway career as she's spent the last year in the cast of Hairspray.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Akron-Canton News set on the move -- literally

First the show ended .. now the set that I called home for the last seven years is gone as well.

Here's a picture, courtesy Kyle Kutuchief, of the last show on May 30th along with the live audience that came to cheer me on. (What a night!) You can see how the set is positioned on our Akron turntable with the green screen in the background that was used to create the computerized background that viewers saw of me.

The set itself actually has some pretty good history. It's the weather set from the "old" Channel 3 News building on East 6th Street. To my knowledge, Amy Hasten, David Rogers, and Mark Nolan all used that set for the traditional 6/11 weather forecasts. When WKYC moved to its current Lakeside Avenue location in 2000 which included a brand new set, the old set was sent south for the Akron-Canton News broadcast that debuted in June 2001.


This was the news set today as producer Duilio Mariola and others from PBS 4549 take over the turntable in preparation for their own live productions in the Akron newsroom. They've moved the set off to the side of the turntable so they can remake a special set for NewsNight Akron, among other things.

Since Channel 3 is no longer producing a full newscast, we no longer need the actual set. I can do liveshots for WKYC (and I will in about 25 minutes as part of our 5 p.m. news special) from a standing position and the viewers will never know the set is gone.

Now the set is headed north again .. back to Channel 3 for storage.

I always liked sitting at the set and collecting my thoughts before a show. I'd often drum on the top of it to keep myself entertained during commercials. It just doesn't feel right sending it to mothballs, but I'm staying positive that better things are ahead.

News agencies backtracking on Tubbs-Jones condition

Multiple newsrooms .. broadcast and print .. have already run headlines this afternoon saying that Stephanie Tubbs-Jones died. Count CNN, AP, and the Plain Dealer in that group. As I write this, many are now retracting those statements.

At a press conference that concluded just a few minutes ago, a spokesman said STJ was still alive.

One other TV station's website is already saying it made the mistake only because it was quoting the PD.

Let the finger pointing begin.

WKYC.com has held its headline that STJ suffered an aneurysm.

Quick to print gets you in trouble!

Local Dems reacting to Tubbs-Jones

I'll be talking with local democratic leaders later this afternoon ... but as fate would have it, former Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell is in Akron today. She's attending a business meeting with Mayor Plusquellic. Through a spokesman, JC sent this thought:

"Just two days ago I was with Stephanie Tubbs-Jones co-hosting a fundraiser for a woman running for Congress in. Suburban Dayton/Columbus. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones is a remarkable woman - no matter that she had a different candidate for Mayor, we found common ground. Cleveland and indeed the nation lost a champion and I lost a friend. My prayers go out to Mervyn, her son, her sister Barbara and her many friends."

Summit County Democratic Chair Wayne Jones also knew STJ well, having run her campaign for State Supreme Court. Wayne Jones tells me that STJ was not only a good politician, she was just "a good lady."

Congresswoman Betty Sutton is in Akron today .. but we're still waiting to talk with her.

More to come.

Tubbs-Jones story resonating in Summit County

As our Cleveland newsroom tracks the progress and hospital updates on Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, I'm looking for local reaction in Summit County, specifically from the Democratic leaders who worked with her over the years.

I'm hoping to chat with Congresswoman Betty Sutton later this afternoon .. along with some other local leaders.

There certainly is other news going on today, but a story like this will dominate tonight's headlines.

More to come .. Eric

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Alleged rape victim says she trusted off-duty officers at bachelor party

I had a chance to talk to the woman at the center of the rape allegations involving an off-duty Akron Police officer who was part of a weekend bachelor party.

She wasn't home when I visited her today .. but I left my card and she called me back.

Under advice from detectives, she's not granting interviews about what happened ... but she did tell me briefly that the officer she met that night at the bar was someone she "felt safe with" because he'd told her he was an Akron officer and had even displayed his badge and gun, she said.

Beyond that, she's just scared .. and she says she still can't believe this happened to her. She said that Akron detectives have been professional and courteous in taking her statement, and that she felt really comfortable with them.

More than anything, she said she just wants to protect her privacy while coming to grips with what's she told police that she endured.

As for the police investigation .. not much new today. Detectives are still waiting to talk with some of the other off-duty officers who were there Saturday night but who right now are out of town on vacation.

We still don't have the officer(s) side of the story either.

I will tell you that Internet chatter about identifying the accused officer is way off base. Even if police identified the "suspect", we would NOT have identified him .. just as we wouldn't have identified any other suspect.

I can't speak for other news organizations, but once someone is formally charged, only then will our news department name them on the air .. as it's then a matter of public record. Before that, no specific names are put in our stories as a matter of newsroom policy.

Let's face it .. anyone can accuse anyone else of just about anything. So to name someone -- police officers included -- who is still only being investigated isn't ethically right in my book .. and I won't do it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Bachelor party rape accusation getting top priority at APD

A 26-year-old Akron Police Officer is on paid leave tonight .. after a woman accused him of rape during a weekend bachelor party.

Here's my on-line story just posted.

The party was thrown by off-duty officers for an off-duty officer.

The 22-year-old woman from Wayne County called 9-1-1 around 5 a.m. Sunday from the Radisson hotel on West Mill Street. She said she met up with the men of the bachelor party Saturday evening at a downtown bar and then went back to the hotel room with them as the party continued. She claims she was assaulted between 4 and 4:30 a.m.

On the line with dispatchers, the woman didn't know where she was and didn't know the names of the men in the room .. other than they were Akron Police Officers and she believed they were all named "James". She admitted that she'd been drinking. A dispatcher told her not to take a shower until she met with police.

The police report itself doesn't shed a lot of light on what happened other than the woman was transported to St. Thomas Hospital.

Some of the officers who were at the party left for scheduled vacations Sunday and Monday .. so now investigators have to call them to find out what they know.

Police aren't saying yet what involvement any of the officer off-duty officers may have had .. so there's still a great many questions out there. I did ask FOP President Paul Hlynsky if officers other than the 26-year-old on the report were being accused of physically assaulting the woman and he told me "depends on which detective you talk to." Hlynsky had limited information .. and says he needs to give detectives time to do their jobs .. but right now doesn't feel the accused officer(s) crossed the line.

Any way you spin it, APD is taking another shot to the jaw .. at a time when rallies are being held to help build up support and faith in the Department.

A lot more needs to come out on this .. and it will in the days to come .. but right now, the force is short at least one officer at a time when every gunslinger is needed out on the beat.

Sexual assault investigation just beginning ..

While I'm still trying to talk to all of the parties invovled, I have enough confirmed information to break the story tonight on Channel 3 News at 6.

I can tell you that the woman is 22 .. her alleged attacker is 26.

Believe me .. the circumstances surrounding this one .. will have everyone talking ...

See ya at 6 .. Eric

What will soon be the "talk of the town"

I'm still getting details ... but a sexual assault investigation is about to take center stage on the local news scene. I first learned of it last night, and now I'm driving some miles to get this one ready for tonight's newscast.

Also, the rumors are true .. as the Clarence Elkins case looks like it will finally be resolved. Earl Mann, a.k.a. the "real killer of Judith Johnson," pleads guilty this afternoon at the Summit County Courthouse.

More later .. Eric

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Returning to normalcy

After yet another trip outta town this summer, I think I'm finally back for a while.

My latest trip took my to Cincinnati all week for photography/editing training as part of our ever-changing broadcast business. That was preceded by my 40th birthday (don't even start) on 8-8-08.

Anyway, after missing much of the last six weeks, I plan to catch up on quite a few topics in the coming days .. plus a hint of some of the big news stories I'm hearing about .. and of course some fun and humor too.

By the way, Betsy Kling and her daughter are doing well, at least according to my wife, Lisa, who chatted with Betsy the other day as her maternity leave continues.

It's good to be back.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Krendick verdict leaves void

While the debate over yesterday's not guilty verdict is just beginning, the one empty spot I have is that I wish Stephen Krendick had taken the stand.

I realize that in fighting a murder charge, maintaining silence is probably best .. and in this case, the judge agreed with the evidence (or lack of it) without Krendick having to testify.

Still, I wanted to hear his side of the story.

I wanted to know what he was thinking as the struggle in the jail cell two years ago progressed. Why he chose the actions he did. What he and the others were saying to one another as the event unfolded. And to hear him describe how he came to the conclusion that getting Mark McCullaugh under control would take extreme measures.

I've got to believe that Krendick has replayed that night in his head 1,000 times already.

I think we'd all like to hear his side .. specifically why he used pepper spray the way he did. While there was a great deal of testimony about how the large can of pepper spray was designed for riot control and how it had never been used at the jail, did anyone ever testify that they tried to stop Krendick from using it? Does that mean that the other deputies that night realized that they were in an extraordinary fight so Krendick and the others needed extraordinary measures to regain order?

Good or bad, hearing it straight from the person's mouth allows others to see a bigger picture. Again, Krendick's choice to remain silent paid off in court .. and at this point, he may never speak publicly about it and instead focus on trying to get his life back on track.

But I can't help but think that Krendick's testimony might have shed a lot of light for the Monday-morning quarterbacks on why he did what he did .. and only Stephen Krendick can provide those answers.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Paris Hilton's video says it all

Hilarious .. and in many ways, really sums up how silly the Presidential Race has gotten.

See more Paris Hilton videos at Funny or Die

Krendick NOT GUILTY

Deputy Stephen Krendick has been found not guilty in the death of Mark McCullaugh Jr.

I'm waiting on more info from the courthouse, but in the end the Judge agreed with defense experts that McCullaugh didn't die from the struggle he had with Krendick and other deputies but rather lost his life to some other factor.

More to come ..

Krendick verdict due within the hour

The fate of Summit County Sheriff's Deputy Stephen Krendick should be known in a matter of moments.

Ed Esposito at WAKR tells me that visiting Judge Herman F. Inderlied Jr. has reached his decision in the case that centers on the 2006 death of inmate Mark McCullaugh.

Krendick faces 15-to-life if convicted of murder.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Barack Obama's makes market stop in enemy territory

Sen. Barack Obama's unplanned stop at Stahl's Market near Ravenna was quite a treat for those who work and shop there .. and a surprise as well for the owners, who are Republicans.

WKYC reporter-anchor Chris Tye is on board the media bus that is trailing Obama's events in Youngstown and Berea today .. so Chris was able to cover Obama's market stop for tonight's newscast.

Meanwhile, I was dispatched from my story in Kent to get additional footage of Obama's stop at the market. We arrived too late to see Obama buy some peaches and talk to folks, but I did get a chance to talk with one of the market's managers, Donna Stahlnaker.

When it comes to visits by Presidential candidates, it seems the business's owners are the last to know.

Take a look:

video

Monday, August 4, 2008

My near-death experience with the Soap Box Derby

So there I was ... suit and tie .. microphone in hand ... surrounded by the best soap box derby drivers in the world ... with an audience of 2,000 including all the parents in the audience.

E.J. Thomas Hall was full of energy and excitement.

With bright lights in my face and special-effect smoke rolling in from the left, I took a few steps forward on the stage to engage the crowd .. as we emcees are supposed to do.

All of a sudden, I stopped .. and my eyesight cleared just enough to see that I was standing near the edge of a stage looking down about 50 feet into the orchestra pit below.

Another step-and-a-half and I'd have been a goner.

What no one told me was that while the orchestra pit was covered at the beginning of the awards program giving the appearance of a solid, complete stage (see diagram) .. the pit was being raised and lowered periodically to make the derby champs rise up like Elton John at Radio City Music Hall.

Again, no one told me .. and with the lights and smoke, I nearly made derby history in front of a few thousand people by falling to my death. I could see it now ... The "EJ" in "EJ Thomas Hall" would forever be stand for "Eric Jumped".

For the rest of the show, I stayed close to the podium and didn't stray towards the front of the stage. Meanwhile, I was keeping a close eye on the drivers that were coming on and off the stage as the orchestra pit kept going up and down.

At one point, Dennis Van Fossen Jr., last year's champ, was on one knee presenting the champ's ring to this year's Rally Champ. While kneeling, DJ was only about two feet from the edge .. I made a point of remarking to the microphone that he should watch his step as he stood up or he too might have tumbled.

Altogether, it was a great show .. and I loved being part of it. Still, while the race has been nicknamed the "gravity grand prix", I didn't need the stress of knowing how close I was to proving the "gravity" part.

Back to work ..

I'm returning to the office -- and the computer -- later this morning .. after a week's break to get some sun. Thanks to all who kept checking the blog in my absence ... hope you had time to catch up on a few topics and weigh in with comments (many of you did).

How is it that I leave for just one week and Firestone makes a deal to keep 1,000 jobs in town, the sewers-for-scholarship project has real points to debate, and the HOF, Golf Classic, and Twins Day all came and went? Oh, and Betsy Kling had her baby (a daughter weighing 8-11) while my colleague Barbara Gautheir up and left for a station in Georgia?

Seems a lot happens in a week.

I'll be reporting in Akron for the first part of today and then heading to Cleveland to anchor the 6 and 7 for Tim White ... plus trying to catch up on 500 emails, 200 phone messages, and 100 faxes all waiting at my desk.

Still, as long as I can make time, I need to blog about my near-tragedy in front of 2,000 people. Later today: How I almost died on the big stage.

Have a great Monday! Eric