“Boy, I’m not going to remember your name, you’ll be gone in six months.”
Those were some of the first words uttered to me in my introduction to Culpeper and I was determined to prove them wrong.
It was August of 2005, I had just started as the new sports writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent and then sports editor Drew Hansen was introducing me to players, coaches and staff at Culpeper County High School.
At the time, CCHS was the only high school in town and there was no one higher on the food chain in the sports world there than Billy Thornhill. Thornhill was the longtime basketball coach, athletic director and CCHS graduate who was a star player. Everyone knew Billy.
I was in town just a few days, but I already knew of his exploits - it didn’t hurt that my now wife Sarah had already been here a couple of years so I knew a lot of the teachers and coaches already.
I’ll never forget Drew guiding me through the throngs of people at a cross country meet and grabbing Billy, saying in his booming voice, “Billy, I want you to meet Jeff Say, he’s our new sports writer.”
Billy gave me the once over, shook my hand, and uttered those 14 words that changed my life.
I was taken aback when he said it, but laughed it off and started talking about the hopes for the football team, what it meant to have a star runner like Devin Cornwall and what he thought about his basketball team for this season.
In the back of my head, all I could think was - “I’m going to prove him wrong.”
Billy, however, had a point. Sports writers come and go through Culpeper like water through the dam at Lake Pelham. Within months, Drew was gone. I was promoted and then a cavalcade of sports writers came through. In the last 15 years, I counted 10 between the two papers just now.
There’s been one constant though - I’ve never left.
OK, so Billy isn’t completely right. I’m not leaving Culpeper. As most have seen, I’m moving to a new role as the CEO/President of the Culpeper Chamber of Commerce.
This does mean though, that after 20 years, I’m leaving the newspaper industry.
As a father of three girls, I see the writing on the wall. I have three colleges to pay for. Three weddings that will likely be coming out of my bank account. Three girls means a lot of outfits for formals, school dances and proms.
I’ve loved my time in the newspaper industry, but anyone who has worked in this field knows you don’t do it for the money - you do it because you love it. I’ve loved it just as much as the next ink-stained wretch. The deadlines, the adrenaline rush you get when you have a midnight deadline and you just got back from a football game at 11:25, the feeling that you have your pulse on what is going on in the community - I’ve lived for that for the past 20 years.
At some point, possibly right after I turned 40, I realized I felt a calling. I wanted to have the feeling that I was making a difference in Culpeper, in helping make Culpeper a more positive place and in helping it thrive - and I felt the calling to do so in a different capacity.
I’ve always joked I’m like Liam Neeson in “Taken.” I have a very particular set of skills, however mine don’t revolve around rescuing my daughter from kidnappers. I’ve thought long and hard how I translate my years of experience in journalism to another field - and for me this role as CEO/President of the chamber allows me to continue to put my communication skills to good use.
That being said - I’m really going to miss the newspaper business.
I was told when I first started in the business, that the industry had “50 years - tops” to live and then it would be replaced. At the time, I scoffed. The Internet was fledgling, there was no guarantee it was going to stick and newspapers were in an institution. When you’re 21, 50 years feels like an eternity - I’d have plenty of time to have my career, flourish and still maybe prepare someone to keep the flame burning on local journalism.
Today, I’m not so hopeful. I believe that Culpeper is well-positioned and lucky to have two papers serving it and I’m proud to say I’ve worked hard at both of those institutions.
I’ve had countless once in a lifetime experiences: racing down Blue Ridge Ave. in a Piedmont Area Soap Box Derby car, soaring through the skies in a 1920s biplane, going dove hunting, developing a love of lacrosse and touring untouched Civil War battlefields - just to name a few.
I’m sad to leave the Times - but I’m thankful Rappahannock Media owner Dennis Brack and our publisher Tom Spargur have allowed me to create and fulfill a vision here of what I believe our community wants to see. I’ve worked with Tom for 10 years and he’s always trusted me to make my own decisions - sometimes I was right and sometimes I was wrong - but his trust remained. I’ll always appreciate that.
I was told the other day that the Times is the “positive” paper and I embrace that. I think Culpeper wants to see the success stories of their neighbors, to learn how to help each other and to embrace the new businesses that open here. I’ve worked long hours to try to ensure those values are presented in my writing style, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
I’ve been blessed to work with two very talented young people in photographer Ian Chini and designer Jay Ford - who are the future of their fields. Most people know Ian as an entrepreneur with his DJ and producing business and I’ve seen first hand his dedication and his passion. He’s going to go places.
So is Jay, who designs all the ads in this paper, the Rappahannock News, all the lifestyle magazines and everything else our company publishes. He has an eye for design that I envy and I’m proud to call him a friend. Someday, I’ll be able to say “I worked with those young men,” when they are making waves in their fields.
At the Star, I worked with countless talented people on both the news side and advertising side. I’m not going to be able to name them all, but I want to personally thank Rob Humprheys for bringing me to Culpeper - it’s become my home.
To Ron, Rhonda, Allison, Vince, Jeff, Kevin, Jason, Shane, Adam, Liz, Katie, Catherine, Ray, Sara, Becca, Steven, Glenda, Drew, Josh, Karen, Zann, Maggie, Bud, Marshall, Wally, Anita, Mark, Johnny K, and everyone in the newsrooms I worked with over the years - thanks for all the fun times and experiences shared.
The positive is that, yes, I’m not leaving. In fact, I’m probably going to be even more visible in the community.
And for those asking, yes, my girls are excited. I think of all the articles I’ve written over the years, those three little angels still are the most asked about portion of my columns. Thank you for reading about them and indulging this proud dad over the years. Thank you to my wife for allowing me to share our hectic life - even though I’m not sure she’s ever read one of my articles fully. (Love you Sarah.)
Thank you to the public for reading my pieces, pointing out my errors, having conversations with me and most of all for sharing your stories with me over the last 15 years here in Culpeper.
I can’t wait to continue to promote Culpeper and I’m sure I’ll keep writing, the focus will just be more on Culpeper and the businesses in our county.
This isn’t goodbye, and this isn’t the Final Say.
This is simply thank you. I’ll see you soon.