A Master Storyteller

This magazine lost an exceptional editor — and countless folks across the mid-Atlantic lost a wonderful friend — with the recent passing of Bill Sherrod

July 2020

Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Executive Editor

What first drew my attention was his eye for detail … his curiosity … his knack for turning a mundane event into a great story.

Back in the summer of 1994, I was looking to hire a journalist. In that pre-digital age, I collected a tall stack of resumes. There were overblown resumes. Underwhelming resumes. Resumes rife with typos. Resumes way too long or too brief. But none just right.

But in going through the stack again … there it was. A resume I had missed earlier. It was well-written. With solid credentials. Most interestingly, the attached writing sample was a story about … a lost shoe.

Yes, a lost shoe. A shoe by the side of the road outside Appomattox, Va., where this applicant was editor of the weekly paper. Now, with his parents aging, he wanted to return home to Richmond, to take care of them. Between the lost-shoe story and the honorable relocation motive, I was intrigued.

After the job interview, I was sold. On Bill Sherrod. And over the next quarter-century, Bill would prove to be much more than a rock-solid journalist. He would become a valued colleague. A close friend. And as fine a person as I’ve ever known.

Sadly, Bill passed away last month at 65, after a brave, unflagging defiance of an unrelenting disease, pancreatic cancer. From the diagnosis in spring 2019 till his passing —under the loving care of Nancy, whom Bill called “my angel” — he faithfully followed three maxims: Stay positive; take one day at a time; and most importantly, keep the faith.

When Bill was recently awarded the Electric Cooperative Distinguished Service Award, weakened by the disease but standing tall, he accepted it by saying, “I feel like I’m the lucky one.” Truth is, those of us privileged to know Bill were the lucky ones.

Bill relished covering the heroism of The Greatest Generation. During his 26-year career with Cooperative Living, he wrote about World War II officers and infantrymen, sailors and Marines, and Army Air Forces pilots and crewmen.

Bill was also an outdoorsman whose passions were fishing and writing about fishing. On weekends, he would float leisurely down the Staunton River in his small boat, or fish from the banks of the modest lake behind his home near Richmond. For Bill, the fish were secondary; the real catch was in the experience of being in the great outdoors on a beautiful day, with a blue sky, a gentle breeze and a warm sun blessing it all.

A proud graduate of Randolph-Macon College, Bill was an English major who enjoyed music and movies and, of course, literature. Two of his favorite books were Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” Bill loved the humor of Heller’s novel, the heroism of Wolfe’s. More than anything, Bill loved a tale well-told.

His own work in Cooperative Living was honored over the years with numerous writing awards. His plaques would end up behind a row of books on his shelf, as a holder for his ball cap, or inside a drawer. The only award he truly coveted was a letter, an email or, best of all, a phone call from a reader. Whether complimentary or critical, Bill treated every reader with respect.

Another favorite pastime was going to a public place — a mall, a museum, a park — and just sitting and watching people, in all their idiosyncratic glory. Bill loved people, and everyone loved Bill. And every day, Bill celebrated life; life in general, his own life, and that of those around him.

Still wondering about the lost shoe? In publishing the story, Bill found the owner. A mother recognized it as the shoe her young son had thrown out the window of their speeding car. Bill, of course, squeezed a follow-up story from this, with photo, showing the lost shoe, now lost no more.

The late Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, wrote, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” Through his stories of everyday lives, mundane events and simple pleasures, Bill Sherrod not only proved to be a master storyteller … he made us smile with him, all along the way.