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Vince Staten: Joan Roesgen could make even a Sewer Board meeting story interesting

VINCE STATEN • Aug 3, 2013 at 11:04 PM

There have been a lot of talented people work at this newspaper over the years. We had a general manager who went on to become a nationally known television evangelist (Ben Haden). Two editors would win Pulitzer Prizes (Ron Kirksey at the Akron Beacon Journal; Rich Whitt at the Louisville Courier-Journal). A staff writer would become a star writer at the National Enquirer (Bob Smith). This newspaper has employed future authors (Wendell Potter, Mark Dawidziak), a future congressman (Jimmy Quillen was assistant advertising manager in 1935) and lots of award winners.

But none had more talent than Joan Roesgen.

Joan and her husband Bill arrived at the Times News in 1964 as a team; he was the editor, she was the star reporter. In 11 years they turned a sleepy small-town newspaper into a vibrant, award winning metropolitan daily.

Joan did things that reporters at this newspaper hadn’t done before; she didn’t just follow the cops to a crime scene, she would return later and talk to the eyewitnesses.

She was a terrific reporter and a great writer with a wonderful eye for detail. When she wrote about the Sugar Shack, a gaming house on East Sevier and the scene of an odd double murder in 1968, she didn’t just identify the participants by their death certificate names. They were Porkchop and Big Slim, “a hard man to find if he doesn’t want to be found. In the last 20 years, he’s been in court a couple times for felonious assault and a couple more limes for possessing and-or selling whisky.”

It wasn’t just a fight with no eyewitnesses. “Nobody outside heard the sigh a man makes when a knife comes out his back, and nobody outside heard the shots from the pistol that evened the score.”

Her stories were, well, stories, absorbing, well-told and always, always interesting.

When they sent Joan to cover an eight-inch snow in February 1966, she didn’t come back with the usual roundup of complains from unhappy stranded motorists. She came back with this front page story. In fact most of her stories ended up on the front page:

“Louis Long woke up Saturday morning about dawn, took one look out the window, and rolled over with a groan. Snow. Seconds later he was on the phone. “Don’t worry, Louis,” a voice assured him. “All the boys are out.” But Louis WAS worried — that’s been his job for the past 32 years — and he gulped a cup of coffee and left on the run, but only made it as far as his driveway — stopped cold there till he put chains on his tires. Louis is general foreman of the Kingsport Department of Public Works, but people who don’t like to bother with chains call him a lot of other names when it snows.”

Joan integrated the all-boys breakfast club that met each morning at Mack Ray’s Cafeteria on Market. The cafeteria was famous for its men’s table, the round table in the front window, which had two rules: No women allowed, and nothing said there could be reported elsewhere. The table was presided over by Times-News political writer Ellis Binkley and was frequented by professional men, lawyers, city officials and other ne’er-do-wells. Roesgen broke the gender barrier in 1970 and said she discovered that the reason nothing said there could be reported was because nothing said there was worth reporting.

They used to say in the newsroom that Joan Roesgen could make a Sewer Board Meeting story interesting.

In 1975 the Roesgens took their act to Montana, then later to Racine, Wisconsin.

Her last bylined story appeared in the Racine Gazette on Friday:


Nobody in this town died today. But according to the obits in the local newspaper, three “passed away,” one “went to his eternal reward” one “left here for a better place,” and one “joined Jesus in heaven.”

When I die I want anybody who cares to read about it in the newspaper to know that I just plain died and that I did it without a clue to where I was going except up the chimney and that I would have been very much surprised if anything or anyone greeted me after the smoke settled.

When what’s left of me is stowed in that ash box the people who love me, if any are still around, can do with me what they want as long as they don’t put me on the mantle. I’d die.

Joan Roesgen died Wednesday in Racine. She was 81.

Even her obituary was interesting.

Contact Vince Staten at vincestaten@timesnews.net or via mail in care of this newspaper. Voicemail may be left at 723-1483. His blog can be found at vincestaten.blogspot.com.

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