I wasn’t always a medical journalist. And I wasn’t always a cancer patient. Although, as I am lucky enough to age, it seems like a very long time. Yes, I began telling patient medical stories for a living in 1984 and became a leukemia patient in 1996. But my career actually started in Charlotte, NC in 1972 as a young television news reporter. Eventually, the leaders at WBTV News gave me the wonderful chance to not only host and produce human interest features stories but also to travel anywhere I wanted in North Carolina and South Carolina. That’s a big region and far beyond where people watch that station. It was a dream job for someone who was just 27. But I couldn’t do it alone, of course. I worked with a film cameraman, Brad Stafford, for over two years. Together we produced something like 250 human interest stories, and I will reminisce below for a good reason.
Why am telling you all this? Because just as my family is getting settled back in Charlotte after me being away 35 years, Brad has died from complications of liver cancer. I never got to see him as his decline was very fast, and I am very, very sad. No doubt, dear reader, you have lost people you care about, too. It’s tough as your time with them is etched in your memory. For the benefit of Brad’s family and friends—and maybe me (and you) too—I wanted to recall some good times long before cancer claimed Brad’s life or disrupted mine:
Our job with Carolina Camera was to tell the “good news” stories that made the Carolinas unique. That meant interviewing Willard Watson the aging moonshiner in the mountains who regaled us with stories of outrunning the “revenuers.” The moonshiners and their hot cars were the roots of NASCAR. As a New York City boy, this was fascinating to me. Brad’s camera rolled away. Also in the mountains of NC, there was the story of “The Whooshies.” These were young people who made an idol of one of the first huge wind turbines in NC. These were “flower children” in the ’70s who danced and sang underneath a huge steel monolith overlooking the college town of Boone.
WBTV crew in action
Then there was the time near there when Brad and I were doing a story on extreme skiing. We heard a roar and spotted a B-52 bomber flying LOWER than us through a valley. We tracked it down and, months later, flew in one of those B-52s from a base near Raleigh—back over the ski area at 500 feet and then up to 41,000 feet for an aerial refueling. Brad was thrilled.
Brad and I loved flight. One day, he proposed we train to be pilots. So, together, we took and passed the FAA written test for private pilots. Then we took lessons, soloed and became pilots. WBTV was great to us and would pay for us to rent planes and to fly to assignments and to have a platform for aerial footage. One time, we flew several hours down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to do a story on a craftsman who made one-of-a-kind duck decoys for hunters. We landed at a little landing strip as far east as you can go, by the base of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. All it was was a slab of concrete. The man told his stories, as they always did. The camera rolled, and we knew it would be a ratings hit. Brad was a gifted video storyteller. The man insisted we stay for dinner. It was getting dark, and we would have to fly out in a less than safe situation. No worries. The man said, “I’ll just light the end of the runway with my headlights!” He did and thank God our plane popped off the bleak runway, and by moonlight we flew back to civilization. If the engine had sputtered, Brad and I would have been fish food long ago!
There were countless other adventures that Brad caught on film and that were seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Carolina Camera was one of the most popular television shows, and it was incidental that yours truly from New York was in front of the camera. Brad made me look good.
I will always remember the time I appealed to Brad’s love of flight to go up with his camera in an F4 Phantom jet to showcase the military side of life in South Carolina. As the jet rolled to a stop, there was Brad with his head in a bag. The forces of gravity and the acrobatics of the pilot got the better of him—but not before he got great film. The story was unforgettable.
I am back in Charlotte now, and the culture has changed. There are few “down home” people, a lot less chicken, grits and fried okra. It’s much less regionally unique. Too bad. Brad documented Carolina history, and he was a master at it—and I hope he never lost his North Carolina accent. I am just so sorry we have already lost him, and I did not get a chance to make him smile and remember one last time!
I welcome your comments and wish you and your family the best of health!