A day or two ago, UBC admin Paul Taubman suggested, as a writing prompt, that we interview someone and post what we learned.
Oh, Paul, you know not what you suggest!
Between being a community journalist and editor; a TV reporter, host, and producer; and a medical marketing writer, I’ve done my fair share of interviews, and I’m here to tell you that it’s not a matter of simply asking questions and dutifully recording the answers.
Especially when you’re interviewing on live TV!
Here in Pinellas Park, Florida, we have our share of local characters, and none was more colorful or beloved than the late Helen Howarth.
Helen was a shade under five feet tall, and carried her ample weight with aplomb. She was in her seventies when I met her, a feisty woman who kept Park Oil Company going despite a runaway partner and husband. She drove her company’s big oil trucks, and could heft an oil drum onto her back and install it without turning to feminine wiles to get help from the guys.
Helen was … plain spoken. One day at a city council meeting, she got up to speak, and in the middle of her comments the mayor made the mistake of interjecting an observation of his own. “Well, goody for you,” retorted Helen, and proceeded to verbally clobber the council for not doing a job up to her standards. Let us say she didn’t spare any words, even those starting with the letter “F.”
She often said that God “premonitioned” her about things. She swore to her dying day that she’d seen souls leave their bodies when friends passed, and maintained that the Catholics were withholding the cure for leprosy so they could keep collecting money for the people afflicted with the disease.
Once, she took it upon herself to give me advice about intimacy. “Don’t get too skinny,” she told my then-diminutive self. “A man doesn’t like to be slapping the mattress when he’s f***ing you.”
Yep. Helen was a character, all right, but her good deeds significantly outweighed those verbal bombs.
When she learned that a family was having tough times, she bought and delivered groceries to their back door, anonymously, for weeks. When she was found out, she told the man who discovered what she was doing to mind his own damn business and keep his (fill in the blank) mouth shut. Another customer, an aging woman whose son pretty much ignored her, was without oil to keep her home heated during an unusually cold winter, and had no money to pay for it, Helen simply kept delivering, and wrote off the charges.
There are dozens of similar stories about Helen’s kind heart, so no one was surprised when she was named our city’s first Citizen of the Year in the 1980s, and I asked her onto my live TV show to be interviewed.
Oh, I knew I was taking a gamble. You never knew what Helen was going to say, or how she was going to say it!
I prepped my questions carefully, and planned with my director the ways we would cover if Helen’s language got particularly blue. This was a woman who could talk over God himself. For the first time in more than five years, I worried about an interview.
“I’d like to introduce my next guest, Helen Howarth, the first person recognized by our Chamber of Commerce as Citizen of the Year,” I said to my home audience. “Helen, welcome!” (I figured that was safe enough.)
“Thank you,” said Helen in the smallest voice I’d ever heard pass her lips.
Thank you?! OK, she was being especially polite for the cameras. I tried a drawing-her-out question: What did you think when you heard the announcement at the Chamber banquet?
“It was humbling,” she said, and looked down at her hands, fidgeting with a hanky. A hanky. Helen always carried a bandana to sop up her sweat while working. I didn’t know she owned a hanky!
Ob, boy. The award was presented in part because of the good things you’ve done in the community, the people you’ve helped. What guided you to those acts of kindness?
“God wants me to serve.”
How did you decide what to do?
“I saw a need.”
Does any particular situation stand out in your mind, from all these years?
This was probably the longest, most painful twenty minutes of my life. Helen answered in short, quiet sentences the entire time. She presented a meek, soft-spoken demeanor that nobody would have believed had they not been watching. For me, it was the Chinese water torture of interviews. People talked about that interview for months, marveling at a side of Helen we’d never even suspected.
Another live interview that held a different surprise was with then-Library Director Barbara Ponce.
Many were the hours we’d swap jokes, trying to one-up each other with plays on words, unexpected twists, and plainly bawdy offerings.
On one of my monthly shows, the library had a regular segment that involved me interviewing Barbara about whatever was going on in and around the stacks.
The first time Barbara appeared on the show, she was understandably a little nervous. Talking for a TV audience is different from talking to a group of library patrons. I spent a few minutes before the show trading jokes with Barbara, and by the time we went live, she was doing just fine.
Or so I thought.
You know how sometimes you get nervous and you say things that don’t come out quite the way you expect? Happened that night to Barbara.
“So,” I said to her about 30 seconds into our 8-minute segment, “I understand that the Pinellas Park Art Society is using the library as a sort-of extended gallery, hanging original art in your meeting room. Tell us a little about that.”
Barbara nodded, acknowledging my comment. She took a breath and smiled. She had plenty of grist for this conversational mill, knowing just how the artists were selected, and how carefully the exhibit had been planned. Barbara was here to give a boost to our local culture.
She looked right into the camera and with absolute clarity told God and everybody,
“Oh, yes, Billie! Many of our artists in Pinellas Park are well hung!”
My eyes went wide open, and as the import of her bungled opening line hit Barbara’s brain, I could see the panic rise!
I did the only thing I could think of, and gave my director a near-heart attack by looking at my camera and announcing, “And we’ll learn more about art exhibits at the Library right after this!”
So when Paul suggested we just do an interview for one of our blogs, I thought I’d share these.
Interviews. Not as easy as you’d think!