The story of Nancy Parker, the stalwart, standard bearing reporter and news anchor at WVUE-TV – Fox 8 News – is well noted by now. She was beloved. Dedicated. Kind. Fearless.
And, out on an assignment last week – embedded in a story, as old school reporters still do – she was killed. In the line of duty. Suddenly. Tragically. Publicly. Unfathomably.
I don’t suppose there’s a whole lot left to say about her that hasn’t already been said by fellow journalists, colleagues, civic leaders, community leaders – and admirers, fans and viewers all over. And while I admit, with uncertain sorrow, that this blog space is all too often an obituary, a tribute, a memoir to someone gone too soon, well…here’s another.
I worked with Nancy for four years at Fox 8. She was staff, I was freelance – a hired gun, writing commentaries on matters cultural, social, political, criminal. She often introduced my segments on the nightly newscast. And I could have had no better introduction, nor introducer. (If that’s a word, which I don’t think it is.)
When I first arrived at the station, back in 2010, I was a hardcore print media guy who had often made comic hay and written tonic stories making fun of my broadcast colleagues – who I admittedly, at the time, considered to be performers of a lesser form of journalism than my own proud, ink-stained, hard copy wretched form.
But I was ready to try something new. Fox 8 gave me a shot. And I was understandably nervous entering the belly of the beast as an outsider, a critic, a heretic, a committed sarcastic. A newspaper guy.
I thought my tenure at WVUE would be rife with alienation and conflict, more to my own prejudices than anyone there. But it turned out to be just the opposite. Kim Holden, Shelley Brown, Liz Reyes, Lee Zurick, John Snell – even Bob Breck, who I had mocked so many times from my high-and-mighty newspaper perch – welcomed me graciously, openly, into their newsroom without cause or condition.
And Nancy. She gave me a big ole’ hug the first day I walked into the newsroom and said: “We’re so happy to have you here!” Other folks in the newsroom heard it, saw it. And thus, my path was clear. Nancy said I was welcome in the Fox 8 family. Nobody was going to challenge that.
Nancy Parker put in 23 years of work at the station, an interminable and nearly impossible tenure in a business rife with transience, transition and turnover. She was not just a nightly news anchor, but a human anchor, grounded, secure, reliable, honest, iconic.
She wasn’t contrary and confrontational like Zurik; not dour and dire like Snell; not alarmist and flat out bizarre like Breck; not purposefully abrasive and ironic like me. She just did her job without spectacle or chaos. And, God, she was a warm and gracious woman. So beautiful, so strong, so truthful.
And what I admired most about her was her tireless search for a good story to tell, a new story – a story to teach, preach and/or reach. That’s what the best of us do in our very common and not-so-glamorous enterprise of news gathering and storytelling.
It’s all in the telling.
Sometimes, it takes risks. The best and bravest of us walk into war zones and charge into riots and global and civil discord and discontent and risk something of ourselves to tell the story. Sometimes it’s of dire importance – an uprising, a coup, a natural disaster.
But sometimes it’s so much more mundane, but no less urgent or interesting, often more intimate, just for the sake of informing, entertaining, taking a look at a life or lifestyle or activity that not everyone gets to see but, which we – by dint of a press pass – get access to. And that’s what Nancy was doing when she died on Friday.
It all seems so silly and senseless now, in retrospect, dying in the pursuit of a story about a stunt pilot. That’s what she was doing on Friday, after waking up before dawn and putting on fancy clothes and getting all made up to anchor the morning news show, she swapped out her dress and heels for a cotton shirt and sensible shoes that afternoon and went out to Lakefront Airport to meet up with Franklin P.J. Augustus, himself a pillar, if lesser known, marvel of our community, our city.
It’s guys like Augustus – trailblazers, daredevils, death-defiers – who intrigue and attract storytellers. Our passion, our mission, is to find out what people do and why they do it.
Augustus was a great curiosity, a ground breaker, woefully unknown outside of aeronautical circles. A flyer from the age of 19, he once described himself as “the world’s only black civilian air-show acrobatic pilot,” and it’s a hard claim to debunk.
Based out of Lake Charles, he was a stunt pilot, flight instructor and president of the local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a flying fraternity that honors the famed African-American flyers group who served so honorably, and in retrospect, almost anonymously, in World War II.
A product of the Magnolia projects in New Orleans, at 69, Augustus was a showman, flight instructor, a home town legend, role model, community activist and advocate and mentor to at-risk kids.
That’s a great story, right? A guy who has been flying, flipping and touching the sky, defying gravity for a lifetime. What it must be like to feel the rush that so many thousands only get to witness from the ground. To know the soul and work of the professional risk-taker. I’d have jumped in any day to tell that story, to climb in that cockpit.
Augustus was in town last week with his plane – a two-seater Aerotek Pitts S – 2B – a barnstormers aircraft, fit more for fun and adventure than practical travel. Without even enough room for a photographer, Nancy climbed in the cockpit with Augustus and took off for the sky.
Not everything we journalists do is dire or staving off threats to civilization. Sometimes we’re just chasing a cool story. And P.J. Augustus was a cool story. But just minutes into their take-off from Lakefront Airport on Friday afternoon, the plane’s engine stalled and went down fast and hard, killing them both instantly.
I suppose it’s weird and inappropriate and it rings so hollow to suggest that – like so many great journalists before her who died in the search of a story – that she died doing what she loved best. It sounds as hollow as “thoughts and prayers.” But it’s true.
Nancy was doing what she loved best, what she did best, just trying to tell a good story. And shit happens. It’s an occupational hazard of insatiable curiosity. The dedication to revelation, insight and intrigue. Not by watching afar, safely from the ground, but by climbing into the cockpit to know and understand – to feel – what it’s like up there, doing that thing, hitting that rush, flying, flipping, rolling, doing what daredevils do.
They are the last of a rare breed, the daredevil pilots. Spreading thrills and chills across the American landscape. The last of the Barnstormers. What a cool thing to do. What a cool story to cover.
Until someone gets hurt, right?
Who ever thinks it will end like that? In a desolate field, ablaze, no way to get out, the last story told. This time by others, by her friends, her colleagues, me.
It’s a goddamn shame to be sure. A gut punch. She knew the risk. But she also knew the story was worth telling, and so she took the ride. That’s how Nancy Parker rolled. Curious. Courageous. And who wouldn’t want to take a ride like that, journalist or not?
And so the story goes. She leaves behind her husband, another member of the New Orleans press fraternity, Glynn Boyd, and their three kids who – when I see their pictures in the paper and online – remind me strikingly in their age and demeanor, of my own kids. That makes it hurt even more.
What’s to tell them? Other than that their mom mattered. Touched lives in that weird way that TV anchors do. How, after so many years on the news, TV anchors begin to seem almost like family – there every morning in your kitchen and every evening in your living room. And then one day – today – they’re not.
I’ve not much left to say. About Nancy or P.J., both of whom gave their best and, eventually, their all, for the sake of a ride, a thrill, defying gravity with a story to tell.
Nothing left but a song to share. Peace, Love & Rockets to you all.