Pulling into the parking lot of a small Tarboro church in 2009, preparing to report a story about North Carolina tailback Shaun Draughn and his family, I was shocked to see the bold lettering on a marquee in the front yard: “WELCOME ROBBI PICKERAL NEWS & OBSERVER”.
The guy beside me started laughing. I started blushing – not only because I had never had quite such a public greeting, but because that guy beside me should have been on that marquee, too.
For the majority of my eight years at The News & Observer, photographer Robert Willett has been responsible for capturing the images that made my words more vivid, the moments that made my stories more real. He’s been a fabulous friend, confidante, colleague, navigator and storytelling partner.
And as I leave The N&O, his is my hardest goodbye.
I’m excited to begin work with a dynamic group of editors and writers in my new job with ESPN.com. And since I’ll continue to live in the Triangle, I know I’ll continue to see (and read) the talented folks I’ve worked with in Raleigh and Charlotte (you know who you are) since moving back here from Minnesota in 2003.
But I will miss my mini-team.
Even as the newsroom has shrunk to about a quarter of its former size, The N&O has continued to have a specific photographer assigned with a specific reporter to its most-read sports beats. For me, that collaboration has resulted in some lasting memories – both in life, and print.
Working together, Robert and I have reported about three different Tar Heel football coaches, made multiple Final Four trips and covered hundreds of games. We’ve gotten lost all over the country, chased windmills – and brainstormed untold stories wherever we went.
Our long-term projects have probably been the most indelible: tracing Michael Jordan’s early years in Wilmington, documenting the eye-black messages on football players.
My most memorable assignment with Robert will always be our trip to Swannanoa in 2007, when, in anticipation of UNC coach Roy Williams induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame, we spoke to four players from the first high school team he ever coached. They teared up at their memories. We teared up at their tears. And we gained a new insight on what they learned from Williams and what learned from them.
Hopefully, we passed that insight on to you.
I’ll always wonder what images Robert might have made had he been with me when I explored Poplar Bluff, Mo, before Tyler Hansbrough played his first game in Chapel Hill; or if he had been in Charlotte with me last summer, as Everett Withers’ mom pointed to the street where UNC’s interim head coach honed his football skills.
I liked those stories. They would have been even better if Robert were there.
Which brings me back to that trip to Tarboro in 2009.
After we sat through the church service – note-taking and shooting pictures as Draughn’s father ministered, and Draughn sang hymns in front of the congregation – Pastor Draughn apologized for not putting Robert’s name on the welcoming marquee. He didn’t know the name of the photographer that would be coming, he explained.
Robert just grinned.
“Oh, it’s no big deal,’’ Robert replied, laughing as I started to blush again. “She’s the one with the byline – and she deserves the credit.”
But so do you, my friend. So do you.
Pickeral: firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/bylinerp