By Joey Kennedy
Photography by Beau Gustafson
I have a play date every Friday with two older women. Get your mind out of the gutter. This play date is with my wife and a former colleague and close friend from The Birmingham News. My wife approves. Indeed, my wife, Veronica, started the play date with Jo Ellen O’Hara, former food editor of The News, a year ago this month.
They would run errands, shop some, have lunch at an interesting restaurant. Jo Ellen, 78, has macular degeneration and doesn’t see well, so Veronica would drive. After I was fired by Alabama Media Group last February, Veronica and Jo Ellen asked me to join them on their weekly sojourns. So I did. I became the driver. It’s a weekly threesome, so to speak.
These weekly play dates may have saved my life. I worked for more than 33 years at The News. Much of my identity, my worth (I mistakenly thought), was linked to those years of service at a great newspaper. For me, it was a difficult, embarrassing parting. For them, just another day at the office, as we’ve seen time and again over the past months.
And so, I joined Veronica and Jo Ellen on these weekly play dates. We take Jo Ellen’s Nissan Maxima (we call her Adventure Annie) because our car is just a two-seater. Adventure Annie, in eight years, has fewer than 30,000 miles. It’s a good car, comfortable, and audibly warns me if I’m about to back into something.
So each week, we drive, and no telling where. Jo Ellen knows Birmingham. She knows roads that are not only less traveled, but that Veronica and I have never traveled. Jo Ellen may not see very well, but give her a street name, and she knows which direction to turn. We’ve been through so many neighborhoods. West End, where Jo Ellen lived until she was 7 years old, before moving with her parents to Diaper Row. She pointed to a house in West End where Frances Mary Westerman lived. Westerman married Edgar Bergen. Her daughter is Candice Bergen. Yeah, that Candice Bergen. I’m three degrees away from Candice Bergen.
We’ve driven through Norwood, admiring some of the resurgence there, and through East Lake and Avondale, Woodlawn and Center Point, the Tiny Kingdom of Mountain Brook. Jo Ellen has stories from all of them. And newer neighborhoods, too, like the Preserve in Hoover and Mt. Laurel and Ross Bridge.
Jo Ellen O’Hara is Birmingham. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama, and she started working for The Birmingham News in 1960. “It was the only job I ever applied for,” Jo Ellen said. “I’ve lived here all of my life. I was a reporter all of my life.”
She still is. She was named food editor of The News in 1963, after her predecessor retired. She had a degree in home economics and a master’s in journalism. The legendary Vincent Townsend asked her, “How would you like to be food editor?” Jo Ellen responded, “I don’t think I’d like that.”
Townsend: “That’s fine, Miss O’Hara. You’re going to start as food editor on Monday morning.” That’s how it worked, and so Jo Ellen became food editor. At the time, the food editor, whoever it happened to be, was called “Sue Scattergood.” When I joined Jo Ellen in the lifestyle section in 1984, we murdered Sue Scattergood. Jo Ellen O’Hara, a real person, was food editor, not Sue Scattergood, a pseudonym that nobody could explain.
But don’t get the idea Jo Ellen O’Hara was just a food editor. She covered hard news and events; she was director of the Miss Alabama Pageant. She covered fashion and home furnishings, and one of the most high-profile murders in Birmingham history, that of civic leader Virginia Simpson in 1977.
As we drive through Mountain Brook, Jo Ellen points out where the movers-and-shakers live and lived. We don’t limit our territory to just Birmingham. Over the past year, we’ve been to the Purdy Butterfly House in Huntsville and to the George Washington Museum in Columbiana. We’ve been given a tour of the “old” University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, and Veronica and I showed Jo Ellen where we lived when we first met and were married in Anniston. One of our play dates took us outside of Hanceville, to the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament, founded by Mother Angelica.
As we travel through and around Birmingham each week, Jo Ellen talks about her memories. She talks about great times over her nearly five decades at The News. She mourns what has happened to journalism in Birmingham.
When Jo Ellen retired in 2008, after a stellar 48-year career filled with travel and stories and honors deserved, she had the typical exit interview. She was asked, “What do you think was the most interesting thing you brought to The News?”
“Curiosity,” Jo Ellen quickly replied.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that,” the HR person said. And that says a lot, doesn’t it?
“The fun is sharing my curiosity with people who are also curious,” Jo Ellen said.
This week, we’ll have another play date— our 52nd or 53rd or 54th—and we’ll continue to satisfy our collective curiosities.