Hurt


veronica-feb-18-b-metro

As the rolling snowball of #MeToo gains in size and strength, more women feel safe and able to tell their stories. Veronica Pike Kennedy breaks her silence.

By Veronica Pike Kennedy

Photo by Beau Gustafson

It hurt.

After I was beaten on my butt with a metal pica pole, I ran into the women’s bathroom at The Anniston Star, sat in an empty stall, and cried.

I knew my fledgling career as a journalist was over. The publisher of the newspaper I had wanted to work for since my teenage years, H. Brandt Ayers, had spanked me. Literally. In a newsroom he thought was empty.

He spanked me.

It was a quiet Saturday morning in the Anniston Star newsroom. I was a clerk during mornings and a reporter during the evenings.

There was nothing unusual about the Star newsroom being nearly vacant on a Saturday morning. But that morning, it was not completely empty.

Mike Stamler, a full-time reporter who recently had started working at the Star, was sitting at his desk. He saw the whole thing.

That morning, Brandy, as we called Ayers, had walked into the newsroom with a piece of paper in his hands. He put it down on the desk where I was sitting. “I want you to read this. This is a fine piece of writing,” he said to me. “I’ll come back in a little while, and you can tell me what you think.”

True to his word, Brandy returned to the newsroom shortly. Trying to sound clever, I responded, “This is really very well written. Who did it?”

Brandy said: “Oh, you’re being a bad girl. I’m going to have to spank you.”

I thought he was kidding. I laughed. I kept laughing until he started to walk around the desk. Only then did I know this was real, and I wasn’t laughing anymore.

I grabbed onto the seat of my chair, but he was so strong that he overpowered me, throwing the chair aside and bending me over the desk behind me. I was kicking, screaming, biting, cursing—whatever I could do—but nothing worked. He picked up what we called a “pica pole,” a metal ruler used to measure type and column lengths back when newspaper pages were put together manually.

And he started hitting me.

“How old are you?” Brandy asked. “I’m going to give you as many licks as your age.” Since I had been counting the blows, I knew he was at 15 or 16, so I screamed, “18. I’m 18.”

Brandy hit me two more times, then stopped, composed himself, and before walking out of the newsroom, turned and said: “Well that ought to teach you to not be a bad girl.”

When he left, I stood dumbfounded. Mike sat dumbfounded. Neither of us believed we had just experienced such humiliation.

More than 40 years later, that horrible Saturday morning at the Star, a newspaper I had only dreamed of working for, still is vivid. Too vivid.

And it hurts.

It’s been hurting for years. For decades. I’ve been to therapy. I take antidepressants. I’m quick with my temper if somebody approaches me in what I perceive, even mistakenly, is an aggressive manner.

I was hit, hard, 18 times on my bottom with a metal ruler. By my ultimate boss. By a man I admired, who was in charge of the newspaper I loved.

It hurt. I bruise easily. The physical marks the next day were clearly evident. I dared not let my mother or father see. There would have been questions. And answers. And retribution.

The bruises to my rear and legs were purple streaks. The bruises to my self-confidence, my self-respect, my psyche, were black and scary.

I’ve wanted to come forward for four decades. I never once had a kind word to say to Ayers after that horrible morning. I kept my job, until I moved on. I was a journalist now, in my own world, making my own way.

Yet, my world was (is) haunted by that pica pole. By that big, powerful man, hovering over me, threatening to spank, and then spanking. That man I admired, who spanked any innocence I had then right out of me.

It hurt. It still does.

An affirmation of guilt and a sincere apology would have been nice. I came forward for justice. The #metoo movement, the reckoning, seemed the right time.

What I got from Ayers was: “Let the accusation stand.” That was to his own newspaper, not to me. Not to his victims. And the powerful remain so.

Sigh.

Ayers, the long-time publisher of the Anniston Star who most recently served as chairman of the board of Consolidated Publishing, plummeted to Earth from his newspaper Olympus Jan. 3, 2018, about a week after he first was named as a predator by Alabama Political Reporter. On New Year’s Day, 2018, Eddie Burkhalter, a former news reporter for the Star, published a story on the APR website providing extensive details about Ayers’ predilection for spanking many young women in his employ.

Within two days, two housekeepers came forward to tell me their stories of being spanked, as did other reporters.

Did I want to kick a man while he was down? Of course not. I wanted individuals who worked hard either to become career journalists or to provide a good living for their families to be able to do so without fear of physical assault, sometimes with sexual overtones.

Following the announcement that Ayers would resign as chairman of the board, fellow journalists sought my reaction. “It was a baby step,” I told them. And that’s exactly what I mean. If the Star were sincerely apologetic, Mrs. Ayers would not accept the chairwomanship. Bob Davis, current editor and publisher, would resign—as would Managing Editor Ben Cunningham. The family would sell its holdings.

They all share at least some portion of guilt in this sordid mess, at least the manner in which the Star reported it.

One of the housekeepers said Mrs. Ayers was returning home when she saw her employee run out of the house.

Mrs. Ayers asked where they were going. “Go ask that SOB husband of yours,” the housekeeper said she replied, at which time, Mrs. Ayers ran upstairs screaming and yelling: “Brandy, what have you done this time?”

When the housekeeper and her husband, who did general maintenance and yard work at the Ayers’ home, returned to pick up their pay checks, they said were told by the Ayers that they had never lost a court case.

“Not having the funds to fight it, I have lived with this all these years,” the housekeeper said.

And this was in the mid-1990s, not the mid-1970s.

When Burkhalter in November had confirmed that the publisher in question my husband, B-Metro columnist Joey Kennedy, vaguely referred to in a November column for Alabama Political Reporter was, indeed, Ayers, he said he approached Cunningham, who gave him permission to go ahead with the story. Within an hour or so, Cunningham had changed his mind and told Burkhalter to stop working on the story and to not contact me again. Cunningham asked Burkhalter to wait a week; Burkalter gave him three days. He resigned when he realized management would not be making the correct ethical choice.

I’ve been a journalist at newspapers in Anniston, Talladega, and Birmingham my entire adult life. I have never been, not once, asked by an editor to stop working on valid story or not to speak to a credible source.

That just doesn’t happen at a good newspaper, unless somebody wants the story to disappear.

Davis wrote an opinion piece in The Star on Jan. 2, 2018, stating, “Over my 14 years with this company, I’d never heard such allegations.”

Neither had I—until I got forcefully spanked with a metal ruler on a Saturday in the middle of the newsroom.

It hurt. It’s still hurting.

The week following my assault, I learned Ayers spankings were more common than most reasonable people—heck, any people—would believe. I learned that the late Cody Hall, our respected executive editor at the time, was well aware of Brandy’s bizarre behavior. A group of women who approached Cody got the same response that a group of women did years later:

“In the early-to-mid ‘80s, the editors called the female staffers into a private meeting where we were told what had happened, informed that we were not to meet with Brandy privately…then we were directed to keep it all secret as it was a private ‘company’ issue,” said one former Star reporter to me in an email.

Never ever was it a “private ‘company’ issue”; it was always an employee harassment issue. Some might reasonably say a sexual assault issue. What in the world moved Brandy to brutally and coldly spank women he hardly knew? I’m not even sure Brandy can explain it. He certainly didn’t do a very good job in the various denials, excuses, and comments he offered the Star.

And never was this a “he said/she said issue”; it was always a credibility issue.

One of the lessons I learned through this ordeal is that I am a credible person, and that opinion of me has boosted my self-esteem: “If Veronica said it happened, it happened,” one of my friends said in a Facebook post.

But the thing I keep shaking my head about is the denial that so-called professional journalists—all male—exhibit. It’s misogyny at its worst.

Why some people, mostly men, don’t understand why women who have been abused, at home or in the workplace, don’t simply tell what happened is baffling. But isn’t it obvious why so many stay silent?

The reason many don’t tell is because most of the times their abusers have authority over them, and they risk losing their jobs or not being believed or being publicly shamed or worse.

They risk it all if they tell.

That hurts, too.

2 Responses to “Hurt”

  1. Rian Alexander says:

    Words seen to be few, and inadequate, to convey my admiration and respect for Veronica, and ALL who have the integrity, courage and dignity, to speak out and expose these sick, morally bankrupt individuals.
    As a dear friend of 28 years, I can say , WELL DONE and I LOVE YOU.
    WHO HAS THE BIGGER STICK NOW, BRANDY ???

  2. Lori Dendy-Molz says:

    Thanks for having the guts to speak out, Veronica. You can rest assured that it has made a difference.

Leave a Reply for Lori Dendy-Molz