By: Joe Strupp
When the unusual packages arrived at The Oklahoman newsroom in Oklahoma City more than 12 years ago, staffers weren’t sure what they were. And in the wake of the tragic bombing just days earlier, which destroyed a nearby federal office building and left 168 dead, they weren’t taking any chances.
The box was quickly X-rayed. But instead of finding anything dangerous inside, staffers discovered a care package of sorts — filled with Cheetos, Twinkies, and other treats offered up to help them cope with the long hours and stress reporting on the tragedy. “It was great to find out it was junk food for the newsroom,” recalls Managing Editor Joe Hight. “To receive this during their difficult coverage was fantastic, and that another paper was thinking about us.”
That other paper was the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star, whose editors packed up the box and enclosed a note explaining they wanted to help fellow journos get through a tough time. “The letter sent to us said they had never covered anything like this, they sort of understood what we were going through,” adds Hight. “It just came out of the blue.”
But it also started a tradition among Oklahoman staffers, who have been sending out similar care packages ever since. Hight estimates that in the past dozen years, at least 20 boxes have been shipped to such newsrooms as The Times-Picayune’s in New Orleans. “When we send something out, we always mention that particular moment,” Hight says about the first package his people received.
Among the most recent recipients was The Roanoke (Va.) Times, which received an Oklahoman delivery during its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings last spring. “It was a thoughtful, unexpected gesture,” says Dwayne Yancey, Roanoke’s senior editor of new channels. “It was a lot of junk food, comfort food, and even some cheap paperback novels. It came at a good time to receive that sort of thing.” Hight says the Roanoke staff sent back a thank-you note along with a Virginia Tech banner, which now hangs in the Oklahoman’s newsroom.
Other recipients have included The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., after the Sept. 11 attacks; The Providence (R.I.) Journal, following the 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people; and the Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal and The Enterprise (Ala.) Ledger after a hurricane and tornado, respectively.
The 1996 school shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, in which 16 children were killed, even prompted an Oklahoman overseas shipment. “It is not meant for anything other than a gesture of goodwill,” Hight says.
And when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans two years ago, the Oklahoman was among several newspapers that sent boxes of goodies and care packages to the Times-Picayune — which was forced to flee to Baton Rouge, La., for weeks. “Not a day went by when we didn’t receive something, including clothing,” recalls Editor Jim Amoss. “Not to mention food of every variety. It was a great psychological boost.” Amoss adds that in addition to the Oklahoman, his staff received care packages from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Des Moines (Iowa) Register, The Oregonian, and The Island Packet of Hilton Head, S.C., among others.
Even Hustler magazine sent a box of edibles, Amoss recalls: “Their note said, ‘We’re all pulling for you.'”
The Oklahoman’s generosity has already sparked some pass-it-on goodwill, such as that provided by the Roanoke Times to the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press and Star Tribune of Minneapolis following the tragic bridge collapse there in August. Both Twin Cities papers received junk food and snack packs from Roanoke, which noted in its letter to those papers that the Oklahoman’s generosity had inspired them.
“The intention was to pass on the karmic chain,” Roanoke’s Yancey explains. “They remembered what a bad time it was for us.”
But the Oklahoman did not forget the Twin Cities, either, packing up and shipping out its own care packages for the Minnesotans soon after Roanoke’s goodies were finished off. “They had devoured everything from Roanoke, so they were ready for more,” Hight says of his paper’s shipment, which went out about a week after Roanoke’s. “We put some health foods in there, too and some stress relievers, like sponge balls to squeeze.”
As for the future, Hight says his staff will continue to pass on the positive reinforcement wherever needed: “We don’t expect to receive things back. If they see it and use it, that is what matters. We hope that other newspapers pick up on the idea. Perhaps they will pick up on the tradition.”