This has never been a very easy story for me to tell. For that reason, I haven’t told it very often.
It had been a very long, very hard day. There had been a lot of April days like that during the 1997 Red River Valley flood. They were long days whether or not you were a television reporter.
It was about a week after the worst of the flooding had hit Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. That day we had covered President Clinton’s visit to Grand Forks Air Force Base, where hundreds and hundreds of people — with nowhere else to go — were being housed. It was late evening. I had talked with Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens, who was halfway back from Grand Forks by now, into returning to the base so she could be part of a television news “live shot.”
I was shot. I was ready to go home. In this case, home was a camper parked along with a half-dozen or so others in the farmyard of a couple of our friends near Thompson, N.D. Most of us at WDAZ still weren’t able to return to our actual homes because of the high water.
As I was getting ready to leave, a young man, probably in his mid-20s, approached me and said something like, “Will you please help me? I’m trying to find my girlfriend. It’s very important.”
He wasn’t the only one trying to find someone. Hundreds of people, probably more, had been displaced from family and friends in the confusion of evacuating Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, the largest evacuation of people we were told later since the Civil War.
With the internet and even cell phones in their infancy then, in the most primitive way imaginable, we had been reading messages on television, practically around the clock for several days, trying to help people reconnect.
I asked this man to write down his message to his girlfriend on a piece of paper, which I put in my pocket. Somewhat reluctantly on my way “home,” I made a stop at the station and handed the note to one of the anchors in the studio. I didn’t think any more about it.
A week later, I was back at the air base, where hundreds of people were still living. The same man again found me. This time he said, “I want to thank you for helping me locate my girlfriend. I was able to find her about an hour before my father’s funeral.”
He had told me it was important. He just hadn’t told me “why” it was important.
In the months and years since, I have come to believe that that simple, little act, which required no talent whatsoever on my part, may have been the single-most important thing I’ve ever done on television. And with no intention of trying to be overly dramatic, I also believe that in some way it may be one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life.