Fresh from finishing active duty service with the U.S. Army Reserves, Joe Hallett walked into the offices of the Wauseon Republican/Fulton County Expositor on May 15, 1972. He was armed with an Ohio University degree in journalism and a new position as a newspaper reporter.
“I was not a serious student in college, and about a month into my job at the Expositor I thought, ‘This is fun. This is what I want to do with my life,’” he said.
Forty-two years later, on Jan. 24 of this year, Hallett ended his self-described ink-stained career as a member of the fourth estate. The Wauseon native leaves behind over 7,000 bylines and enough journalistic adventures at three major Ohio newspapers to fill several livelihoods.
But Hallett, 65, said his hometown newspaper was a fertile training ground and “nine of the best years of my career.”
Sharing most of the reporting and writing duties in Wauseon with his editor, Jim Fernamberg, Hallett cut his teeth covering city council and school board meetings, the Fulton County Commissioners, and every subject in-between. “Heck, I covered ditch hearings, and also covered high school sports. For me, it was just a well-rounded training ground,” he said.
Calling Fernamberg a great newspaperman, he added, ” I easily learned more under him in two years than I learned in college.”
When Fernamberg died in 1975, Hallett became the newspaper’s editor. He discovered early on that writing about events in his hometown could be, at times, dicey.
“In one sense it’s harder being the editor because you know everybody. It’s just difficult to do smaller-town journalism because of that,” he said.
“(But) it was just a great education for me. It was an opportunity to learn how government works, albeit on a smaller level, and to hone my writing skills.”
He scored several big stories while at the Expositor, including an interview with Bear Bryant, best known as the head football coach at the University of Alabama. Hallett was tipped off that Bryant was traveling to Delta to recruit a high school player, and he scored an interview.
“I remember riding in the car with him on the way to the airport,” he recalled with a laugh. “I had this big old clunky tape recorder. I was in the back seat… and I was interviewing him. He talked like he had a mouth full of marbles. He just mumbled. It took me hours to translate and decipher that tape. But that was my first big interview. I was proud of that.”
He also remembered covering the head-on collision of two freight trains just outside of Pettisville. Six people died in the wreck. While on the scene, Hallett witnessed an explosion that sent a huge fireball skyward.
“These massive locomotives were twisted in a ball of steel,” he said. “This was the first time I had seen dead people.”
In 1976, the newspaper’s owner, Gordon Smitley, sent Hallett to both the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
And during the Blizzard of ‘78 “I remember getting on snowmobiles and going to the hospital, and out where people were stranded, and getting a lot of good pictures,” he said.
When Smitley gave Hallett the option to buy the newspaper in 1980, he considered the offer. However, the Gazette newspaper chain upped the ante, so Hallett instead accepted a reporting position with the Toledo Blade a year later.
“They took a chance on me because I had no daily newspaper experience,” he said. “I’d never been in a newsroom before, and was given a desk along a line of reporters, and nearby was the city editor. Every day I was given assignments.”
He had a bumpy start, but Hallett had honed his craft in Wauseon by purchasing several national newspapers and studying the reporters’ journalistic styles.
“Basically, I studied those papers every day, and how the pros constructed stories, and tried to emulate those styles. I basically went to school by reading other newspapers,” he said.
After two years at the Blade he was promoted to city hall reporter, then two years later was relocated to Columbus to act as a one-man bureau covering the state capitol. In 1996, Hallett left the newspaper and became the statehouse reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Three years later, he moved to the Columbus Dispatch.
While covering politics for all three newspapers, Hallett traveled by plane, motor home, and bus with presidential candidates including John McCain, Al Gore, and George W. Bush.
“I loved campaigns, I lived for campaigns. I loved to get out and about,” he said. “I’ve had revelations from politicians from time to time that shocked me.”
The key to covering politicians is to be respectful and friendly without compromising the integrity of the job, Hallett said. He said once a trust was developed, they were more inclined to be open during interviews.
“With most of the politicians I covered, I developed a comfortable relationship. There was a lot of banter with the politicians and their aides,” he said. “It’s pretty exhausting to be out there. These guys are out there early in the morning, and attending chicken dinners late at night.”
What disappointed him was a lack of access to presidential candidate Barack Obama.
“In 2008 I had a 15-minute telephone interview with Obama, and that’s the only one I ever got with him. They had a strategy, that when they came into the state they only did TV interviews. So I was always pushing for them (for the newspaper). For some reason, Obama just wouldn’t oblige.”
What Hallett enjoyed even more than interviewing candidates was conducting “Real People Tours,” in which he traveled presidential battleground states talking to voters.
“I thought it was important to cover what people were thinking in their own lives, and what they wanted. The good politicians get around people and really listen to them, rather than speak at them all the time,” he said.
There were also career highlights away from the campaign trail. Hallett reported news from eastern Europe, Haiti, China, and Australia, among other world locales. He traveled the globe to write about Ohio troops in Iraq, massive flooding in Nicaragua, and conditions at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
“I got real lucky. I was able to do a lot of things,” he said.
One especially memorable interview was with pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Labeled “Dr. Death” by his detractors, Kevorkian was vilified for assisting terminally ill people with euthanasia.
While he harbored his own opinion of Kevorkian, “I hung up the phone and thought, that is one brilliant man. I was just stunned by how smart the guy was,” Hallett said. “He made the argument that he was actually compassionate and merciful – that the people he helped die wanted to die. They made that choice.”
And there were times when his assignments could get harrowing. Hallett recalled going homeless for a week in Toledo to better understand and write about the subject. While sleeping on a park bench, he awoke to find a large, homeless man approaching him with what seemed malicious intent.
He endured rocket and mortar attacks in the Middle East, and the near lawlessness of places like Haiti.
“You don’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said. “(Sometimes) you’re around a lot of desperate people who see you have things they need. You have to be on guard all the time.”
After writing about 200 stories a year, Hallett decided after four decades to turn in his press pass for good. He said he wants to spend his remaining years doing all the things he never had time for. He also relishes spending more time with his wife, Marie, and his grandson.
Dave Murray, managing editor for the Blade, said of Hallett, “He’s one of the best politics writers in Ohio. He’s just really a class act reporter. We were sorry to see him go at the Blade, but I was really happy for his success at the Columbus Dispatch.”
The Dispatch’s public affairs editor, Darrell Roland, worked with Hallett for 15 years, and called themselves a couple of small-town kids.
“We both shared some small-town roots…so we kind of identified that we started with small-town newspapers,” he said. “We worked a lot together covering politics and state government through the years. Joe was a really special colleague. He was incredibly talented but also very humble. In this business, which is often ego-driven, humility is all too rare. He was always willing to help young reporters and share a byline.”
Hallett said he’s leaving print journalism in good hands.
“I think there’s still a lot of great journalism being done. The people plying the craft are still very good, and very responsible,” he said. “Very good work is being done by highly competent journalists. The actual state of journalism is still really strong. (People) don’t understand the importance of newspaper in this democracy.”
Hallett said he was lucky to be in the newspaper business when they were thriving.
“I still say I just can’t believe they paid me to do this stuff. It was fun,” he said