Pilot’s death raised questions about story

Sometimes in this business, you come across a story that you just know belongs on A1.

And if it’s really good, we know it should be a feature package on the front cover of Sunday’s edition.

This is a sad story about doubts I had about the placement of a recent feature article, and how I know now that we made the right decision.

Earlier this month Tribune Chronicle Features Editor Burton Cole was working on a nice little story about a Trumbull County native who had an interesting job. Maplewood graduate Bethany Root was working in Kansas and Missouri as an aerial application pilot — a cropduster, that is. At 34, Root was spending her days buzzing pastures, fields and crops with seeds, fertilizers, insecticides and the like.

We originally had thought it sounded like a great feature story for a Life cover. But as it developed, Burt was excited at how it was turning out, and he sold me on his suggestion that it absolutely belonged on the front page.

I went along with it, and we planned for it to run July 16. Unfortunately, the photos weren’t exactly what we needed, so we decided to hold it for a week while he contacted Bethany and her family to have them send us other images.

Then tragedy struck.

It was about 9:30 p.m. July 16 — the day the story was originally supposed to run — and I was sprawled out on the couch at home when I got a text from Metro Editor Ron Selak.

“Bethany Root the name of the cropduster Burt is doing the story on?” he texted.

I couldn’t remember the name, and texted that back to Ron. After his next text, I knew I’d never forget her name again.

“Found a photo. It’s her. She died in a plane crash today,” he said.

Ironically, Bethany was also manager of a small airport that one day earlier had hosted the Amelia Earhart Festival. On July 16, she was a passenger in a World War II-era P-51 Mustang that had performed at the festival. The plane, piloted by longtime professional aviator and flight instructor Vlado Lenoch, crashed and they both perished.

Shock is the only way I can describe my reaction to the text. It was worse for Burt.

In crafting the story, Burt had spoken to Bethany and her mother, who now also lives out of state, only by phone, but he felt like they were personal friends. That’s far from common in my business.

Burt, who already is among the most caring souls in our newsroom, builds relationships with a lot of his sources.

He was crushed, to say the least. By the next day, he already was thinking about Bethany’s story, sitting in a queue waiting to be published. It told the story of a beautiful young woman, full of life and chasing her dreams.

I wasn’t convinced what to do. Would it be appropriate to publish it still? Would it be viewed as a media attempt to sensationalize this woman’s death?

Monday afternoon, Burt was on the phone calling Bethany’s mother to offer his sympathies and spending time just listening. Later in the week, when Bethany’s body was flown home, he paid his respects. During a conversation, he told her mother we were pondering still running the story, now in tribute to her life. Her mother agreed.

By way of explanation, Burt wrote an editor’s note, telling readers how this wonderful story celebrating Bethany’s life came to be.

The story published on A1 Sunday, July 23.

I received a lot of comments last week about it, and I suspect Burt did as well. I certainly hope Bethany’s family did too.

I’m pleased to say that I know now it was the right thing to do.