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Local Newspapers are essential for nonfiction writers

My research of Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s almost entirely depends on local newspapers.  I am investigating the impact of the discovery of an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant in central Virginia on the man who discovered it, on local farmers who lost their land to the project, and on the nuclear power industry in the United States. 

Nothing beyond the most meager facts about the power plant in rural Louisa County, Virginia can be found on Wikipedia.  Nothing can be found on Twitter or Facebook or any of the plethora of social media sites that have materialized faster than lawsuits in our endlessly litigious world.  

That’s why I am extremely grateful to Louisa County’s own local newspaper, The Central Virginian, for not only articles about the origins of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant but also their vivid photos that capture the enormous scale and impact of the project.

Archives of The Central Virginian aren’t online, at least not for the years I was investigating, 1968 to 1975.  I called the Louisa County Public Library and learned that the library had The Central Virginian newspapers neatly organized by year, bound in thick books, and stored in their easily accessible stacks. They aren’t on microfilm like The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville local newspaper.  I actually had to open the large bound books and inspect page after page of The Central Virginian to find what I needed.  I’d take a photo of the article or image and email it to myself.   Once home, I transcribed the article or copied the image for use in my research.  

As my research grew, I developed a fondness to certain reporters who took the time to interview the property owners affected by the construction of the nuclear power plant.  I felt like I shared a common interest with these reporters, especially one particular reporter who worked for the larger regional newspaper, The Richmond Times-DispatchJean Purcell worked the Louisa County beat for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and dug deep into the lives of the people who lived there.  Farmers and teachers and politicians, she interviewed them all.  She reported on the announcement of the nuclear power plant construction, on the people that lost their farms to the project, and the controversies surrounding the discovery of the earthquake fault under the power plant site.  Then, all of a sudden, her articles stopped.  I was heartbroken.  I had lost a wise and dependable friend.  I searched for her name on the web and discovered she’d retired and became involved with other activities. Ms. Purcell has since passed but I was able to find one of her children on Facebook and send them a message to tell them how much I greatly admired their mother’s reporting.

The demise of local and regional newspapers is a huge loss for current society and future historians.  Too many of us get our news from TV pundits, Twitter provocateurs, or Facebook friends.  Where will future historians go to discover the small current events that ripple out and change history?

By Carolyn O'Neal

Researching history of earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Louisa County and the people most affected by it, including Professor John W. Funkhouser, H. Spurgeon Moss, and June Allen. Please leave message on https://baccaliterary.com/carolyn-oneal/ if you have any information on this topic or these people. Thank you very much.

8 replies on “Local Newspapers are essential for nonfiction writers”

Did you know that there was an earthquake in Virginia today. Loud boom and rattling homes.

Thanks for this message Carolyn! I am eagerly awaiting your work on this subject! Thanks for the inspirational message! I have a great interest in this subject as I think this tale needs to be told!

Thank you so much for all your encouragement. I worry about so many small newspapers going under or being gobbled up by giant corporations. I’m so grateful to the reporters from that era who wrote about North Anna. I only wish Dr. Funkhouser were still alive to see how his discovery ultimately changed the commercial nuclear power industry in the USA. And thank good it did. We never had a disaster like Chernobyl in the USSR because of watchdog groups that insisted on closer scrutiny of the industry.

Hi Carolyn, Yes. I agree that Dr. Funkhouser’s plight to ensure safeguards at nuclear sites in America didn’t fall on deaf ears, but one has to wonder about the timing of his demise. I am not sure how much of Dr. Funkhouser’s murder was related to the nuclear plants versus the importation of large emeralds in the rough, or any other reason unknown to all. Not to cast aspersions, but was Roy Cook a “fence” of some sort? I am sure Dr. Funkhouser was financially stable enough to NOT need an income from the emeralds, and I remember my late brother’s statement about how emeralds in the rough were stored (short-term) at the college, during Dr. F’s tenure, so perhaps Dr. Funkhouser’s geology students were soon to be enlightened about the structure and composition of the emerald, which is a beryl stone. There is no clear-cut explanation for Dr. Funkhouser’s death other than the questionable Roy Cook testimony, about drinking the afternoon of the murder and an argument. Nor is there a clear-cut connection between Mr. Cook – certainly not the academic type – and Dr. Funkhouser. Was it ever revealed to whom Dr. Funkhouser was speaking on the telephone as he was about to be shot from behind? I do remember my late brother telling me that Dr. Funkhouser was a deep thinker and that he would walk the corridors of the college deeply in thought. I only offer conjecture so sorry to cast an inquisitive eye on the death of Dr. Funkhouser, but a genuine reason for this beloved professor’s death would be wonderful to learn. Again I am anxiously awaiting your printed work on Dr. Funkhouser’s death and his legacy and so grateful that attention is being paid to this subject! How lucky is Dr. Funkhouser’s family to have known him well!

Hi Elaine,

Yes, I was actually able to interview the man Dr. Funkhouser was talking to on the phone when he was shot. The man was a good friend of Doc’s and immediately called the police and went to his apartment. It all was very enlightening and I hope to learn more. I spoke with Dr. Funkhouser’s daughter but, of course, she didn’t mention her inheritance so I don’t know whether any emeralds he had were stolen. None were mentioned in the police report, which I thought was a bit odd. Every time I think I’m done with this my research something else seems to pop up. But I’m plugging along with my research and writing. I wish a reporter back in 1974/1975 had done more research on the murder when it happened but being labeled gay back then was like being labeled a leper. No one would go beyond what the police said. I felt great compassion for his mother, having to sit through the trial. Must have been horrible. He was her only child. Breaks my heart. Thank you so much for keeping in touch!!!

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