Conversation with a Creative
Associate Professor Leon Alligood has been teaching journalism at MTSU since 2008 after nearly three decades as an award-winning reporter known for his personal and descriptive writing style. He is the faculty advisor to Sidelines and has earned rave reviews from the groups of students he has taken on reporting trips, whether it is small towns across Tennessee or the presidential election in Iowa. For 22 years he was based in Nashville, first as a senior writer at the Nashville Banner, then after the closing of that afternoon paper, at The Tennessean. While at The Tennessean, he primarily wrote human interest and narrative stories on a variety of beats.
He was an embedded reporter covering the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. His writing has won awards in national, regional and state contests. In 2017, he was inducted into the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. He currently teaches Reporting, Feature Writing, Multimedia Reporting and Immersion Journalism. An avid runner (at least before he was seen hobbling around campus in a leg cast), Leon is married to Bertie, an elementary school principal. They have two grown sons and three granddaughters.
Tell us about the experiences of the journalism students who traveled to Iowa to cover the presidential campaign last fall. What were some of the things they did? What did they say after the trip?
The Iowa trip was a great experience all around. Being there in Des Moines on the weekend of the annual Iowa Democratic Party’s annual fundraiser offered our students accessibility (there were opportunities to literally brush shoulders with 18 candidates who would be president) and just as important, the trip challenged the students in ways that being on campus cannot. This was Iowa, where everyone was a stranger. They had to become reporters in a way they had never demonstrated before. There was no low-hanging fruit. They had to work for every quote. They had 10- to 12-hour days to get their stories. One of my favorite memories is at lunch following a program at Drake University. As I was on my way to the rest room, I noticed Julian Castro waiting for a table. I was going to tell someone to strike up an interview with him when I got back to the table, but when I came out of the washroom Sabrina Washington (senior) was recording an interview. Dr. Sally Ann Cruikshank and I were pleased to hear the comments of the six students chosen for the Iowa trip. They found the experience liberating, in the sense that this didn’t have the feel of a school assignment, this was real life reporting. Many of them said the trip was one of their favorite college experiences. And they were appreciative that the school made the opportunity to go.
Each summer you take a group of students across the state to immerse themselves in a town and tell its stories. What are some of your best memories of these trips? What do you tell students as they embark on this mission?
I have many fond memories of The Road Trip, as students call it. It’s not the content that the students created that I remember most (although they’ve produced many pieces that have won state and regional awards). Rather, it’s seeing their, what I call, “light bulb moments,” when they realize they are not acting like journalists in a classroom setting, they are journalists. They think, oh, so this is how it’s going to be in a real job. They often came to journalism because they liked to create content, but they didn’t understand how it felt to be a journalist until they were taken away from the classroom and into the real world. There hasn’t been a trip in the seven years I’ve led The Road Trip that this didn’t happen. The Road Trip is about as experiential as it gets. And I have success stories. There are Road Trip alumni working at The Tennessean, the Chattanooga Times Free Press. One had an internship at NPR. Another is a producer at a television station in Jackson (and two more) one is an editor at a music publication in Nashville and another creates content for the Southern Poverty Law Center. I tell students this is a course that can change their life, if they will embrace the challenges they are going to face. It’s not easy parachuting into a town where you don’t know anyone, and where you don’t know the lay of the land. I also tell them they have no reason not to come away from the Maymester trip with several excellent additions to their portfolios. The trip becomes their sole purpose. There are no distractions. Last year we were in Townsend, Tennessee. I gave the group Saturdays off to explore the Smokies or Gatlinburg or Dollywood. Everyone chose to work on their stories instead. Finally, I must talk about the food. Cooking meals together is crucial to forming the group dynamic that fosters the learning environment I crave for my students. We’ve had some memorable meals, in both senses of that word, but whether we eat well or learn to avoid a certain recipe, we’ve connected in a way that you don’t get in Room 111. The food is grist for stories and stories are what we came to discover.
You are known as one of the best writers in the state. How often are you able to find the time to write these days? What topics are you drawn to?
I write as the subjects present themselves. Not having a daily deadline as I did for three decades is wonderful, but I must be my own taskmaster if I’m to create something of which I’m proud. That’s a difficult job. It was so much easier to get stuff done when I had a layer of editors above me, looking down with eyes that begged, “Please tell me you’ve got something for me.” As for what interests me, that hasn’t changed. I look for, I have always looked for, untold stories: the woman who sold Avon for 62 years, the WWII POW recalling the Christmas when he sang “Silent Night (Stille Nacht)” with his German captors, the teenager who learned to read from a stack of old National Geographic magazines because her bi-polar mother wouldn’t let her go to school (she won a full ride to college). In addition, I am drawn to what I call “cause and affect” stories. I’ve often told students that I covered many plane crashes, natural disasters and examples of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man over the years, but it wasn’t the breaking story that I wanted to write. I wanted to return in a year, or five, or ten and document how that event rippled out to affect changes in lives.
You are great at finding stories off the beaten path, which is something you instill in your students. So I have to ask about your upcoming project, Boss/Brooks: A Granddaughter’s Mission to Solve a Family Mystery and Find Her Lost Grandfather. What can you tell us about the story of a man who faked his death?
My co-writer, Kathy Turner, was a colleague at The Tennessean, but she was in Human Resources. In 2014 she called to ask my help on writing what she called a “family history.” I went to hear her out and was immediately taken by her family’s story, which is quite unlike any other project I’ve undertaken. It’s a complicated story, but the gist is this. On Jan. 14, 1931, Kathy’s grandfather, Boss Bingham, disappeared from Saltillo, Tennessee, where he was bank manager. The bank was failing and Boss, the father of three young children, accepted the blame in a letter. In the letter he told the bank directors that he had about $40,000 in life insurance and it was his desire that “should something happen to me,” he wanted the depositors to take the insurance payouts so as not to lose any money. The next morning his smoldering Chevy was found on the side of a road south of Jackson, Tennessee. Inside the vehicle was the severely burned body of a man. Friends of Boss looked at the charred corpse and declared it was him. The undertaker/coroner in Jackson didn’t dispute them. Boss was declared dead. But it wasn’t him. Boss moved to West Texas, where, in time, he changed his name to Marvin Lester Brooks, he married another woman and fathered four children. He was also elected to the county commission for three terms. Brooks’ family didn’t learn of his dual identity until he had a stroke in 1971. This is certainly one of those “cause/affect” stories. Boss’s departure, we’ve come to learn, was not a simple matter of a man running away from wrongdoing, but a man, in many ways, protecting his neighbors who couldn’t pay their mortgages during the Depression. And there are many other “affects,” too. And, if you’re wondering who was in the burned-out car? Let’s just say murder wasn’t committed, but grave-robbing was.
You are working on a story about armadillos. Why are they everywhere? And are they slow? They seemed to be the most frequent road kill I see.
This story came to my attention on The Road Trip 2017. We were in Marshall County and I kept seeing armadillos in various poses of splat on the side of the road. They were on every back road we traveled. And it led me to ask that universal question of “why?” And I’ve continued to ask that question since: of climatologists, of biologists, of farmers, of over-the-road truckers, of backyard gardeners. I’m still gathering anecdotes and facts, with hopes to turn this into something before summer. What have I learned so far that explains why they are in Tennessee? Well, they are supreme opportunists. And, probably as important: although they are not apex predators, they might as well be because nothing much likes to eat them because of their armor-like body. They get free rein, until they decide to cross the road, then splat, it’s a smorgasbord for vultures.
In a recent article, you told of becoming pen pals with one of your mother's childhood pen pals after your mother's death. Talk about the decision to share that story. How did you decide where it should be published?
I became pen pal to my mother’s pen pal because, as I wrote in the piece, “I was a man missing his mama” after she died in 2016. Writing to Barbara was natural and therapeutic. I was reminded how wonderful it is to receive mail, the old-fashioned kind that requires a walk to the mailbox to collect. There is a satisfaction of anticipation that’s not found in emails or text messages. I came to savor the slowness of the ritual. After learning of Barbara’s death in October of 2018, I took my stack of her letters, placed them in a box and put them away on a bookshelf. Several months later I was thinking of my mother and I pulled the letters out to re-read. I was immediately struck by the power of the narrative that Barbara and I created. The box stayed on my office desk at home while I thought about it, the percolation process I mentioned. One night, as I often do, I found myself awakened at 2 a.m. or so. Usually I catch up on my magazine reading until I become sleepy, but this night I opened the letters. By dawn I had a pretty good draft. In the next two weeks I polished it up. To honor Barbara, I thought publishing it in the local newspaper in her hometown of Opelika would be fitting. I sent the story to the editor. Heard nothing. I emailed again. Heard nothing. So, I said fudge’em, or something like it. I have been a fan of the Bitter Southerner for some time, so I sent it to them. I had an answer and a publication date within 48 hours.
You reveal very personal things in your writing, whether it is sharing details of life with your sister or the dog who helped smooth the waters during a rough time in your marriage. How do you decide what to reveal and what to keep to yourself? What has been the response from your readers? Have you ever shared too much?
I was a reporter for three decades and wrote thousands of stories, but when people talk to me about my writing, the articles they usually mention are the relatively handful of first-person pieces that I authored. I wrote two about my mentally challenged sister, one at the Banner when she turned 30; one at The Tennessean when she turned 40. They were different verses of the same song: how my sister who couldn’t talk had played a significant role in shaping the man I became. Another was titled: The dog that saved my marriage. It told the story how a throw-away mutt that I named U.G. Lee became the cement our marriage needed. (Her name explained: she was ugly, get it?) My last big story for The Tennessean was “Eight questions for my old man.” My father turned 80 two months after he was diagnosed with incurable lung disease. My Father’s Day 2008 piece answered questions I’d always wanted to ask him, in this case, eight questions, one for each decade of his life. How do I decide what personal stories to share? In a way, I don’t. It’s reflexive. I think it comes from watching from the wings as my Southern Baptist preacher-father counseled those who were unsettled or grieving or feeling lost in purpose. My father never minded sharing personal stories, but never in a showboating way, but always as a means to affirm. It’s what I’ve tried to do, too. Memoir has to have a purpose beyond someone saying look what happened to me. I think my father would be proud for me to say that, even though I’ve gone off the deep end and become a sometime Methodist.
You recently wrote an article about driving Jimmy Carter's car. What prompted that memory? Tell us about that article. How did you craft it? What was the response?
The piece on driving Jimmy Carter’s car came to me after learning that he and his wife were coming to Nashville to participate in a blitz build of Habitat for Humanity homes. Back in the 1990s I had served as the founding president of Habitat for Humanity of Wilson County. Being a native Georgian, I was keen on what Carter’s relationship with Habitat and I emulated his work with the organization. I thought his trip to Nashville would be the perfect time to tell my Carter story. The story goes like this: Carter was running for governor and was visiting my hometown in south Georgia. The occasion was the Sweet Potato Festival. To make a long story short, one of Carter’s young campaign workers was my next-door neighbor. He saw me in my Boy Scout uniform and asked if I would drive Carter’s car to the shop for a minor repair. I had just gotten my driver’s license, so he should have chosen someone else. I took off in Jimmy’s car and pealed rubber in front of my shocked parents. I had written another version many years ago but I was afraid my editors would turn it down so I put it away. (I even emailed the neighbor to make sure I wasn’t making this story up. He confirmed it.) I had another reason for wanting to shoehorn this story in with Carter’s appearance in Nashville: I had some things I wanted to tell the former president. Among them: my admiration for his life’s work and how he conducts himself. Several weeks after the build, I received a letter signed by the president and Rosalyn thanking me for the piece. I made Jimmy smile.
Tell us about working with your son on the upcoming project focusing on Jefferson Street musicians from 1940s-70s. Are you seeing a different side of your son when working side by side?
At Thanksgiving my youngest son, Shepherd, was telling me about the cadre of fantastic musicians he had discovered in his work at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (He’s the Moving Images Librarian at the museum, meaning he works with video -- and is a graduate of MTSU’s photography program.) These musicians were not country, but R& B and Soul and their sphere was Jefferson Street before urban renewal, aka Interstate 40, broke up the neighborhood. He said, “They’re dying each year, and someone needs to tell their story.” That was enough for me. I said, let’s start interviewing and we are. We’re not sure of the final product – podcast, documentary or website – but we’re diving in later this spring. As for working with my son, that’s going to be fun. I’m proud to see his accomplishments at the museum. I’m just happy he wants to work with me.
You had the bittersweet honor of writing the story on the closing of the Nashville Banner, which ran in its final issue. Describe that experience.
It was bittersweet. My editor, Tony Kessler, pulled me aside on the day the closing was announced, Feb. 16, 1998, and assigned me the story. I was thrilled and petrified. On Tuesday I started a draft and it went nowhere. I back-deleted every line. Same on Wednesday. In the meantime, I had to find a job. I had a mortgage and kids who expected to go to college. Several newspapers came to do interviews. I met with the editors sent to raid the Banner nest, but none were offering jobs. Reason enough to procrastinate more. On Thursday I really buckled down and wrote 300 words. Having no job prospects was really wearing me down. I said, I’m going home to finish this there. It’ll be ready to read first thing in the morning. On Thursday night about 8 p.m., The Tennessean called with a job offer. I accepted. I told wife and kids I was headed to the office to pull an all-nighter. I got to the office shortly after 9 p.m. and wrote feverishly for an hour or two. I had brought my sleeping bag, so I sprawled beneath my desk to catnap for a half hour. I was awakened to a porter vacuuming uncomfortably close to my head. By the time the first editor arrived at 5 a.m. I was trimming 2,000 words down to 1,200.
You joined MTSU after working in journalism for three decades, including 24 at 1100 Broadway in Nashville working for The Tennessean and Nashville Banner. When and how did you know you wanted to teach full time?
I blame Glen Himebaugh. When I first moved to the Banner, I received a call from Glen. He had been the judge in a newspaper feature writing contest that I won first place. He said, “You owe me.” (And I did.) He said I want you to speak to my feature writing class. I did and he kept inviting me back once a semester in the fall and spring. He also helped me get an adjunct position teaching feature writing. I came to speak to his feature writing classes from 1986 until his retirement in 2010 or so. Even after I came on full time, he said I still owed him. (And I did.) I came on full time because I was needing a change. 30 years of deadlines had taken its toll. In 2005 my son, Shepherd, decided to go to grad school at Minneapolis College of Art and Design for an MFA in photography. My wife, Bertie, decided to get her master’s in school administration so she could be a principal. I said, well, I might as well go to grad school, too. (My choice was Goucher for an MFA in Creative Nonfiction.) It was the two longest years of our lives. Mine was a limited residency program so I spent two weeks in the summer on Goucher’s campus north of Baltimore. The rest was online. I had no intention of leaving daily journalism when I graduated in 2007, but the school of journalism had openings for six tenure-track positions. I asked Glen if I should apply and he replied in the affirmative, noting that I still owed him. (And I did, for he championed my cause.)
Please share with us any tips you have for productivity, time/data management or anything else that has worked for you.
Make lists and check them off. The checking off I find very satisfying.
Many of us have noticed that our students' writing skills have diminished over the last decade. How are you handling that? What advice do you have for the rest of us?
This keeps me up some nights. I, too, have seen the diminished skills. Too many are coming to college without proper training in punctuation, spelling, syntax. Worse, they make it to be juniors and seniors in my classes with these deficiencies. I do a lot of one-on-one line editing. It’s the only way I can constructively point out these mistakes. For some, the instruction is soaked up. For many others, it falls on deaf ears. I do what I can, but I’ve never held that I can teach writing in the first place. I can teach tips, tricks and formulas, but I find it very difficult to teach someone how to craft a paragraph that speaks with their voice. That’s a personal journey and, sadly, I find fewer and fewer students who are willing to expend the creative energy needed to write at that level. One of the culprits is a lack of reading. When you’re reading, you’re going to writing school. Many students don’t appreciate that connection between writing and reading. Then I find one student who does and I’m good for another semester, hoping that student takes another of my classes.