The guys in construction class make fun of me for asking so many questions. I can’t even raise my hand all the way before someone says, “What a surprise…Fox has another question.” They’re trying to get me to shut up; meanwhile, I’m trying to get them to ask more questions.
My friend Getahn Ward, the veteran business reporter who died this weekend at age 45, taught me not to be ashamed to ask questions.
As a rookie reporter at The Nashville Banner and The Tennessean, I was privileged to share a desk for two years with Getahn. While he was a year younger than me, he was always infinitely wiser—as if he had learned things growing up in West Africa that put things in West Nashville in a different perspective. I loved his understated refrain, “It’s no big deal,” which he would use to console me if I had made a journalistic error, or to cushion the blow of an uncomfortable question he was asking a source, as in, “I know this is probably no big deal, but is it true that….” Getahn was very disarming.
In his gentle and generous way, Getahn taught me so much about journalism, business and Nashville, while never making me feel sheepish about how much more he knew than I did. I suspect Getahn’s signature humility is what made him such a beloved journalist, teacher and community leader: He never hesitated to ask questions, because he never professed to have all the answers.
I’ll never forget co-reporting a story with Getahn in my first few weeks on the Banner business desk. Executives from a major Nashville company came to the newsroom to release news of their firm’s sale to a competitor. Back then, before 24-hour online news, The Tennessean and now-defunct Nashville Banner vied for scoops in their printed editions. The Banner published in the afternoon, so Getahn and I had a midday deadline. If we missed that print run, The Tennessean would have the rest of the day to write the story and deliver the scoop the next morning. For that reason, reporters referred to news as breaking on “Banner Time” or “Tennessean Time.”
In this case, news was breaking on Banner Time—and just barely. We had about 20 minutes to report and write the whole corporate acquisition. Had I been a more seasoned reporter, I might have realized that the timing was strategic: There was a crucial detail the company didn’t want to share, and the executives wagered we’d be in such a rush that we’d waive the tough questions.
They were half-right. As a rookie reporter, I took the executives’ word for everything and ran back to my desktop computer, press release in hand, to type as fast as I could.
But not Getahn.
In his calm and thoughtful way, he stayed in the conference room with the executives and kept asking questions. As the clocked ticked toward press time, our editor started hollering at Getahn in a not altogether charitable way. But Getahn was unflappable. Like Columbo, he kept asking “just one more thing,” until, suddenly, he popped the question that knocked the company executives on their heels. (I can’t remember exactly what the question was, but I think it started with “I know this is probably no big deal, but…?”
That’s when Getahn got the real story and our article (Getahn was generous enough to share the byline with me, even though he did all the heavy lifting) became a front-page headline.
The details of that business story have faded from memory, but I’ll never forget the elegant and intelligent humility—not to mention the smile—that Getahn brought to the job. And while he brought dogged honesty to business reporting for the next two decades, he never told a story more beautiful than his own narrative of becoming a young journalist in Liberia and, ultimately, a citizen of the United States.
Getahn shares the story about his “hound dog drive to get the scoop” in this 2017 video of “I Am an American” Nashville Storytellers Project.