Channel 12’s Gene Cox is tired of reading what he believes has become an exaggerated story told by former co-worker Janet Peckinpaugh.
If you’ve been in Richmond for 17 years or more, chances are you remember Peckinpaugh, a popular, fair-haired anchor who got her start here.
Peckinpaugh worked as the weekend weather anchor at WWBT-12 from 1978 until 1981. She then co-anchored the news at Channel 8 until 1984, when she left to take a weeknight-anchor spot at the ABC affiliate in New Haven, Conn. Today she co-anchors a morning show at NBC’s WVIT Channel 30 in Hartford, Conn.
In this month’s issue of Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, Peckinpaugh discusses how she fought back against an industry that tried to push her out. Her story of overcoming personal and professional obstacles — a car accident 20 years ago nearly paralyzed her; three years ago she sued her station in Connecticut for discrimination and won $8.3 million, later reduced to $3.79 million — is an inspirational tale perfect for the Oprah demographic.
The problem is, according to Channel 12’s Cox, some of the story is untrue.
Cox insists that, contrary to Peckinpaugh’s dramatic account, his former co-worker never was the legislative reporter she claims to have been; that when she returned to work after her accident, it never took anything like 45 minutes for her to make her way to the set; and, furthermore, that she wasn’t the first woman in Richmond to anchor the news.
What’ s more, Cox says Peckinpaugh fails to mention that the station held her job for her while she was recovering from her accident.
In the O article, titled “Janet and Goliath,” Peckinpaugh says that while at Channel 12 she worked her way up to chief legislative reporter and then was critically injured in a car accident. After six months of physical therapy she returned to work, the article says. “It took me 45 minutes to get from my desk to the set,” Peckinpaugh confides.
The article does much to credit Peckinpaugh with paving the way for women in broadcasting — especially in Richmond in the early 1980s.
But Cox contends Peckinpaugh unfairly disparages Channel 12 in this account, and in others she has given.
Peckinpaugh politely dismisses any charge that she’s puffed up her story and Channel 12’s part in it. “It was 21 years ago this month that I returned to TV in Richmond after my accident,” she tells Style via e-mail. “I don’t remember if it took 30 or 45 minutes [to get to the set], but I do remember it was a long time.”
She says she did cover the Legislature but concedes she “was not the chief legislative reporter.” Lastly, Peckinpaugh acknowledges that Bernie Simmons — “a smart, wonderful woman” — was a weekend anchor, but insists she was the first female weeknight anchor in town. Moreover, she says she “loved working in Richmond” at Channel 12 and Channel 8.
But Peckinpaugh’s apparent exaggerations, intentional or not, continue to vex Cox.
About the magazine article he says, simply: “I enjoyed it. Especially the parts that were true.”
It is a dreary Wednesday. Muddy skies. Misty rain. Heavy, cold air. But the conditions don’t deter three employees of the Maymont Foundation. Today they are on a mission.
In the group are Kate Peeples, Maymont’s director of public relations; Mark Rich, director of Maymont’s Nature Center; and Debbie Rea, a zoologist. They are accompanied by a news team from Channel 12. They wear caps, blue jeans and Maymont sweatshirts. All are fiercely determined.
They’re going to rescue the Expressway Chicken.
Back in early March, the chicken was one of many pullets packed on a Tyson’s truck, huddled feather to feather, zooming along the Downtown Expressway for … delivery. And then the miracle: It fell off the truck, rolled across the road through traffic and scrambled to the median and to at least temporary safety.
For a weaker chicken that surely would have been the end. But the Expressway Chicken is strong. More than a month later it still lives on that median, touching the hearts of Richmonders with its will to survive.
Peeples, Rich and Rea begin their mission by piling into a pickup truck, driving onto the expressway and parking in the median crossover near the Sheppard Street overpass. The three get out of the truck and begin their search. They’ve come prepared. In the bed of the truck is a net with a handle, a roll of safety-orange plastic fencing and an empty cage to carry the Expressway Chicken. Nearby, a state trooper is posted for safety.
The Expressway Chicken can vanish into the median’s underbrush when it wants to. And it can’t possibly know that the three Maymont employees are coming to help, not return it to the chicken factory.
Rea, a petite, ponytailed 33-year-old, clutches a Hefty zipper bag full of cracked corn. She climbs into the wet brush. Her biggest challenge, she explains: “Finding it.”
Today there’s no sign of it. The thicket of abelia, holly and honeysuckle forms a dense mat, tightly woven together, that creates tiny crawl spaces — or no spaces at all. The roar of passing traffic makes it impossible to hear chicken sounds, so they look for movement.
They know it’s here somewhere. Aside from the feathers, Rea finds fresh chicken poop. And Peeples confirms, on her cell phone, that a frequent chicken-watcher has seen it. Recently. Suddenly, Rich runs up, excited.
“Where’s Debbie?” he asks. “I found it!”
Rea crawls out of the thicket, her knees muddy, and takes off with Rich. A news cameraman from Channel 12 quickly follows. The group crouches down, peers into the dark brush, and sees it. A wet white plastic bag.
But Rea will not be dejected. “I know he’s in there!” she says, pointing toward the area where the excrement was found.
The three look at each other. Silence. No one wants to call an end to today’s search. But it’s been about an hour. Peeples finally asks, “Are we done?”
“We gave it a pretty good shot,” Rich says.
“Well,” Peeples says, “we’ll regroup and see what we can figure out.”
The search is called off at 12:16 p.m. A few days later, the Expressway Chicken is spotted again. It is standing on the median.
In just a matter of weeks the city will start redistricting, a process that at the state level has fueled ire among legislators and caused more than a few to think about moving.
The city of Richmond has to rearrange its nine City Council districts to comply with the latest census data and the many rules of the U.S. Justice Department. So the city has equipped itself with a tool it hopes will prevent any trash talk and egregious gerrymandering: experienced lawyers.
The city has hired Henry L. Marsh — a former Richmond mayor who as a state senator already is immersed in the subject — and his firm, Hill Tucker & Marsh, along with the law offices of J. Gerald Hebert. Hebert is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center where he teaches courses on voting rights, election law and campaign-finance regulation.
For developing a redistricting plan that meets the criteria of the U.S. Department of Justice, Marsh is charging $200 an hour, to be billed monthly. The city also will pay fees and expenses incurred by the attorneys on the city’s behalf.
If litigation results from the proposed redistricting plan, Marsh’s fee jumps to $300 an hour.
But Marsh’s strategy is worth the price, he insists. “We are very excited about the opportunity to work with the city on this very important task of redistricting,” he says. “And we have a lot of experience working on this issue.”
Essentially, says Marsh, he’ll work to provide City Council with the legal advice it needs before deciding how to redraw any of the city’s nine districts.
City Council is expected to take up the task of redistricting next month, once it has approved the next biennial budget. Marsh says he’s not sure how long the redistricting process will take because it “depends on public input.”
Even so, Marsh adds: “We hope it’s over before November.”
The sun has just broken through on a recent rainy day, and in Carytown people are flooding the sidewalks and dawdling in the shops.
Some of them are stopping at Luxor Vintage Clothing — but not necessarily for the racks of hats, well-worn tuxedos and rows of retro dresses. It’s folk art they’re after. “I see this picture I like,” a woman tells her companion, and enters the store.
Standing outside, Tom Harte, the artist, can’t help but enjoy the interest. A gaunt, gregarious man, he rents a room a small room in the back of a store in the Fan but spends most of his time on the street. He collected aluminum cans for six years to make ends meet.
This show is getting him some new attention, though he’s been drawing, painting and sketching since 1975. “This has opened up a different crowd,” Harte says. And that’s the point.
The April show is a Christmas present to Harte from Laurence Lindberg, the owner of Luxor. He figured it would give Harte an audience beyond the coffee shops where he usually displays his work.
Not only are more people seeing his creations, more people will. The producers of a local public-television show, “Virginia Currents,” plan to run a feature on him sometime this summer.
“When it rains, it pours,” Harte says, smiling, his eyes squeezing into nothing.
Harte is a free spirit with a huge nest of white and blond whiskers bursting from his chin. As usual, he’s chatting it up on the sidewalk.
“The second-hardest-working man in town,” he says of a FedEx delivery driver who is making a stop at Luxor. A woman Harte has invited to see the show stops by to tell him, “I just haven’t had time — but I’ll be back.”
Harte was born in Oregon Hill. He left Richmond in 1973 and didn’t come back until 1987. He started drawing while he was away and never stopped. Selling a few pieces of art a month keeps him afloat.
Harte has 38 works on display in Luxor, ranging in price from $25 (No. 2, “World Cup”) to $400 (No. 28, “Dad”). Harte uses a myriad of media: pen, crayon and paint; his mishmash of subjects includes horses, faces, trees and interior scenes.
“The most common reaction,” Lindberg says of customers, “is, ‘The same person did all this?'” He hopes a theme will emerge in future showings.
Harte says he, too, is working to hone his style and turn out great things. At the same time, he’s trying to remember that it’s just a job. “No matter how good you are,” he says philosophically, “all roads lead to death.”