I’m often asked by viewers ‘What is the most interesting story you’ve ever covered?’ Not having been a street reporter for several years now I have to go back to my days covering news in Portland, Oregon, Greenville, South Carolina and Yakima, Washington. And when I travel back there my tendency is to zero in on the biggest stories I covered. From the first big national news story I remember covering; Magic Johnson having AIDS, to local news that captivated a national audience; Kurt Cobain’s suicide. There was the grisly murder of a young woman in Yakima. My first taste of crime reporting and of reading a police report. Not for the faint of heart. There was the first election I covered. Mouth dry but hands sweating in my live shots shots because political reporting has always made me nervous. There have been earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, fires, ice storms, heat waves, and cicada invasions! Terrifying workplace shootings, car crashes that claim young lives, freak accidents, and a mother who drives her two babies into a lake so a man who doesn’t want children will love her. Local corruption, bad cops, worse politicans, the ‘Thursday afternoon protest’ in Portland. Court cases, robberies, carjackings, rape. Lot of bad stuff. Lot of good stuff too. Good in the sense of inspiring, life-affirming, goose bump inducing stuff. A wheelchair bound 13 year old who filed a petition to divorce his parents and choose his caregivers. Strongest kid I ever met. A nurse whose hands were burned off after she filled a kerosene heater with gasoline. Bravest woman I ever met. A couple who taught chimpanzees sign language so humans and animals could communicate. The chimp’s name was Washoe and she lived at an animal facility at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. She had large, bright eyes, a slight build, and those eerily human hands. Hands with which she said ‘Hello Stephany’ whenever I would return to cover her story. Her enclosure was spectacular with rope strewn trees stretching upward. Water and rocks and toys filled the floor as Washoe and her adopted son Loulis played. In fact, not only was she the first chimp to learn American Sign Language, she taught some of her 350 words to Loulis. The student became teacher. When I would arrive, her handlers, The Fouts, would call her name and she would come right to the fence and with fingers outstretched, eyes sparkling with recognition, sign ‘Welcome back friend.’
Washoe died October 30th, 2007 at the age of 42. I think of what an impact she had on this young reporter. Of how on slow news days I would convince my news director we needed to do an update on Washoe and race off to Ellensburg to see my friend. Of the incredible feeling of knowing an animal feels, thinks, and can communicate like we do. It was and is the most interesting news story I have ever covered.