Three months ago, our Jordan Hickey stumbled upon the story of Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant, who had been killed in April — allegedly by his own cousin. Here’s how he reported this story.
story by Jordan Hickey / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published August 21, 2012
The Mobile Library, essentially a library on wheels, is part of the Springfield-Greene County Library’s outreach initiative to provide disadvantaged and distant communities with easier access to books. It makes the rounds to assisted living facilities and small towns on the fringes of the county. When I first arrived in Springfield and heard about all of places that it visited, it occurred to me that it might be a means of meeting people I wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to meet.
And that is how, on a Tuesday afternoon in early May, I found myself on the Mobile Library in Walnut Grove, Mo., striking up a conversation with a woman named Debbie. I was interested in doing a story about larger families in rural areas, the reasons that people stay in the Ozarks, how families stay together — or something along those lines. At that point, it was little more than an abstract idea.
But it wasn’t too long into our conversation that she took a folded slip of paper from her purse — it was a funeral announcement for Bo. She told me that he was her nephew and that he had been killed just a week before.
That chance meeting led to “The Life, Death and Mourning of Tommy “Bo” Ray Bryant,” a story we published on Saturday. The story was reported over the course of three months.
It evolved over the summer. After that first meeting, I told Debbie that I would be coming up the following week, and I asked if maybe we could talk a bit more then. The next time that I came, she asked if I might be interested in coming by her mom and dad’s place. The family was going to have a barbecue, a tradition that had faded in recent years but was being revived in an effort to bring the family together after Bo’s death.
Over the course of the next several months, I went to several of those monthly barbecues. (In the photo at top, I’m at center, seated and wearing a light blue shirt.) “WaGro” became my second home for the summer. And it seemed that every time I came back, a new element of the story had been introduced or an existing one altered. After the first, I came back talking about the Hill, vigilantism and the Lost Boys. After the second, I came back talking about the nature of mourning, what Bo had been like as a kid, how he and Lee had eaten ChapStick.
The story changed when I first met Teresa and Drew and Kevin — who live on the Hill — the day of the preliminary hearing for the man accused in Bo’s death. It changed when I went to the Hill for the first time and realized just how much Bo had meant to the people living up there. It changed when I spoke to James, when I spoke to Debbie, when I spoke to Angie, and each time that I spoke with Dee. But there was one thing that struck me: I realized the only reason I was able to write the piece was because he had meant so much to so many people.
It was also the reason that reporting this story presented the challenge it did. This was a story that required an enormous amount of time and trust.
When I went to Ken and Mary Ann’s house for the first barbecue, for as many family members who were happy to speak with me, there were just as many who didn’t — I remember more than a few eyeing me warily from a distance. It was for that reason that the first few times I went up there, I did not use a notepad or a recorder. I just sat outside and spoke to people as they cycled in and out of the seats. When I left a few hours later, I immediately went to a nearby McDonald’s and wrote a few thousand words on what I’d seen throughout the course of the afternoon, who I needed to speak with and in what order I wanted to speak with them.
When it actually came to sitting down with people for the one-on-one interviews, I realized pretty early on that the sight of a tape recorder or a notepad could be somewhat unnerving, especially when some of the more sensitive material was being discussed. It was the reason I made a point of reading my questions beforehand, storing them in the bag and guiding the conversation toward them when possible. It was also the reason that I tried to put the recorder off to one side, out of the line of sight during the conversation.
This was a story that presented a very specific set of challenges. But there was one that never appeared. The people in Walnut Grove and the surrounding area are very well spoken — there were more than a few occasions when I had to struggle to suppress excitement after hearing a quote. Granted, it took some little amount of trust before the people I spoke with would speak freely, but once they did, there was no shortage of stories or revelations.
When I set out to write the piece, I wanted the narrative arc to reflect the experience that I had had in reporting the piece: How the Hill was initially an abstraction. How meeting the people who lived up there had changed it. What the place meant to this family. What the place meant to Dee.
You won’t see all of the reporting in the final product. I conducted dozens of hours of interviews over the course of the summer. I interviewed nearly everyone associated with the family — somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 sources in all, a fair number of which were very in-depth, lengthy endeavors. I went to the court in Bolivar, Mo., on three occasions.
I hope the final story reflects all of that. I hope it does justice to a great story. It’s their story, and I’m glad to have known it.