In the summer of 2006, as then Guild President Rob Modic was appointing Valryn Warren to the Executive Board, it was my job to write up a notice for the newsletter. I played up her non-traditional background, including a paragraph that read:
“Valryn brings a lot of strengths to the board. As someone who has lived in Montgomery and Miami counties most of her life, Valryn knows the community as well as anyone. She is also an ace with public records: she learned to track people down during the nine years she worked in collections for Bank One. Ask former Riverside City Manager Jim Onello and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office about her tenacity.”
As Val reported, Onello regularly went to a local strip joint, then falsified receipts for those outings, stating he was out to lunch with various local officials — who were more than happy to tell Val, emphatically, I Never Ate Lunch With That Man at The Living Room. It was a great piece of work, showed everyone that the company should make her full-time (which it eventually did), and will probably be her most enduring war story, now that she’s gone.
Take out the Onello reference, Val insisted when I showed it to her. Her reason was simple: The Guild is not here to help make newsroom stars, she said. The Guild is here to protect everyone, even people who never got a chance for the type of recognition Val got for that story.
That tells you a lot about her. She was modest — not falsely, since there was nothing false about Valryn — that she was principled, that she got involved for the right reasons, and that she cared about other people.
Within two days of getting to know her, I knew she’d be a great Guild activist. She was so smart, so compassionate. She was also funny as hell. Valryn reminded me of a female reporter from a 1940s movie like His Girl Friday: absolutely feminine in appearance, but as tough, if not tougher, than any man in the room. She was what used to be called a “great broad,” and while she was exceptionally independent, she did not take herself so seriously as to be insulted by that archaic phrase.
She never went to college, but she prided herself on her self-education. She was both book-smart and street-smart, with a sense of humor that could be charmingly earthy but never crude. Her energy was infectious, but you could wear yourself out trying to keep up with her. Underneath the toughness, which was real, never bluster, was true vulnerability. She was open about the mistakes in her life — she was actually open about everything in her life — which had more than its share of disappointments and troubles. But she was resilient, always getting back up when life knocked her down, which is part of why her sudden death from a brain aneurism is so hard to comprehend.
Valryn’s motor ran a little fast. She seemed to be in constant motion, fueled by nicotine, nervous energy and adrenaline, and on rare occasion, by actual food. I cannot picture her relaxing. She suffered from insomnia. But you couldn’t tell her to slow down. That fast motor is part of what made her Valryn.
Valryn was the underdog, and everybody roots for the underdog. She fought her way into our newsroom, despite a non-traditional background — a background that was a strength, never a weakness, for her reporting, though not everyone realized that at first. She also rooted for the underdog, whether it be a younger reporter who needed mentoring, a troubled friend she could have jettisoned, or a wounded bird she tended to during her countless animal rescue endeavors. She loved all living things, and while she could get angry, I don’t think she knew how to hate.
Her death is tragic on so many levels, particularly for the three children she loved unconditionally. One thing that occurred to me the day she died was that her work wasn’t done, not as a reporter, not as a mother, not as a friend and not as an activist. That constant motion was supposed to continue. She had plans. She was still growing and learning. She had things she wanted to do.
As a journalist, her presence and work served as constant reminders of lessons that newsrooms continually forget: that community news done right is real news; that any reporter who is willing to work hard can do investigative journalism; that reporters should always remember the impact their work has on the people they cover, even if they deserve that impact; that you should never condescend to working class people, because there are many paths to a first-tier intellect — which Val certainly had.
She served on the Guild’s Executive Board for three years, first as the At-Large representative for part-timers, then as the At-Large representative for Human Rights. For those three years, she was an active and constant participant during a difficult time in our long struggle to get a contract. She worked very hard for our members. She was also an excellent sounding board when we needed to make tough decisions. That combination of book-smart, street-smart and common sense was invaluable to the board.
I also leaned on her from time to time. Our relationship was complex, and we both loved the banter when we would tease each other. But there were times when I needed her, and she was always there. I had only been president for one year when the Company abruptly broke off negotiations, declared impasse and posted work conditions.
The night the Company declared impasse, I sat dazed and spoke to Val about my concerns, my fears that I was in over my head, that I might lead 150 people to disaster. It was my first crisis and I didn’t know if I was ready. As we spoke, there was no banter, just honest communication between friends who trusted each other enough to let down their guards, and she made it clear that she believed in me. I will always love her for that, and for much more.
Val was a unique person and a genuine character, and it will give us pleasure, as we work through our grief, to remember the funny stories and the good times. But it would do her great injustice to leave it there. We owe it to Valryn to remember the activism, the idealism, the decency, the compassion, the wisdom, the commitment to truth and the willingness to speak truth to power. She earned it.
To know her was to love her.
Dayton Newspaper Guild