The break-in at the Watergate Hotel led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the conviction of about 40 people connected to the Nixon Administration.
It also ignited the careers of famed Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward and inspired many young people across the nation to pursue careers in newspaper and broadcast news.
A few years later, Valerie Nieman found herself heading to Morgantown to explore opportunities at the Reed College of Media (then the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism).
“The Watergate Scandal and the investigative reporting by Woodward and Bernstein drove me and others to journalism. ‘All the President’s Men’ would come out in 1976, and we were all hot with going out and saving the world,” the author, retired editor and WVU alumna said.
That fall, Nieman sat in a Martin Hall classroom, learning the newspaper trade from legendary professors such as Paul Atkins, Harry Elwood, Dr. Robert Ours and Bill Seymour.
“Paul Atkins was the heart and soul of news editorial,” Nieman said. “I so admired and respected him, but I lived in fear of him early on.”
First, she couldn’t type, and the Journalism Program required students to type 20 words per minute. And, Atkins had a somewhat intimidating teaching style.
“Paul Atkins was a hard taskmaster,” Nieman said. “He transferred your typewritten stories onto transparencies, placed them on the overhead projector and then marked them up with a blue pencil while everyone was watching.”
“I thought I was a pretty good writer, but I was still learning,” she said.
It was an intimidating experience to have your mistakes and weaknesses exposed to the entire class, but it also pushed Nieman and her classmates to become better writers and develop their journalistic skills.
The learning process extended to the Daily Athenaeum, which occupied an old white house on Prospect Street. Her first byline there was for covering a volleyball game, and one summer she served as news editor.
“We positioned ourselves as the alternative to the Dominion Post,” Nieman said. “We were gutsy. We covered a strike at the Greer Limestone (which was owned by the same company that ran the Dominion Post).”
She also worked as a stringer for United Press International.
“I would cover things and then get on a pay phone on the corner and call the Charleston bureau and dictate my story,” Nieman said.
In between classes, tests and deadlines, she worked part-time at the Ramada Inn.
“I was scrambling to earn money to live on,” Nieman said. “It was a busy time, but it was great.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1978, she started writing at the Dominion Post/Morning Reporter, covering the Preston County beat. Her newspaper assignments took her from covering the Buckwheat Festival to interviewing then-Governor Jay Rockefeller.
She moved to the Times West Virginian in Fairmont, where she worked as a reporter, city editor and executive editor from 1981-1997.
As a police reporter, she spent many evenings standing on roadsides or outside of crime scenes asking questions and trying to piece together events that had just transpired. All while the clock was ticking and an editor was waiting back in the newsroom.
She covered trials of inmates who rioted at the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville on January 1, 1986. And there were recurring news stories involving the coal industry and water pollution.
One story that stayed with her for decades involved a crossroads community in rural Marion County that lost its water because a Consolidation Coal Company mine destroyed its wells. The mining company responded to the situation by bringing in a water buffalo (a container used to transport water for livestock).
Nieman and a photographer visited the community and talked to the residents. A series of articles and accompanying pictures induced the company to extend a water line from Mannington.
“I felt that was my job as a reporter to help right a wrong. It wasn’t a big story, but it was an important story,” Nieman said.
And it’s the little details of this story and countless others that have stuck with her. Two decades of reporting have filled her mental filing cabinets with experiences that she can draw from to create the people, places and events that come to life in her novels, short stories and poems.
“I love the fact that journalism threw me together with all types of people: crooked politicians, good politicians, good cops, bad cops, firefighters, grieving parents. That’s a rich background to draw from,” Nieman said.
“Characters are amalgams of people I’ve known and have worked with, detectives, biologists, reporters,” Nieman said. “Every character has some element of me in it. It may be small or may be quite large. Maggie (the main character in ‘In the Lonely Backwater’) has quite a lot of me.”
Nieman began focusing on publishing her fiction while still covering news full-time.
Nieman wrote her first attempt at a novel on a manual typewriter. When she reviewed the finished manuscript, she decided that it wasn’t any good and it’s long since lost. She quickly moved on to write her first published novel, “Neena Gathering,” which came out in 1988 and was reissued in 2012.
Her other novels include “To the Bones,” “Blood Clay” (winner of the Eric Hoffer Prize in General Fiction), “Survivors” and her latest novel, “In the Lonely Backwater,” which received the Sir Walter Raleigh Award, North Carolina’s top prize for fiction.
Her third poetry collection, “Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse,” was a runner-up for
the Brockman-Campbell Book Prize. She is also the author of two other poetry
collections, “Hotel Worthy” and “Wake Wake Wake,” and a collection of short stories,
Nieman was a 2013-14 North Carolina Arts Council poetry fellow, and has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as grants from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
The emotional heart of my writing is West Virginia
She moved to North Carolina in 1997, working as an editor for the News & Record before returning to school to get an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She taught for many years at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where she is professor emerita.
She returned to campus March 7 for an event hosted by the WVU Humanities Center and the West Virginia and Regional History Center in the Downtown Library’s Milano Reading Room. She read from “In the Lonely Backwater” and other of her works of prose and poetry.
Her visit coincided with recently donating her papers to the WVRHC, part of WVU Libraries.
“I thought about where I wanted my papers to be. And to me, the emotional heart of my writing is West Virginia,” Nieman said. “It’s where I became a writer, it’s where I published my first work, it’s where I learned how to become a writer and put it into practice.”
She hopes her collection of notebooks, awards certificates, articles and drafts of poems and novels will inspire future writers to take pen in hand and transform a blank page with their words.
“I collected stuff over the years. Not in any organized way, but just dumping in a bin, thinking maybe someone will care about this someday,” Nieman said.
“The WVRHC is proud to be the home of Valerie Nieman’s archives,” WVRHC Director Lori Hostuttler said. “Her papers are now among the collections of many notable West Virginia writers and enhance the Center’s literary holdings.”