Award-winning journalist Verna Gates has covered some of the nation’s top stories, including the Eric Rudolph bombing, the BP oil spill and the underage sex trade. She’s worked for TIME Magazine and Reuters, the world’s largest news organization. Verna began her career at CNN, where she worked for four years, but eventually returned to her home state of Alabama, a place she finds “fascinating” from its food to its politics. Verna now works with the Alabama Tourism Department recruiting journalists to write about her Sweet Home Alabama. She’s the author of the book 100 Things to Do in Birmingham Before You Die, which gave her yet another way to show off the place she calls home. A self-proclaimed “botany nerd,” Verna is also the founder of Fresh Air Family, a nonprofit organization that offers outdoor science education to kids in Alabama through a summer program and school field trips. We are delighted to introduce Verna Gates as today’s FACE of Birmingham.
What has been the most rewarding part of your journalism career?
The most rewarding part was being a part of the start of CNN. I was one of the first 50 employees hired. I was there before they had a studio — just the excitement of doing something nobody had ever done before. I was fresh out of college, little degree in hand. And we all had to do everything. We had to work like a family. It was just such a creative time.
How did you land that job?
I called every day. I’m one of those types of people, which can be a good skill for becoming a reporter. And I said I can come and answer the phone for two days, and I never left. I was there for like a year and a half and they said, “You know what — we never hired you.” By this time I was a writer and producer.
What was the most challenging part of your journalism career?
Seeing death and devastation. Covering executions. Chasing tornadoes. Interviewing orphans. The tragedy that you see. And also some of the cruelty. I was horrified to sit just a few feet from Eric Rudolph in the courtroom. He’s a very handsome, charismatic guy spewing the most vile hatred and violent thoughts, especially against women. I passed a field of dead horses after the tornado that swept through (in April 2011). And I interviewed a little boy whose parents had been killed. He was into [the Disney Pixar movie] Cars. Disney read my story and sent him three boxes of toys, enough for the whole community to have toys! I interviewed a pastor at Pleasant Grove Methodist, and I wrote a story about all they were doing to help their community [after the April 2011 tornado]. People then came to help — nurses, roofers, people from all over the country came and pitched in. So being able to help is a wonderful thing, but it’s also hard to see people who have lost their homes, who’ve lost a child, who’ve lost a parent and also seeing someone like Eric Rudolph who’d happily kill people.
What do you think of the current state of journalism?
I don’t think it’s changed in a good way. When I worked at CNN you had to have not one, not two, but three sources. We worked harder to try to explain the story, and people, I guess, had more patience to read.
There’s just a lot out there that’s propaganda, that’s poorly researched, poorly reported and not accurately vetted.
What’s the best way for consumers of news to determine if information is trustworthy?
Go to the standards. Reuters, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post — these people really work hard. They’re human beings, but they work hard to bring you accurate, well-researched, well-written stories. And read more than one source.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in pursuing a career in journalism? Some people say it is a dying field.
There’s always going to be a need for good, accurate reporting. You have to stick to your principles and do the best job where you are. I’ve been very blessed. I’ve worked for CNN. TIME Magazine called me to work. Reuters called me to work. The Guardian called me to work. NPR called me to work. The only thing I ever did was my very best every single day and was as accurate as I possibly could be.
What inspired you to start Fresh Air Family?
One of the worse stories I’ve ever written was about the underage sex trade. I couldn’t get the image of 13- and 14-year-old ex-prostitutes out of my mind. I came back from interviewing those girls, and I thought to myself, you’ve got to do something to help these girls. But you almost can’t save them when they’re that young, that damaged. It’s one of the lowest rates of rehab you can have. But what we can probably do is try to prevent it, because if any organization and any group believes in you, you can make it. With Fresh Air Family, we serve thousands of people — almost 4,000 kids in 2017.
What inspired you to write your book 100 Things to Do in Birmingham Before You Die?
I know this state. Covering it for so many years, you have to learn a lot about it. This is my home. I think it’s a fascinating place. We have a unique, vibrant culture. Perfect? No. But it’s alive. If you think about it, almost everything we know as American came from the American South. It’s this collision of black, white, French, Scottish — all these cultures coming together in this clash in the South. We’re the only place that’s created cuisines. We’ve got Southern food, we’ve got soul food, we’ve got Creole food, we’ve got Cajun food, we’ve got barbecue, we’ve got country cooking. The art we’ve created. The literature. Even the cowboys came from the American South. And Alabama has always been where we’ve fought our battles. That’s why the whole country was watching to see how we voted [in the December 12 special Senate election].
What was one of the most surprising things you learned when doing research for your book?
There’s a gas station outside of town where this guy who worked for 21 years in Paris and London in the food industry retired to the lake in Pell City and bought a Texaco station as retirement income. When prices went up and profits went down, he started smoking meat in the back. So we’ve got a Paris- and London-trained chef cooking barbecue out the back of a gas station — only in Alabama.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Birmingham and favorite places to go?
I love all the great restaurants we have here — Highlands Bar & Grill, Hot & Hot Fish Club, Roots & Revelry, Café Dupont. I like some of the cool bars like The Collins. I love to eat barbecue. I like the Texaco station, Butts To Go. I like Jim ‘N Nick’s and Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q.
I love anytime I go to the Alabama Theatre or the Lyric to see anything. They’re so gorgeous. I love our live theater here, and the opera and symphony I hardly ever miss. And we have a gorgeous art museum. I love all those things.
And I love to go to Gip’s Place — best party you’ve ever gone to.
What’s the best advice you have to offer?
Do your very best every day. It pays off in every way. Do something you like, and do it well. I don’t know if I’m the best person, but I’ve always done my best and when you have that reputation, people call you.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Flowers, chocolate and my pets — BonBon the West Highland Terrier and Evinrude the cat.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s beautiful photography of Verna.
Meet more amazing Birmingham women in our FACES archives. Prepare to be inspired!