I just saw Mitch Sneed two weeks ago. He was in Douglasville visiting his good friend Rodney Elrod, and I never missed a chance to talk shop with my former boss at the Sentinel. It was a great visit, and Mitch told me — as he always did — that the boat was always in the water and that my family was welcome to visit him anytime on Lake Martin in Alabama.
I had no idea it would be the last time I would see him. He died Sunday night from injuries sustained in a car accident Saturday morning in Alexander City, Alabama, where he’d been the editor of the paper there for the last four years.
During his three years as the editor of the Sentinel, we used to jokingly wonder when he slept. He was a true newshound and never seemed to rest. One day, he came into the office with the story of a body being found somewhere in the county. He said that a captain he had gotten to know at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office had called him in the middle of the night, then stopped by to pick Mitch up on the way to the scene.
Mitch built relationships like that everywhere he went. Just last week, a plane crashed in Alex City and Mitch owned the story. The two people on the plane were from Georgia, and even the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was using the picture Mitch took of the wreckage. I can’t say I was surprised — because it was just Mitch being Mitch.
I sent him an email and he wrote back: “Saw the lights flicker and started out the door of the restaurant and then the text hit. Before I was a block away, the fire chief and police chief had already texted me. That is a huge help. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.”
Mitch would tell you had he had been lucky in life, but he was also a giant of a person; a great friend, someone I could always run things by, and the best newspaper man I have ever known. The people who knew him were the lucky ones.
As one friend said, during his three years in Douglasville, he “made the Sentinel worth reading again.”
When he hired me in 2012, I had no idea what I was getting into. I started out covering sports temporarily and then moved on to covering the county government and school board.
That year-and-a-half working under Mitch was the highlight of my professional life. Mitch, in his final column at the Sentinel in June of 2014, wrote: “The secret to newspaper success? Covering the news.”
He made it sound so simple. But that’s what he did. We did our share of investigative reporting, holding government officials accountable. And we told the stories of the community we served.
He wrote: “We tried every day to keep you informed, we cheered for you, we cried with you and we kicked you in the pants when you needed it. That is the only way I know how to do it.”
My background was in sports before Mitch hired me as a news reporter. But Mitch, as a former sports writer himself, told me the principles were the same and he knew I could make the transition. I’ve always said I bought into what he was selling. Or as he put it in his farewell column, I bought into his ideas and “drank the Kool-Aid.”
We did a lot as a team my first year at the Sentinel. Amanda Thomas, Haisten Willis and Rick Winters — we all bought into what Mitch was selling. The next year, when it was time for awards, we won first place in General Excellence from the Georgia Press Association, signifying us as the best non-daily newspaper in Georgia. I contributed a first place award in Investigative Reporting that year, guided by Mitch, whose reporting had exposed wrongdoing by former college presidents and politicians over the years.
The night Mitch left to accept that big award at the GPA’s annual convention on Jekyll Island, the payoff for his hard work in Douglasville, he called me and told me he had accepted a new job in Alabama. He told me he planned to recommend me as managing editor. And he told me he couldn’t have done it without me. Those words meant as much to me then as they do now. I was part of something big, and I had earned the respect of someone I looked up to as a mentor and a giant in this field.
When Herb Emory died unexpectedly in April of 2014, Mitch called to tell me and my heart dropped like it did Sunday night when I learned Mitch had died. Like Mitch, Herb was a friend to everybody he came across and a giant in the news business.
Mitch penned a column about Herb that he headlined: “If we could all be like Captain Herb.”
Mitch wrote: “If the way that Herb died does nothing else, I will try to live the rest of my days just like he did. I will run wide open, help everyone I can and smile when I feel like crying. I will leave no gas in the tank and no tread on the tires. I just hope I can leave my community a little better than I found it.”
Mitch surely left this community and every other place he served better than he found it. Rest in peace, my friend.
Ron Daniel is managing editor of the Douglas County Sentinel.