Thursday was the 25th anniversary of an incident that shook northeastern Kentucky to its very core, the school shooting at East Carter High School in Grayson.
Two died – teacher Deanna McDavid and a janitor Marvin Hicks – at the hands of a student, Scott Pennington, on that cold January day in 1993. It was a horrific episode that remains a numbing event for the small town. The shootings were among the first of what has become several incidents of violence at schools across the country.
I was the sports editor at the newspaper in Ashland at the time and remember watching the newsroom deploy to the school when the news came out. They drove to the scene looking for answers to the story as did journalists from across Kentucky and the Tri-State area. A couple of dozen reporters, including Kentucky Today Editor Roger Alford, waited together in the confusion of the tragic aftermath.
Veteran journalist George Wolfford didn’t follow the other reporters to the scene of the tragedy. He took a different path and reasoned his best opportunity for finding someone who’d witnessed the shootings would be at the bowling alley in Grayson, a popular youth hangout.
Wolfford found a student from Deanna McDavid’s classrooms playing video games at the bowling alley. He proceeded to tell George how the students at first thought the shootings were part of an elaborate skit, of Scott Pennington’s calmness and coldness after shooting and killing McDavid and Hicks, and what it was like being held hostage until Pennington finally allowed them to leave two at a time.
One student wrote a farewell letter to her family, fearing she would be killed. Others talked of Pennington counting his remaining rounds, telling them he had one for each of them but then saying if he killed anyone else, it would be himself.
He kept classmates hostage for about 15 minutes before allowing them to leave in pairs. He put the gun on the teacher’s desk and surrendered to Grayson police officers.
Those riveting details gave a snapshot for readers into the terror of the day. Wolfford did it his way and taught everybody else a lesson. He was as fine a journalist as I’ve ever known. George died about two years ago and one of his sons, David Wolfford, began a passionate one-year project that resulted in a book called “By George,” a bit of a greatest hits from his father’s 40-year journalism career as a reporter for the Ashland Daily Independent.
George covered other tragedies for the ADI, including the 1958 Floyd County bus tragedy that took the lives of 26 children and the bus driver. That happened his second day on the job.
He covered the Marshall University plane crash in 1970 and the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire in 1977.
George covered it all with compassion and passion, with respect and reverence, and with the skill and precision of a surgeon.
His actions were living teaching tools for generations of journalists and I was honored to be in his “classroom” watching and learning for many of those years. We became close friends over the years. His death left a void not only in my heart but the heart of a community.
That’s how much George Wolfford meant to us.
We talked frequently after he retired and he was always so complimentary of the work still happening at the newspaper. It was important to him that good work continued. None of us are bigger than the work that happens daily, be it in print or digital like Kentucky Today.
I recommend purchasing a copy of “By George,” which is filled with 100 of his articles and columns. It can be purchased at jsfbooks.com