Monday, April 16, 2018
Have you heard the story of how in the summer of 1935 Richmond was enthralled by reports of a monster named “Elmer” that was thumping under the floorboards and behind the walls of a Grace Street row house on what is now Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus?
How about when a lion, “Tricky Gilbert,” escaped from a circus parade in 1934 and rampaged through Richmond neighborhoods before being shot to death by two local men and city police?
Or what about the house built in 1895 on Sharp’s Island in the James River, just off the 14th Street Bridge, that served as a family’s bizarre vacation getaway in the 1950s?
These stories – and many more – have been brought back to life by the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s newsroom researcher and archivist, Nicole Kappatos.
“I am here to share the archives with the world and with Richmond,” said Kappatos, who received a master’s degree in history from VCU in 2014. “And I’m totally biased, but I think our archives are one of our crown jewels. I mean, we’ve been around for 168 years.”
Kappatos is responsible for maintaining the paper’s roughly 12 million clips, photos, drawings, books and more in the archives, which is located in the newspaper’s basement.
She also is tasked with digging through the archives to uncover forgotten, yet fantastic, stories and photos from Richmond’s past.
She writes the paper’s From the Archives blog, she finds and posts a photo of the day, and over the past couple of months she has been writing archival stories for the Times-Dispatch’s print editions.
“I guess you could say I’m a journalist-archivist,” she said.
Kappatos also serves as the newsroom researcher, providing reporters with past coverage and information that can add historical context to current events.
“If you see a story that goes back in time or a reporter’s trying to trace, say, what other times did we write about this? Or what happened in the ‘80s with this? That’s one of my primary jobs too,” she said.
Her job is something of an innovative twist on the archivist role. Years ago, the newspaper’s archives were managed by a team of nine or 10. Now, as the sole archivist, Kappatos’ role is one that both maintains the archives as best as possible but also creates content.
“Nicole brings an old-school fascination with history and a millennial’s state-of-the-art sensibilities to her job as archivist,” said Michael Paul Williams, a Times-Dispatch columnist and Kappatos’ mentor. “Her creativity and her zest for community engagement are valuable assets, and I’ve seen firsthand what a wonderful ambassador she is for the RTD.
“As newspapers strive to connect with younger readers, it’s important that our staffs are populated with people who can relate to their interests, passions and concerns,” he added. “If people like Nicole still find newspapers stimulating, it gives me hope.”
Kappatos grew up in Richmond with a love of history, though originally she wanted to be an archaeologist “like Indiana Jones or ‘Tomb Raider.’”
She majored in history at the University of Mary Washington and returned to Richmond after graduation, interning at the Virginia State Law Library and working at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Richmond.
She enrolled at VCU in the master’s program of the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences. As a grad student, Kappatos focused on public history as a concentration and took part in public history internships at the Library of Virginia and the Wilton House Museum, while also teaching VCU undergrads as a teaching assistant.
“She is a self-starter, full of energy, and very thoughtful in her work,” said Kappatos’ adviser and VCU’s history chair, John Kneebone, Ph.D. “Her thesis involved both archival research and oral history, and she tells the story of Greek immigration to Richmond well. She’s applied all those skills at the newspaper. Her work at the TD is entrepreneurial from the paper’s point of view, and very interesting from the point of view of a regular reader of the TD, which I am.”
I try to make connections. That’s what I learned in school at VCU.
At the Times-Dispatch, Kappatos’ goal, she said, is to connect readers with the history found in the archives.
“I’m always asking, is there a past tense version of this thing that’s happening? Like, we had a meals tax debate in the past. So I wrote about that, just as people were mad about a meals tax that was proposed [in February]. So I try to make connections,” she said. “That’s what I learned in school at VCU. That’s essentially public history, how to connect history to a broader audience. You don’t have to be a history nerd to think something from the past is interesting.”
Her job requires her to flex her skills as both a journalist and a public historian.
“A lot of our coursework [at VCU] was like, ‘take this very historical thing that might be only interesting to you and make it relevant.’ And [at the Times-Dispatch], I just love seeing the results. Working in a newspaper, you publish something and then there is an immediate response. It could be good or bad, but I always love to see how Richmonders are responding and saying, you know, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’"
‘I love the weird ones’
Hearing from readers is a big part of Kappatos’ job. Each day, she said, readers call in with tips about interesting stories from Richmond’s history.
“Usually if it’s something that sounds really good, I’ll dig for it and see what I can find,” she said. “Sometimes they might remember something but it’s not exactly how they remembered it. It might be a false lead. But our readers are really great. I get calls every single day from people who read a story and have a personal version that they want to tell me, like, ‘I was there’ or ‘my grandfather was there.’”
Tracking down stories can be tricky, particularly because years ago when the Times-Dispatch’s archives were running out of room, the paper removed thousands of records. The Valentine, for example, holds some 12,000 Times-Dispatch photos.
“So I always try to explain to people that I will look, but I cannot guarantee that it survived time, because who knows?” she said.
When deciding if a story in the archive is worth pursuing, Kappatos asks herself: “Would I personally want to read that story?”
“Would I be interested in this?” she said. “Do I think people in my age group, as well as older people, veterans of Richmond, will be interested? Does this relate to something happening today that people might be interested in? Does it make people say, ‘Wow, that’s how it used to be?’ Does it make people ask, ‘Why did this change’?
“I love the weird ones,” she added.
The “Elmer” story came about from Kappatos’ digging through the archives with weatherman John Boyer. The original story, which ran on the Times-Dispatch’s front page for a week, focused on Mrs. George Douglass, who lived at 418 W. Main St., and who decided that the thumping in her walls was a creature she named Elmer. She only caught a glimpse of the monster briefly, and described it as “sheep-bodied” and “dog-eared.”
Thousands of Richmond residents came out in hopes of seeing the monster.
“Her house became a tourist destination,” Kappatos said. “And then eventually, one of the ‘gawkers’ – which was a group of teenage boys who were laying out all night waiting – managed to catch it. And it turned out to be a mother possum with her babies.”
The kicker, Kappatos added, was The Washington Post’s mocking coverage of Richmond’s excitement over Elmer.
“A week later, after it was revealed what Elmer was, The Washington Post did this story with a headline that was something like, ‘Richmond’s monster served best in stew with potatoes,’ and kind of made fun of Richmond for putting this on the front page for over a week.”
The “Tricky Gilbert” story was generated from a tip by Andrew Cain, the Times-Dispatch’s politics editor. “[Cain] has also become really fascinated with the archives and he has been doing his own project called Retro Richmond,” she said. “He goes through my blog posts and then he’ll find some stuff and transcribe it and he’ll put together this old-looking page with a designer. He actually came across the story and was like, ‘Hey, you should look into this. I feel like this could be really interesting.’”
After Kappatos’ retelling of the Tricky Gilbert story, Richmond’s Isley Brewing Co. released a double black IPA named after the escaped lion. “The brewery actually called us and they were like, ‘We were so inspired. We thought this was fascinating. So we’re making a beer.’ And we were like, ‘That is amazing.’”
The Sharp’s Island house story is another of Kappatos’ personal favorites. The Times-Dispatch wrote about the family that vacationed in the house, which was sold in the 1970s to a local architect. He wanted to tear it down and rebuild it as a modern-style home, complete with geodesic dome.
The cost of tearing down the house before building the new structure would have been prohibitive, however, so the city granted him permission to burn it down under the supervision of a fire official.
“The one regret I have is that I could not find the photo, but I found it on microfilm so I could see the scan,” she said. “A TD photographer went out with [the architect] in a boat with the fire marshal and they just like poured some gas on [the house’s remains] and threw a match on it. In the photo, they’re coming away from the island and the guy's smiling and the fire’s behind him in the background.”
Sharing history with readers
Kappatos’ role at the Times-Dispatch also involves a variety of other responsibilities. When someone wants to license a photo or story to republish, Kappatos handles that process. She also appears in the paper’s video roundup of the day’s news called “News Minute.”
“I wear a lot of hats and I think that’s what keeps the job exciting and also, at times, you know, a little stressful,” she said.
Her job of finding treasures in the Times-Dispatch archives is not only interesting and rewarding, she said, it also allows the newspaper to take advantage of a key asset – its 168 years of history – and share that with its readers
“I think that, today, people are interested in history and there's a lot of conversation of how did we get to where we are and what happened before us,” she said. “You know, I’m hoping that there's a greater interest in journalism in today’s world. But I think to survive right now, and for this role to continue on, I have to be the most innovative that I can. I’m almost less of an archivist and more of a public historian for the RTD. And I just try to share as much as I can.”