Last week I gave my English Language Arts (ELA) students a three-part final exam for the marking period. On the third day, it took a while to get them all settled down and working on their essays.
No sooner had a hush descended upon the room than one of my students raised his hand and said, “Mr. K! Did you know Don Shipman is leaving the news?!”
“Yes,” I whispered. “I’m interviewing him and his husband next week for my column.”
I laughed and made a writing motion with my hands to show him that he should get back to taking his test.
“But Mr. K!!!” he cried, “Aren’t you sad?!”
I am. I think all Central New York is sad. But, at the same time, we’re happy for Don and his husband Adam Lawless, who has a new job leading public relations for the entire continent of North America at Vista Print.
“This offers me a lot of opportunities to grow,” Lawless said. He graduated from Utica College with a degree in PR (and journalism,) but had previously worked in marketing.
The company’s headquarters is near Boston.
“Utica has been our home for twenty years now,” Lawless said. “I’m from Frankfort and Don’s from West Winfield. We’ve loved living here and the only other place we’ve ever felt at home was when we visited Boston and New England.”
Lawless started his new position six months ago, so they’ve had to do a lot of commuting back and forth. They haven’t missed a weekend together all that time. During those six months Shipman has been looking for a job in that area.
“I visited every station in New England,” he said. “It’s all about connections.”
Don will be working for the NBC/CW affiliate in Springfield, co-anchoring the evening news at 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. He will also be doing investigative reporting.
“That’s something new I haven’t done in Utica,” he says. “This is something new, and something I can learn. A new adventure.”
Utica/Rome is the 169th largest market in the nation and Springfield is the 108th. So, this is also an opportunity to have a larger audience.
I wondered if his goal was to work for the network.
“No,” he answered emphatically. “Some want to work for a bigger, bigger, bigger market. I just want to work for a good station. I’ve always been like that.”
“We’re both like that,” Lawless added. “New York [City] doesn’t interest either of us. We both like the comforts of home and being able to know people. Boston is a city made up of neighborhoods.”
They met when Adam was in college. He thought he recognized Don but since he didn’t watch a lot of TV he wasn’t sure why he seemed familiar. Shipman’s very modest so he didn’t tell him that he was a news anchor. It didn’t matter. There was a spark and they’ve been together ever since.
They finish each other’s sentences. Adam likes to tell long stories that draw people in with detail and anticipation. Don is a newsman who wants to get right to the facts.
“I have to squeeze his hand, to stop him from giving away the end of the story,” Lawless said.
I wondered what Shipman’s favorite stories have been.
“The ones on the morning show,” he answered quickly. “We had a segment called tough jobs. We did a segment where we cleaned the hooves of cows.”
“They were cow manicurists,” Adam interjected. “That’s a real thing.”
“We cleaned the massive underground oil tanks at gas stations,” Don recalled.
“What is it like inside an underground tank?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Don said. “I just cut the top open my co-anchor went inside.”
“So, she could tell you,” Adam laughed.
“I was like, “you missed a spot.” Don laughed.
In other segments, he did the work of a mail carrier, cleaned up after animals at the Utica Zoo. He also enjoyed fitness and nutrition segments.
One of Adam’s favorites was when the State Police were at their house for a story that demonstrated how alcohol affected a person’s ability to perform tasks like walking a straight line, hammering a nail, or touching their nose. Don and his co-anchor showed viewers how alcohol affected men and women differently and how people often aren’t aware of how much of an impairment they are experiencing.
“The police got us drunk basically,” Shipman laughed. “With those types of stories, we’re having fun but at the same time it’s informative.”
What makes him a really good journalist is his natural curiosity,” Lawless said. “When people watch his stories at home they think ‘I would have asked that question too’.”
“The great thing about journalism is that I learn about something new every day,” Shipman said.
We sat a table outside of Utica Coffee across from the Village Green in Clinton. As I listened to my recording of our interview, I was surprised how often our conversation was interrupted by people stopping by the table to wish Don and Adam well on their move. Fans went out of their way to let him know they would miss him on the news. It was heartwarming to see how universally popular he is in the community.
I am glad I had the opportunity to tell Don, and the people reading this column, how much it has meant to me to see an openly gay man anchor the WKTV news. It’s been a milestone for the community, and for the LGBT community specifically.
When I was first involved in gay rights activism in the 1990s, WUTR was the minority-friendly station while WKTV was thought of as the conservative station. Shipman’s success and overwhelming popularity represent a step forward on many levels.
The area has changed a lot in the past few decades. Lawless remembers being chased home from school by bullies who threw a rock at his head.
“I turned around and said, ‘are you trying to kill me?’” He recalled incredulously.
Don gradually “came out” on the air while hosting the morning show. The response was positive.
According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN,) 80 percent of LGBTQ high school students still experience harassment or bullying because of their minority status. The day before our interview was GLSEN’s “Day of Silence,” when some people take a vow of silence to symbolically represent how fear and discrimination can silence LGBTQ students. I had posted a “silent video” with my partner on my Twitter and Facebook page to show my steadfast solidarity with my students and their allies who may need encouragement or be afraid to speak out for themselves.
Don and Adam are such positive role models I asked them what advice they had for kids who are growing up LGBTQ.
“Be yourself,” Shipman said. “When I finally came into my own and started being who I am, everything around me became easier.”
“Accept yourself,” Lawless said. “What helped me in high school with the bullies is that I accepted myself. I don’t have a problem with being gay. If someone has a problem with it then it’s their problem. They’re not going to make me not love myself.”
“I would get nervous butterflies before I went on the air,” Shipman added. “Those went away once I wasn’t putting on a front anymore. I was just doing my job. If you can find a way to be who you are it makes everything so much easier.”
“Being gay doesn’t limit what you can do,” Lawless emphasized.
It certainly doesn’t. Don Shipman and Adam Lawless are proof of that.
Ron Klopfanstein welcomes your questions, comments, and story ideas. Like him at Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and follow him at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo.