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looking for trouble

For nearly five years, he's been running — toward the sirens, toward the shots, and into the midst of some of the city's shadiest characters. Almost 262 columns later, Pulitzer finalist Mark Holmberg seems to be hitting his stride.


From behind, it looks as if an Irish setter has taken over Holmberg's chair. But it's Holmberg, his unstyled, over-the-collar hair sticking out at various angles. "Three highway fatalities," he reports of the night so far. "Just usual stuff. Kids not wearing seat belts."

Saturday nights are the bread and wine of Holmberg's existence. They're the bread, because he works the night police beat on Fridays and Saturdays, so he's always got a news piece or three to write. They're the wine, because he finds plenty of grist for his weekly columns as he cruises across Richmond from street corner to train trestle.

On his police beat, Holmberg wheels around the city until early morning, tethered to two portable police scanners the size of 1950s walkie-talkies. It's a great gig for a young reporter looking to learn some chops and get a crash course in life at the same time. By 46, though, most reporters have lost their taste for this kind of adventure, at least to the extent that they'd rather spend their weekends with family, on vacation or anything other than roamin' with the homies.

But Holmberg thrives on the human detritus that most people with a full-time job and a decent income have long ago weeded out of their lives. Holmberg doesn't just embrace it; he soaks it up, swills it around and regurgitates it weekly for his legion of readers. He could be writing a light feature on an animal handler who had an eye pecked out, or a commentary criticizing City Hall. But Holmberg approaches every story as if a simple newspaper piece could change a city that has achieved a national reputation for being mired in backward tradition. Noble aspirations aside, Holmberg has softened some of the edges that keep the sides from coming together. And he's done it with straight talk and a fair view of both sides, tempered with common sense.

In a little less than 20 years, Holmberg has gone from full-time bricklayer to freelance rock critic to a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in the commentary category. The last time the Times-Dispatch won a Pulitzer was when the venerable Virginius Dabney landed one 55 years ago. Most reporters are fulfilled if they've made an impact on someone's life or shaken up the status quo. Holmberg has made a career of doing both in a way that slices somewhere up the middle of most issues. Typically, he does so with sympathy and compassion, usually for the kinds of people who are easy targets for contempt.

In Holmberg's world, there are no winners or losers, only people who deserve a chance. "He has an ability to project a voice in a different way," says veteran T-D reporter Bill McKelway, one of Holmberg's toughest critics. "His voice is as strong and identifiable as Charlie McDowell's ever was. For different reasons. But they're both so distinctive. That's why people want to pick the paper up."

Getting to that point hasn't come without great effort. Holmberg writes the kinds of columns that pluck nerves, trigger consciences and force his bosses to vet the content for lawsuit potential. "I'm glad the paper has stood behind Mark on some difficult columns," McKelway says. "I hope we don't lose him."

Not likely, says Holmberg. "There's plenty to do here," he says. Holmberg's columns don't always change a life or sway public opinion. But some do. After he wrote about a pastor's son who played drums in church, Jay Leno called the boy for an appearance. Another column took city officials to task for telling a Church Hill resident to remove the rosebushes he planted on the public side of the sidewalk. Today the roses are bigger than ever. And just after the Sixth Annual Black Entertainment Television College Hip-Hop Fest, when an attendee was murdered outside the new $170 million downtown convention center, Holmberg wasn't accusatory; he wasn't apologetic. What a shame, he wrote, that this event, which had the potential to be great for the city, so quickly cast the stain of blood on its newest symbol of hope.

That Holmberg caught the eye of the Pulitzer panel seemed inevitable to some, unexplainable to others. "Do you believe that his column on Black Dog was one of the entries?" a colleague asks, incredulously. Well, face it. He wrote about a nasty, scruffy, stray dog in a way that turned a homeless cur into a national legend with seemingly magical powers.

Although he's known to lead with his ego, Holmberg can be self-effacing. He shucks off the notion that his voice has been a beacon of sorts to finding a reasonable, middle line in many of the issues that hold back Richmond's evolution. The way he sees it, Richmond's emergence as a forward-thinking Southern leader is imminent, and he doesn't want to be anywhere else when it happens. "The Rubik's Cube that is Richmond is almost lined up. Its rebirth is going to be noted across the country," he says. "I want to be part of that."

If the T-D's late patriarch emeritus Tennant Bryan could see his prize writer today, he'd likely gasp, and then fire him. The genteel Mr. Bryan was a coat-and-tie kind of guy, and he expected his male reporters to be the same. Holmberg hasn't worn a tie in years, despite admonishment from management. Some years back, while visiting one of the unsavory areas that draw him like Sherlock Holmes to opium, someone tried to use Holmberg's tie as a handle. He hasn't gotten much heat about his attire since, other than some grumbling from colleagues who think it's just plain wrong for a man to wear a sleeveless T-shirt in the newsroom or tennis shoes to an interview with a public official.

On a recent temperate spring evening, he came straight to work from watching his 15-year-old son Rudy's band play (and wound up onstage singing with local musician/wild man Coby Batty). He's wearing typical attire: dark grey hoodie, jeans, black T-shirt with the name of a punk band on it.

These days Holmberg writes his own ticket. He trolls Richmond in a company vehicle, finds interesting people and writes about them. So far tonight, he has been trying to flesh out a scrap of info he heard over the police scanner. Something about a robbery and a man in the trunk of a Cadillac, suspected dead. It hasn't gone well so far. He's called his best police contacts, and they're either unavailable or in the dark. "It could be nothing," he says. "I'm going to wait before I jump the gun."

Around 7:30, the call comes in. "Robbery? Somewhere on Huguenot?" He's scribbling, left-handed, in a reporter's notebook that looks Lilliputian in his hand. He hangs up and gives a terse breakdown: "Two victims put in a car. One killed and put in the trunk. The other bailed out of the car on Jeff Davis Highway." He mashes both scanners into one hand, his 6-foot, 9-inch, lean frame striding toward the elevator.

In less than a minute, he's in the car, looking for a blue Cadillac with a body in the trunk. Wending through the streets of Blackwell, knees straddling the steering wheel, Holmberg brushes off the notion that his job takes nerve. His secret: He's become a master of never letting anyone see him sweat. He's got a look that, on someone less physically intimidating, might seem indifferent at worst. But from that high in the air, his look is enough to stop a charging boar. It says: "You don't know what I got for you. Do you want to risk it?" Most don't. But there was that time on Second Avenue in North Side, when a guy ordered Holmberg to give up his police scanner.

"I don't think so," Holmberg said, backing it up with "the look."

"I'm going to take it from you," the man told him. Just when Holmberg was ready to let his tennis shoes do the talking, someone yelled, "Yo, that's Slim. He OK."

"Yes, I would've run," he admits today.

Another close call came after he followed a call to an open-air drug market on East Clopton Street. A girl celebrating at her Sweet 16 birthday party was shot and killed. The next night, Holmberg went to the victim's home, hoping to get a picture of the girl in happier times.

"Her mom answers the door, cracked out," he recalls. "I tell her what I need, and she says to wait while she gets herself together, and she closes the door. Suddenly, I'm surrounded by six or seven guys. They get behind you; that's what they do. So you're just waiting for the shot. You can feel it. The head guy was almost as big as me. He rolled on up and got right in my face." Neither said a word. "He stared at me for a full minute. Then they all just walked away."

Tonight, Holmberg can't find the Cadillac, and there's no action at the last location given over the scanner. At a green light, he waits midintersection while two giggly teenage girls salsa their way across the street. "You ever talk to John on the street?" he asks. He parks, and steps out toward the southeast corner of Belvidere and Broad. A homeless man with a shaggy beard is sitting cross-legged at the base of a light pole, reading a hardback copy of "Murder, Inc.," and trying to light the stub of a filterless cigarette. He's leaning into the leeward side of his hand-lettered signs, which say "Bush is Hitler." "Be careful," Holmberg chides him, folding into a crouch. "You're going to light your beard on fire."

"Congratulations, man," John says, pumping Holmberg's hand. Everyone, it seems, knows about his near miss at the Pulitzer. Before they get too far in conversation, a man in an older-model blue sedan stops at the light and rolls down the window. "Are you Mark Holmberg?" he asks. Holmberg nods. "Don't go away," the man says, then turns the corner and parks. Holmberg calmly watches the man approach.

"I've been wanting to meet you," the man says, reaching for a handshake. "I really look forward to your column." Pleasantries are exchanged, congratulations offered. The man walks back to his car, and Holmberg is beginning to think the body in the trunk is bogus.

"It wouldn't be unusual for, say, a drug deal to go bad, and someone gets back at the other one by telling police the guy's got a dead body in his car," he says. But it's barely 8, so he isn't ready to give up the bone yet.

The first time Jean Smurthwaite laid eyes on the young man she had agreed to take in, she was aghast. "He was 15," she recalls, "and 6-foot-8. No one had told us."

Holmberg, the son of a renowned environmentalist and former Marine colonel, had shown an early rebellious streak. Growing up in Falls Church, he had gone the way of many kids from affluent families with ready access to cash — drinking, drugging and staying unfocused. After his junior year in high school, his parents sent him to live with his Uncle Rudy in Oregon. There, he lived the clean life, buckin' hay from sunup to sundown, riding horses, and generally getting a solid grip on life. "By the end of the summer, I was a man," he says. "I learned to work hard. It was spiritually full, too. I just woke up."

But when he came back to Falls Church that autumn, his grip on the good life got a little shaky. "If I'd stayed there, I would've gotten in so much trouble," he says now. So off he went to South Carolina where he lived in a trailer on the property of one of his dad's Marine buddies. When it became apparent that a little more supervision was in order for a willful 15-year-old, a church pastor who was a family friend found a home for him with Jean and Mac Smurthwaite in Irmo, S.C. He went to school at Irmo High and worked construction after school.

Although he views his four months with the Smurthwaites as life altering, it didn't happen at once. A month or so before graduation, he was kicked out of school for smoking in the boys' bathroom. Jean Smurthwaite talked to the principal and got Holmberg back in. Then one night he went drinking with the guys he worked construction with and didn't come home until 8 the next morning. "He said he and some friends had gotten into a bottle of tequila and gone to sleep," Smurthwaite says. "He was looking very sheepish."

The situation called for extreme measures. Smurthwaite sat him down on the stairs so she could look him in the eye. "I was middle-aged and was going to grad school with younger people, and I had learned some good words," she says. "I said, 'Mark, I'm not going to take any shit from you. Get yourself cleaned up, and I'll see you after church.'" Weeks later, he had his high-school diploma, and he wasn't looking back.

"He says we gave him safe haven," Smurthwaite says. "He's been overly gracious about the little we did."

Holmberg moved to Richmond in 1979. He worked as a bricklayer and, on off hours, built his home with his own hands. As a Times-Dispatch reader, he wasn't happy with the coverage of the local rock scene, which largely was the work of a variety of freelancers.

"He came in one Sunday while I was working," says Meredith Homer, then assistant Lifestyle editor for the Times-Dispatch. "He had on his bricklayer clothes, tennis shoes, T-shirt, with a review he'd written about a heavy metal band." He wanted his review published. "He wanted to know why I couldn't run it," Homer recalls.

"I told him no one knew him from Adam, and he didn't have credentials. We talked for a long time that afternoon. I found out he was a college graduate who was laying bricks. I read the review, and he was as good as anybody we had." More to the point, though, it was different. "I've thought about it many times, and I don't know exactly what it was I liked about his writing. He couldn't spell." But she recognized raw talent and added him to the list of freelance critics.

At Homer's suggestion, T-D staff music critic Clarke Bustard III worked with Holmberg on his writing, and soon he had a regular Sunday gig writing stories for Monday's typically thin newspaper. Homer wanted him on-staff. "I felt like he was in touch with the common man," she says.

Executive Editor Alf Goodykoontz wasn't a fast fan of the idea. "Goody liked his writing, but he couldn't stand to see him come in in dirty clothes," Homer says. "Goody stayed after me, he stayed after Jim Berry [her boss], he stayed after Mark. Mark didn't have any discipline."

Still, Holmberg had initiative. "He would go places other reporters wouldn't and do things other people wouldn't do," Homer says. "I felt like he had a viewpoint that no one else had." After a year of writing reviews and weekly features, Homer extracted a promise from Goodykoontz to let Holmberg fill the department's next opening.

He'd barely organized his desk when the backlash began. Times-Dispatch Managing Editor Louise Seals remembers a direct quote from someone in the newsroom. "Someone said we were doing 'intellectual slumming' when we hired Mark," she recalls. "I'm sure he felt tremendous pressure and hostility in some corners."

As the newsroom chief, Seals had her own issues. "My friction with Mark was over deadlines," she says. April 7, Seals noted at the newsroom celebration of Holmberg's Pulitzer nomination, "Slim never met a deadline he couldn't push." Homer concurs. "There were many Sundays that I wondered if we were going to make it." Holmberg pleads guilty. "If I didn't have deadlines, my total output to date would be postcards."

Soon, his laissez-faire approach to deadlines became a sore point among colleagues. Homer brushes it off. "Lots of people were resentful of his talent." That aside, Holmberg's self-assured brashness translated to colleagues as overblown hubris. And when he became a regular contributor to the newsroom's computerized inside comment network, now called Water Cooler, hackles stood at attention. Holmberg routinely took apart other reporter's stories, both in Water Cooler and in newsroom chat. The way some staffers saw it, it wasn't constructive criticism, just an ego out of control.

"Turf" was a term that didn't mean much to Holmberg in the beginning, either. Professional courtesy dictates that if you want to do a story that falls under someone else's beat, you ask first. It's also an acknowledgement of respect, like asking your neighbor before borrowing the lawn mower. Holmberg's view is that if there's a story out there and no one's doing it, it's fair game, a sentiment shared mostly by reporters who have never had a story poached.

Newsroom dust-ups between Holmberg and McKelway are legendary. Although Holmberg is a few inches taller, the two stand almost eye to eye and have done so on many occasions, with nothing but 2 inches of heated air space between them. McKelway doesn't want to rehash old news but, when pushed, recalls one fairly benign exchange that could've gone over the top. "Mark came over and was saying something to me about something or other I should do," he says. "I told him to go back to his desk. It got a little heated."

McKelway, also known for his contributions to Water Cooler, says no harm, no foul; it's all about making a newspaper better. "I know how hard it is to do good work," he says. "Anything I've ever said starts with that presumption. Feelings get rubbed the wrong way sometimes because of frankness."

Overall, McKelway admits, he and Holmberg are guided by a similar ethic. "Some people regard the T-D and its management as too genteel, too comfortable with the way things are. The effort to break out of that mold is to be more direct than might be the case in the past. We all get our wrists slapped from time to time in that effort."

Homberg's midnight deadline is closing in. He spots a policeman on the street and pulls over. "Anything about that robbery?" he asks. The cop looks scared — perhaps of what his bosses will say if he talks and, sizing up the guy behind the wheel, scared not to.

Holmberg presses. "Was he Hispanic?"

No answer.

Holmberg pushes. "Just shake your head, this way [nod] or this way [shake]." Eventually, he cajoles a nonanswer out of the cop that allows him to conclude there were no Latinos involved. "[Richmond Police Chief Andre] Parker's changed a lot of things," Holmberg says. "It's not like the old days. When you'd come up on a scene, it'd be like a party. Cops, reporters — everybody knew everybody, and everyone knew what they had to do. Now it seems like nothing but new guys."

Back in the newsroom, Holmberg sits with the balls of his feet under his chair like a runner on starting blocks. Even though he's got very few confirmed details, his gut tells him the story could grow after deadline, so he decides to write what he has. The clock on the desk says 11:49. His massive hands cover the keyboard as he hunts and pecks with three fingers on each hand.

When he hands the story over to Associate Metro Editor Ed Kelleher just around midnight, he still isn't sure of the story's scope. He tells Kelleher that it could be more complicated than it appears, but not necessarily the kind of complicated that would make a good story. "More the kind of complicated that occurs when a handful of people of below average intelligence and even less moral fiber get pissed off at one another," he says. "More pointlessly confusing than complex."

While he double-checks a spelling in a city directory, his phone rings. "That's me," he yells, and picks up for the transfer. "He jumped out of the vehicle in handcuffs?" Holmberg scribbles, left-handed, on a piece of scrap paper.

He goes to Kelleher with the new information to see if he can push that deadline one more time. He manages to squeeze in a few details, but in the next 24 hours, other media will get the bones of the story that Holmberg so badly wants. The story unfolds over the next two days while Holmberg is off. But when he comes in Tuesday, he's still hanging onto that bone. He makes a few phone calls, and gets the entire, definitive story, laying out details of what turned out to be a murder — where it occurred, who died and who probably did it.

He's not running out of steam, but Holmberg is coming up on the fifth anniversary of his column. In July, he'll reach his goal of never missing a column in five years. Like Cal Ripken, he's always there and ready to play. But the five-year mark, he says, will loosen him up a little. "My plan is to keep doing it for a while longer," he says, "but maybe I'll miss a week or two then." S

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