November 20, 2002

Dear Readers:

Rick Bragg was once the king of the Florida chicken story, but he can brag no more. He has been outdone by one of his protégés, Kelley Benham.

For the inattentive among Dr. Ink’s readers, Rick Bragg of The New York Times has become a cottage industry, with a collection of his news features in print, along with a memoir about his mama, and another about his granddaddy, and still another on the way (Doc imagines) about his old dog Blue.

Rick earned his spurs writing for the St. Pete Times and still likes to read at conferences a piece he did out of the Times Clearwater bureau in 1989. The headline read “Bobcat is caged in Dunedin,” but Rick gained fame by getting the name of the bobcat’s intended victim.

“Mopsy has looked into the face of death, and it is whiskered.” (Rick has been known to stop here in his reading, anticipating laughter and applause.)

“Mopsy is a pet chicken belonging to Wini Bauman. Mrs. Bauman was on the porch of her Narnia Court home Wednesday morning when Mopsy came tearing around the corner of the house, feathers flying. Hot on Mopsy’s tail feathers was a bobcat. ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes,’ Mrs. Bauman said. Mopsy made it to the house safely. The bobcat, feathers in its long whiskers, slinked into a nearby orange grove. Mrs. Bauman called the law.”

What follows this catchy opening is a fairly straightforward rendition of how the bobcat was captured by wildlife officers and transported to a safer habitat. Chickens in town could rest easier.

About the time Bragg was spinning such yarns, a young woman named Kelley Benham was emerging as a talented journalist at Clearwater High School. She attended classes at the Poynter Institute and worked as both a writing and photo intern at the Times, where she latched onto Bragg and other writers and editors who could help her in her craft.

Now, at the age of 28, she writes for the Times out of the Clearwater bureau and has written a story that blows Mopsy out of the water, or, as Kelley elegantly puts it: “This story kicks Mopsy’s ass.” Her colleagues at the Times agree.

Here’s a taste of “Rampaging rooster attacks girl”:

“Tarpon Springs — When they heard the screams, no one suspected the rooster.

“Dechardonae Gaines, 2, was toddling down the sidewalk Monday lugging her Easy Bake Oven when she became the victim in one of the weirder animal attack cases police can recall.”

Weird does not begin to describe the attack on little Dechardonae by a determined and nasty rooster named Rockadoodle Two. Among the charms of Kelley’s story is that she names not only the rampaging rooster, but four other fowl: Roosty, Hen, Henny Penny, and the villain’s daddy, Rockadoodle (One).

The quotes in Kelley’s story are so lively that Rick’s ‘brite’ looks like a ‘dull’ in comparison. Here’s a sample:

“He beat the crap out of her. A freaking rooster, you know?”

“Oooh, get! Shoo! Shoo! Shoo!”

“He just sat there. All bold.”

“I had known him since he was an egg.”

And a kicker from the relieved little girl: “He gone. The police got him.”

Dr. Ink urges his readers to read the story of Dechardonae and Rockadoodle Two in its entirety. Kelley Benham shows what a talented young writer can do in one day on deadline working the cops beat out of a bureau. The story was a huge hit at the recent Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism.

So, Rick, keeping looking over your shoulder. You never know who might be gaining on you. Who knows, maybe she even has a mama and a granddaddy worth writing about.

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