Melinda Roeder was home at her apartment when she got the phone call. She needed to get her photographer because an F4 tornado had struck the small town of Spencer, South Dakota, about an hour away from the news station that recently hired her.
The first thing she saw was lights. Blinding, disorienting lights accompanied by sirens. There were police crews and fire trucks lining the roadway into town, and as they drove in, signs of debris began to appear: tree limbs, whole trees, shingles and mailboxes all leading to piles that were once people’s homes.
By the time Roeder arrived, it was about an hour and twenty minutes after the tornado hit. By now, people were walking around trying to comprehend what had just happened to them. “Expressionless,” as Roeder described them.
All that was left standing of one home was an interior bathroom where the woman who owned it took shelter from and survived the windy devil that killed six victims.
As a young girl was sobbing at the thought of the tornado returning, Roeder got to work. She was a reporter and needed to cover the story, but the enormity of the situation left her feeling directionless.
“This entire town was leveled by this tornado and it was overwhelming, at first,” said Roeder, “But then I just kind of jumped into it, and at first, it was nerve wrecking. But then, I really felt like I got to connect the dots and tell some really compelling stories. Not just about what happened or the statistics of how many people died or how may homes were destroyed, but actually finding the story behind the story.”
Roeder had recently graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, and was hired by a local NBC affiliate in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
After South Dakota, Roeder took her love of reporting to Evansville, Indiana; Lexington, Kentucky; Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia.
“Reporting has taken me places I never would have been,” said Roeder.
She has interviewed a serial killer, covered a story about a sheriff who was accused of taking drug evidence and later found guilty of that and rape, covered the Kentucky Derby, covered University of Kentucky sports and even flown with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels.
But of all places for her career took her, she chose Waynesburg University.
Around the age of 38, Roeder began to consider her future.
“I couldn’t see myself being 50 years old covering blizzards outside reporting,” said Roeder. “So I started to think about how to hit that reset button on my career.”
After guest lecturing at Towson University outside of Baltimore and receiving inspiration from her husband, Roeder made the decision to earn her master’s degree and begin a teaching career at Waynesburg University. Now, her career is no longer finding the stories, but teaching how to report stories and building genuine relationships with students.
“Once you’re my student, you’re always my student,” said Roeder.
She loves to watch student progress from week to week, because she firmly believes that the results are in the products and work produced by them.
Dave Cross, a senior electronic media major and one of her current students, said that Roeder teaches students how to tell a story through video. Not only that, but she has them practice what she is teaching through constant hands-on projects.
“She is always willing to help and wants to help,” said Cross.
Anytime she interacts with a student now, she asks herself the questions of “What advice would I want a teacher to give my daughter?”
Roeder did not just move to the area to teach, but she also moved back around her hometown to start a family. Taking her first job across the country was a leap of faith to her, because family is an important aspect in her life.
“I talked to my mom every single day, and my grandparents almost every single day,” said Roeder. “My mom and grandmother would watch the weather report and they would call me and be like, ‘Oh no, we hear it’s going to snow where you are.’ Even though I was far away, they still worried about me.”
Now, Roeder is beginning her own family and the move to the Pittsburgh area and the change to teaching at Waynesburg allowed her to reconnect with her family.
“I love being able to call up my mom and say, ‘Hey do you want to go to lunch today?” said Roeder.
Now, 19 years after the fresh-faced college graduate approached the aftermath of a tornado, she stands in front of classroom full of college students who are doodling in the notebooks, staring at the wall and struggling to keep their eyes open. Her eyes flick across the classroom attempting to make eye contact with the handful of students engaged in her lecture.
As she reflects upon her own experience in the field as a television reporter, she says, “The video should take you on a journey. It should make you feel something.”
To Roeder, that is what reporting is.