Let’s continue with our “gone but not forgotten” series, focusing today on “The Fact Finder.”
“The Fact Finder” began in 1976, with Jane Erickson as the initial reporter. “If you have a problem we can help you with, let us know,” she wrote in an introductory message on Oct. 25, adding that the column would run three times a week. “We can’t guarantee results, but we promise we will try.
“The Fact Finder is not out to ‘get’ anyone. It’s deigned to help our readers.”
So be it. The first complaint was from someone who tried to renew their car’s license plates on the last day of September and was told the office had run out of September plates. You could get a plate for October, but it carried a $2 fee.
The Fact Finder talked to Russell Sloan of the license division in Jefferson City, who said the last-minute rush was to blame. His office was preparing notices for future mailings, urging renewals earlier in the month.
“The last day of the month is the area of greatest pressure and the time when the most mistakes are made,” Sloan said.
Another reader complained that she and her husband came in on a Greyhound bus late one night, but the depot at Fourth and Charles streets was closed and there was no phone. They walked to the St. Charles Hotel, two blocks away, and used the phone there.
“What if I had been alone?” she asked. “How about elderly people who use the bus?”
Depot manager Bill Sharp replied there should have been a night watchman there at 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., when the buses arrive, and he would ask that person what happened. He also said he had requested an outside pay phone at the depot a year ago, and Southwestern Bell was still reviewing the situation.
Erickson left the paper in 1978 to join her husband in his business, and Paul Stewart took over as the “Fact Finder,” serving for years. But the basic function stayed the same.
A random check of the “Fact Finder” in 1985 — on July 8, to be exact — found a typical group: G.S. asked what government sources to go through to obtain a patent (we had answers); R.S. wanted to know where to go to have her 35mm films converted to VHS (Dolgin’s); and D.N.B. had a piano she wanted to sell (we suggested trying the News-Press/Gazette want ads).
In addition, two readers who had received refunds wrote thank-you notes, along with two who finally received their items. “If it weren’t for you, I probably wouldn’t have gotten my Corning Ware set,” wrote Mrs. M.C.
As time went on, however, there were fewer requests for investigations, and more for information — like from D.C., who wondered when Pizza Hut would begin a delivery service (Answer: Within two years). The column had its final run in 1992, due to a lack of letters, staff changes and a redesign of the newspaper.
Dee Zvolanek was the “Fact Finder” in its later years. “I enjoyed the work,” she said. “I felt that we were performing a public service.
“On several occasions, though, the person with a complaint didn’t really need me, but needed a good lawyer. Other times, we’d get something that sounded pretty big and would turn it over to the city desk, where they’d put one of their top reporters on it.”
Zvolanek said working on “The Fact Finder” taught her a good lesson for life: There’s usually another side to the story.
“A number of times you’d get a complaint,” she said, “but after you heard the other person’s side, it changed everything.”