Most Floyd Countians know Wanda Combs as a long-time reporter and the editor of The Floyd Press. Less know her as a trained pianist and educator. As Combs reviews her 40+ years at the paper and looks ahead to her June 1st retirement, she is reminded how blessed she has been to do what she loves most. “Music and journalism. I’ve been able to follow those two loves my entire life,” she said on a recent workday morning at the newspaper’s office building.
Born and raised in the county, Combs graduated as Wanda Goad from Floyd County High School in 1971. She began her higher education at Bob Jones University –a Christian liberal arts university in South Carolina – because she loved their music program. After a year-and-a-half of study at BJU, she took a break and returned home.
“I walked into this office in 1973 when Bill Sumner was the owner. He hired me as a reporter,” Combs said. Her interest in journalism was sparked by Nancy Slusher, her journalism teacher at FCHS. Back then, the high school produced an award winning school newspaper called The County Crier, for which Combs and others, including longtime Floyd Press sports editor Roger Mannon, wrote.
In 1974, Combs decided to enroll at Piedmont Bible College in Winston-Salem, NC, where she met fellow-student and future-husband Bobby Combs, who grew up at Joy Ranch in Hillsville. After a year-and-a-half at the Bible College (which is a university now), she longed to continue her piano studies and enrolled at Radford University (RU), where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in Music Education.
Combs’s music career led to some exciting developments. While at BJU she volunteered as pianist for Sunday night evangelistic services at the Greenville Rescue Mission. At RU, where she was accompanist for a college choir, she met the director of VMI’s (Virginia Military Institute) glee club when they came to the University to perform. She was invited to be the piano accompanist for the VMI glee club and for years traveled to Lexington to fulfill that role. “It was a great opportunity,” she said.
“Where I’ve used my music most has been in my home church, New Haven Baptist. I’ve been the pianist there since I was ten years old,” she said. Combs also teaches Sunday School at the church and was a private piano teacher for several years, making good use of her Music Education degree, which accredited her as a K-12 teacher.
In 1981, after her graduation from RU, Combs returned to work as a reporter at The Floyd Press. Later that year she was named News Editor by Sumner, who stayed with the paper as its independent owner until it was sold in 1998. Combs’s title later changed to Editor/Manager.
She loved her college years. “I still love learning. Every time you interview someone for a story, you’re always learning,” Combs said. She explained how Sumner taught her about small town journalism and recalled how putting together a weekly newspaper back then was a lengthy and hands-on process. The paper used all black and white photography. “In those days we spent hours in the dark room every week.” Everything had to be typed (before email), and the layout design was carefully cut-and-pasted before it was taken to the printer. Combs, Bill’s wife Dorothy, and her co-workers helped deliver the newspapers around town.
“You do a little bit of everything on a local paper,” Combs said, and you never know what’s going to happen in the community from day to day. “We had a Vice President of the United States come to Floyd,” she said incredulously. It was 2012, and the news staff learned about Joe Biden’s visit just minutes before his entourage of black SUV’s pulled up on the street in front of The Floyd Country Store. “It was quite impressive….At one point my location had to be adjusted by the Secret Service,” Combs remembered.
“We have our own everyday heroes here in Floyd,” Combs said, “the veterans we interview, people of all ages fighting diseases, the teachers...” Throughout her journalism career Combs has written many stories about people who inspire others.
Combs has had a variety of different experiences during her career. It was 1981, and she was home on a Saturday afternoon, preparing to enter the hospital for surgery that Monday, when she got a call from police saying they had found a distillery and were going to blow it up. Did she want to come? As a reporter, she dropped everything and went “as is.” “It was deep in the woods and here I go in my flip flops,” she said. After trekking through the overgrowth with ABC agents, the Sheriff and deputies, and State Troopers Jimmy Howery and Tom Higgins, her flip flop broke. Trooper Higgins fixed it so she could walk back out. “We’ve never forgotten that,” she said.
Combs recalled writing a story in the late ‘70s on Travianna Farm, the first commune in Floyd. She covered FloydFest in the early years and remembers that her van got stuck in the mud after a downpour. The sheriff and deputies who were overseeing the field parking lot had to push her out.
At other times, she said she visited some remote places in the county. “You never know what you’re going to find when you go on a story.” She remembers driving to do interviews where roads disappeared and turned into paths.
Country stores throughout the county were once good contacts for stories and comments. Combs said she loved talking to the storekeepers, as well as other longtime residents, who knew much of the county’s history. Today, social media is a good place to connect with readers and friends. Facebook has provided an opportunity for people to share photos with the paper. “People are happy to share, and that’s been a big help,” Combs said.
She remembers taking the first color photo for The Floyd Press - a shot of Head Start children in front of the Community Action Center. The photo hangs in the office to this day. Color photos were an expensive and only occasional occurrence before digital photography became widely available.
Along with the changes that technology has brought to the paper, Combs has also seen a lot changes in the town. She appreciates that planners have tried to keep the character of the town in mind and have worked to preserve its historical charm.
Combs confessed that she has never flown in an airplane but says she might do that during her retirement. She did fly in a helicopter once, when forester Dennis Anderson heard she had never flown and arranged for her to take a ride with the forestry department. “I wouldn’t have gotten some of the opportunities I did if it weren’t for this job,” she commented.
“It’s a creative job, and I love creativity,” she continued. “It’s 24/7. I’m always thinking about the next week’s edition, planning and staying alert to what’s going on.” But it’s never felt like work, Combs said, because she was doing what she loved. “All my publishers have been wonderful. I’ve worked with some fantastic people in the office and the freelancers. Everybody has special talents. One person can’t do it all.”
Over the years Combs has won awards from the Virginia Press Association for her writing and photography. In 1994, she received the Floyd County Education Association’s Whole Village Award for her work as a journalist, reporting on school news and for her support as president of the PTA at that time. In 2014 she was recognized by the Floyd County School Board in the Media Honor Roll Program. The Floyd Press was recognized as the Floyd County Chamber of Commerce’s Business Member of the Year in 2018.
It’s been important to Combs to build rapport and trust and to be fair and accurate with readers and with the people in the community who are telling their stories. She doesn’t impose her personal opinion in her reporting.
With her retirement fast-approaching, Combs is looking forward to spending more time with her family, who have always been supportive, including husband Bobby, a retired mail carrier, and their two grown children, Abby and Alex. The couple loves to walk and play pickleball with friends in Roanoke. In addition to playing the piano, she also enjoys reading and working on crossword puzzles. She also expects to continue writing and taking pictures as a stringer for the newspaper.
“I don’t know how many places are like this, but Floyd County is such a close-knit community where people care about one another and they’d do anything for you,” Combs said. “I have really enjoyed working here in my home community. It’s been an exciting and incredible journey, and I couldn’t have wished for a career more satisfying. It has been fun!”