Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 13, 2013
I grew up in a home that got a daily newspaper, except for Sunday. In my early years, the newspaper wasn’t much to me except a rival for my father’s attention. While he read it in the evening, I remember poking the pages until he told me to stop.
In high school I checked the paper for high school sports stories that might mention my name or to see if my mom— a frequent expresser of opinions — had written a letter to the editor.
In college, I took some journalism classes and wrote for the school paper. I don’t remember a lot about those stories, but I do remember that a popular history professor took me aside after reading a profile I’d written and told me that I noticed things other people didn’t. He encouraged me to keep on writing. At the time, I thought I wanted to go to law school, so I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention.
I never did apply to law school. At some point, I must have asked myself: Does the world really need another lawyer? Especially one who’s lukewarm about the whole idea?
I ended up getting a master’s degree in English and teaching college composition courses. I have plenty of great memories associated with that, but it didn’t feel like a calling.
At age 40, I landed in the lifestyle department at the Salisbury Post, thanks largely to my old college friend Deirdre Parker-Smith.
It did not take me long to discover that I loved my new job: interviewing people, doing research, writing, rewriting, tossing a story out there — and moving on to the next one. No one day was like another.
Some days were rather too exciting.
Once, I got dispatched to a murder scene because I happened to be with the photographer on another assignment. I knew nothing about the crime beat and was entirely ill-equipped to cover a murder scene with the suspect still at large, but our managing editor at the time Frank DeLoache coached me through a harrowing afternoon. I was proud of the work I did that day, but I also prayed I’d never be in that situation again.
That was a stressful day, but as it turned out, most of the pressures in my life during those early years at the Post were at home. After barely a month at my new job, my daughter Quinn was diagnosed with a brain tumor (see 3E).
It was a devastating time, but it was also filled with grace. People emerged from unlikely corners in our lives to support us and show us love, in tangible and intangible ways. Some of those people only knew about our situation because I wrote columns about it sometimes, which helped me impose some order on a very chaotic situation. I wrote about serious things, but it turns out there were a lot of funny things to write about as well. Life goes on, even when people face extraordinary challenges.
My job helped to keep me sane during those years. Focusing on other people, hearing their stories: I can’t tell you how much that helped me through a dark time.
One of the stories I remember from early on was about Steve Clendenin, a veteran sheep dog handler dealing with leukemia. (See story at right.) He has since died, but I will never forget him.
I got to meet and write about the incredible Martha Mason of Lattimore, who lived most of her life in an iron lung.
Meeting people like Steve and Martha kept me going every day. So many people taught me so much. Over the past few days, I’ve remembered many of them, going through story clip after story clip and in the process creating a beautiful kaleidoscope in my mind.
Although I wrote about plenty of unhappy things, my job was often a beautiful diversion that filled my life with art, music, theatre and smart, creative people.
I got to have experiences I never would have otherwise, like flying in a small plane with Tim Moreland for a dog rescue run and getting a photographer’s pass at Merlefest that allowed me to stand on the same stage with Steve Martin, Merle Watson, Elvis Costello and the Avett Brothers.
I’ll never forget traveling to Wilmington for a few days with photographer Jon Lakey and knocking out four good features while having a great time. On that trip I got to sit down with with one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met, Dean Ripa, who owns a serpentarium. (See 3E).
Jon has a role in a lot of my Post memories, including a coon hunt, the highlight of which was me falling in a creek. (He was kind enough to snap a photo as one of the hunters helped me up.)
I have loved my work family, which has been just as wonderful and crazy and occasionally dysfunctional as any other kind. I have laughed as long and loudly in the newsroom as anywhere in my life. I’ve cried a couple of times there too, once with Rose Post, one of the grandest women you could ever call a friend. I don’t even want to mention anybody else by name because I would leave out someone important, but I will say that I am happy that education reporter Sarah Campbell is taking over Lifestyle because I know she will do a great job.
I have watched co-workers do their jobs with style and grace and been immensely proud to be a small part of the work we share. I’ve occasionally been saddened by how quickly and casually some people in the community criticize an institution (made up of their hardworking neighbors) that in every important way has the best interests of the people in this county as the basis for what it does.
I rarely write hard news, but like most reporters here, I’ve heard the following, said in a disappointed holier-than-thou tone when we ask a question they don’t want to answer: “I know you all have to sell newspapers, but….”
If people only knew how little the average newsroom employee thinks about “selling newspapers” (Sorry, Greg Anderson). What we do care about is illuminating the good, the bad and the questionable, and getting to the heart of the story. And to the people who say they don’t want to read bad news…well, our web traffic tells us a different story.
The stories I’ve been privileged to hear and share over the past 11 years can hold their own with the best fiction I’ve ever read. I can’t ever forget people like Dora Smith, who in the last years of her life was finally ready to talk about being a bootlegger’s daughter. Stories like hers were reminders of just how resilient the human spirit is.
World War II veteran Roy Leazer made me realize the challenges black soldiers faced. “You were fighting segregation and your enemies too.” I’ve talked to women who survived Nazi concentration camps and a man who lived to tell about having the bubonic plague. Last year, I talked to 102-year-old Lula Vestal, who lived through the flu pandemic in 1918 and could still belt out her favorite hymn. I attended the wedding of John and Oree at the Meadows Retirement Community. In their 60s, neither had ever been married before. Oree wore a traditional garter, with a bell attached. “I always said that if I ever got married, I’d be there with bells on,” she explained.
I got to travel to Mount Airy and hear its most famous son, Andy Griffith, speak as a statue of him was dedicated during Mayberry Days.
I’ve written lots of health stories: about diabetes, brain tumors, eating disorders, ADHD, ALS, MS, peanut allergies, heart transplants and prescription drug addiction.
I’ve met remarkable parents like Shane and Teresa Bolton who navigate the unpredictable waters of autism with their children with incredible grace, compassion and humor. Stories of international adoptions, including those of special needs children, have warmed my heart and renewed my faith in humanity.
There have been dozens of animal stories, from pet starlings to geriatric horses to backyard chickens. And dogs … lots and lots of dogs. Dogs that herd sheep, dogs that walk on treadmills, dogs that help soldiers deal with PTSD and dogs that make sure kids don’t go into diabetic comas.
I’ve written about writers and artists and gamblers and athletes. Famous advice columnists and radio personalities. Horse whisperers and dog rescuers and calf ropers. Drummers and strummers. Preachers and teachers. Sand sculptors, woodcarvers, racecar drivers, pediatricians, reflexologists and a dude who makes vampire teeth. Wine makers and American Idol contestants. Sellers of hot dogs, wedding garters and pimiento cheese. Midnight tokers.
No, not that last one. I just threw it in to see if you were paying attention.
Interviewing people and writing about them almost never felt like a job. Sometimes I can’t believe the things I’ve gotten to talk to people about, like giggling with Virginia Madsen about the charms of her sometime movie husband, Billy Bob Thornton. Talking with the incomparable David Sedaris about our shared love of “Friday Night Lights.” Hearing Dale Earnhardt Jr. tell a story about egging cars that made the people around him all but clamp a hand over his mouth.
Brushes with famous people were of course a tiny part of the job. Regular folks are every bit as fascinating. I have had an excellent vantage point in my job for realizing just what a wealth of talent and human kindness exists in my own backyard.
Then there were all the fantastic stories I heard that were followed by the worst words a journalist can hear: “That’s off the record, though.”
In recent years I’ve had the chance to delve into photography here at the Post. While some reporters were hesitant to enter that new arena, I have loved every bit of it, from taking photos of dairy cows to capturing bulging biceps at the Y’s Strongest Man contest.
Working at the Post has stretched me in ways I never would have imagined.
The variety has been almost breathtaking. In what other job could you be shooting the bull with Scott Avett one morning and taking photos for a food page in the afternoon?
Food pages initially were a frightening prospect — I am no Sara Pitzer, after all — but I got over my trepidation and did the best I could. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed taking photos of food, and I grew to be pretty proud of some of that work.
My husband got to look forward to food page days. He’d come home to a sometimes strange variety of food and was always willing to sample and offer an opinion. A great cook, he’s been the inspiration behind some of the recipes I’ve shared.
Food pages are also a minefield, I discovered. Lord help you if you accidentally leave out an ingredient or get a measurement wrong. You will definitely hear about it.
Once, we published a recipe for Cheerwine red velvet cake that had won a local contest. We printed what we were given, without actually making the cake. We got reports of baking disasters all over town, including one that featured this colorful description:
“It resembled lumps of lard floating in Pepto Bismol.”
As sad as I am to be leaving the Post, I’m also excited about a new opportunity to work for Lutheran Services Carolinas. I’ve done a number of stories over the years about their programs, and I’m well aware already of the great work they do. I’m thrilled to be joining their team.
I’m going to miss the newsroom in ways I’m sure I don’t even realize yet, maybe even the squawking of the scanner, but I hope to still write some stories here and there for the Post. If you hear of any good ones, let me know.