In fall 1984, a features writer at The Spokesman-Review fell in love with a Montana grizzly bear scientist she had interviewed for a story. The day she told then-editor Chris Peck that she was leaving to get married, my application arrived on Peck’s desk.
After eight years away from Spokane, working at bigger newspapers in bigger cities, including USA Today in Washington, D.C., I was preparing to return home to Spokane to get married.
Was there an opening? There was.
And so, staring in January 1985, The Spokesman-Review became my work home, and my second family.
Friday, I am leaving this wonderful newsroom and embarking on an “encore” career in health care. I will be a mission integration director for Providence Health Care. I will go from having a job I can explain in one word – journalist – to one that requires paragraphs to explain, which I won’t do here.
But it’s all good.
Looking back on 28 years of life at The Spokesman-Review is like rummaging through a box crammed with snapshots. So many to look at, but time to ponder just a few.
Most memorable days
• On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, we published The Spokesman-Review’s last Extra edition, which contained several local stories and photographs.
Writer Jeanette White and I reported and wrote – in one hour – a story on how parents should explain the terrorist attack to their children. Jamie Tobias Neely, then the features editor, edited it in minutes flat. Focusing on the Extra allowed us to process some of the grief that shocking first day.
• Freezing rain crystallized the Inland Northwest for more than a week in November 1996 in an event now called ice storm ’96. The power went out in thousands of homes, and staffers camped out in the newsroom reporting and writing late into the night.
The first day of the storm, reporter Kelly McBride rushed to pick up her son, Clarke, at his child care center. There was no electricity at the center, so her frozen bottles of milk couldn’t be heated up. In a newsroom first, Kelly nursed Clarke while finishing a story on deadline.
• In the months leading up to the 1994 elections, Doug Floyd and I, interactive editors in a 1990s experiment known as “civic journalism,” sponsored voter gatherings in rural towns.
In one town, audience members were so angry at the government – and the mainstream media – that I worried about violence and contemplated faking a heart attack so someone would call 911.
• On June 20, 1994, former Airman Dean Mellberg shot to death four people at the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital and wounded 23 others. Less than a week later, on June 24, I was sitting on the terrace of our newspaper building, interviewing a judge, when we saw a dark, ominous cloud in the sky above Fairchild.
A B-52 had crashed, killing four crew members. Dave Oliveria and I had 30 minutes to compose an editorial. We ended the editorial with these verses from Psalm 34: “The Lord hears those whose hearts are breaking. He hears their every cry.”
Hearts were breaking everywhere at Fairchild that week, heartbreak that lingered for years.
• In the late 1980s, I wrote a story about a couple who supported their lesbian daughter by joining PFLAG – a group for family and friends. They insisted their last names not be used in the story. They worried they would be harassed. They would have been.
So to see same-sex couples marry in our communities, and openly celebrate in gay pride parades, feels like a once impossible dream come true.
• In the 1990s, then-managing editor Peggy Kuhr was often the only woman editor at front-page story meetings. We were not reflecting women’s lives very well and losing women readers as a result.
Throughout 1997, I gave talks to nearly 100 women’s groups in exchange for their story ideas.
The comet Hale-Bopp dazzled in the night sky, as I drove home from women’s gatherings that year, many in rural communities. Colleagues in the newsroom sometimes joke that I seem to know everyone everywhere, and it’s primarily because of that magical year of Hale-Bopp.
Now, four of the company’s six senior leaders are women, and in the newsroom, our city editor, photo editor, features editor and online director are women. Another once impossible dream come true.
Most memorable character
Jimmy Marks, a now deceased Gypsy patriarch, left 100 voicemail messages for me in 1993 while I worked on a profile about him. It was the early days of voicemail technology when you couldn’t fast forward to the end of messages.
Marks put a curse on City Hall but told us he blessed the careers of many in the newsroom, most notably investigative reporter Bill Morlin. Thanks Jimmy!
• Photographer Kit King was the most creative person I ever worked with in journalism; we bonded over our first photo-essay project in which King chronicled the life of his brother, Bob, who suffered with schizophrenia.
On Nov. 22, 1991, King drowned while fishing on the Snake River. I looked up from my desk and saw three editors approach with grief-stricken faces. When they said “Kit” we all burst into tears.
• On Oct. 28, 2006, a Saturday, I was shopping at the Shadle Center Safeway when Floyd called my cellphone to tell me Laura Crooks, who wrote for the newspaper and was married to our editorial board colleague, Gary Crooks, had collapsed at home and died suddenly.
Reporter Kevin Graman just happened to be shopping at Safeway, too. I ran to him, and we sank into chairs at the store’s small cafe, crying in disbelief.
The following Monday, we gathered around the newsroom table, recounting memories of Crooks, a practice we sadly resurrected when Som Jordan, talented writer and musician with long ties to our newsroom, died Sept. 5.
Crooks was just 37; Jordan just 37; King just 39. I daydream about all they might have created had they lived into their 40s and beyond.
• In late September 2008, staffers were summoned to a meeting. We knew it meant more layoffs. We should have been used to them, because newsroom layoffs, buyouts and early retirements began in 2001 and continued unabated until two years ago.
Still, we were stunned when newsroom “leaders” (no longer here) made the decision to read aloud the names of the 25 being laid off. That misguided management decision had lasting and negative repercussions in the lives of some who lost their jobs that day.
I interviewed dozens of wise men and women over the years in various “wisdom” series, including Wisdom Keepers, Civic Elder, Leadership Dialogues and Wise Words in Troubled Times.
I initiated the various wisdom interviews in years of personal, professional or national turmoil, partly to gain perspective and hope. Most of the folks were older than me, many had survived tragedies, and all were too humble, considering their accomplishments. And a surprising number of them grew up in Montana.
Allow me one shout-out from the series. Jerrelene Williamson’s lifelong passion has been resurrecting the hidden history of African-Americans in Spokane. Williamson always talked to Spokesman-Review reporters, even during the early 1990s when black leaders told Floyd and me that the newspaper (plus Spokane’s Police Department and school district) were the three least friendly institutions for people of color.
Williamson gave me this advice in our 2010 Wise Words interview: “Do the best you can. Keep on keeping on. At the end of the tunnel, there might be a great light.”
• In 1991, photographer Bart Rayniak and I spent the bulk of our work hours exploring the Spokane River for four special sections titled “River Watch.” We hoped readers would learn about the river’s beauty – and fragility – and be inspired to keep the river and aquifer healthy.
• In August 2004, I took my great-nephew Max swimming at Shadle pool – my childhood hangout. It was a dump. A news columnist in those years, I was encouraged to be opinionated. So for two summers, I swam in beautiful pools in rural communities hoping to shame Spokane into revamping its six pools.
A citizens group did the heavy lifting on the cause, but the columns played a role, too. On Nov. 6, 2007, Spokane voters overwhelmingly approved a $43 million parks and pools bond that built six state-of-the-art outdoor pools.
I’m leaving a newsroom where staffers are doing stellar work every day under solid leaders, starting with editor Gary Graham. We’ve hired talented young people in the past two years, and I’m confident that they – along with experienced long-timers – will lead the newspaper boldly into the future.
In 1985, about six months after arriving at The Spokesman-Review – and still holding on to East Coast newspaper snobbishness – I told an editor that I was pleasantly surprised because the journalists here were much smarter than I expected.
He said: “And you, less so.”
I’ve had the privilege of working with quick-witted, smart and tough people for 28 years. Thanks, guys.
We mostly hear from readers who are angry with the newspaper. Some of the anonymous online commenters remind me of the soulless creatures – the dementors – in the Harry Potter series, spreading misery all around.
So do me a favor and send an email, or leave a voicemail, when you like a story, photograph, illustration, headline or page design created by the often overworked journalists I leave behind. It matters.
It’s been an honor to be a community storyteller for nearly three decades. Thanks for reading The Spokesman-Review.
Keep on keeping on.