The newspaper business is all that I’ve known, and my late grandmother liked to say I have ink in my veins, as my grandfather was a printer by trade.
I got my first job when I was 9, delivering a once-a-week advertising publication called the Penny Saver. I got paid a penny a paper, and I delivered 90 a week. The lone drawback was you had to hang them on doorknobs with rubber bands.
I couldn’t wait until I turned 11, when I could apply for a job delivering The Cedar Rapids Gazette. My 60-customer route brought me in a whopping $11 a week, and my first big purchase was a 3-speed Schwinn bicycle, complete with a rack on the front that would hold my paper bag.
Back in those days, the bundles of papers would get dropped off on my driveway shortly after I got home from school. Many a day my dad would come home from his factory job, and the two of us would fold papers on the front porch, and place them in my bag.
As I got older, I picked up a second route, and when I turned 16 I got a job in the paper’s circulation office, where I took phone calls from customers who didn’t get their paper, and then delivered them all over Cedar Rapids in my parents’ 1963 Chevy Impala.
I got into journalism on a whim when I was a junior in high school, and I’ve told the story countless times to North Scott students at various Career Days in the elementary schools.
I needed one class to fill out my schedule, and the only one available to me was an “Introduction to Journalism” class. I literally begged my counselor for something different, but to no avail. I got stuck in the class, and I was hooked.
My senior year, I got a job in The Gazette sports department, manning the phones on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, taking countless scores and statistics from games all over eastern Iowa.
I loved the pressure of deadlines, and eventually worked my way up to covering everything from high school and college sports, to auto racing and amateur softball.
I held that part-time gig while I attended the University of Iowa, and as a quick side-note, I’m the only person who has ever covered the high school careers of both University of Iowa head women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder, and one of her assistants, North Scott legend Jeni Fitzgerald.
That all led to a stint as editor of The Cedar Valley Times in Vinton, before my journey headed east.
A North Scott love affair
I will be forever grateful to Bill Tubbs for hiring me in September of 1983, just one month after I married the love of my life. When Beth and I got married in August, never in our wildest dreams could we imagine the plan that God had in store.
In truth, I followed her here, as she had taken a job as a first-grade teacher at Trinity Lutheran School in Davenport that summer, while I had sent out résumés to various Quad-City newspapers.
I got one interview, with the Moline Dispatch, and was one of two finalists for a reporter’s position. I got the rejection phone call during our wedding reception at my parents’ home, and didn’t have the heart to tell Beth until the next day.
It was actually Beth who eventually dropped off my résumé at The NSP, but there was no opening. That all changed in September, and as luck would have it, Bill had kept my résumé. The interview was short, and Bill likes to tell the story that he almost didn’t hire me because I came to the interview wearing blue jeans.
Still, he offered me the job on the spot, paying me $240 a week. Who would have thought it was the beginning of a nearly 40-year love affair with a community that I’ve come to cherish and champion?
What a ride it’s been!
I’ve never taken for granted the access I’ve been granted. From kitchen tables to corncribs. From high school locker rooms to the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds. From McCausland to Walcott, and all points in between.
The memories are literally endless. Back in the day, I was in nearly every North Scott school at least once a week. I knew every teacher by name, and students loved it when the “newspaper man” walked in the door to take their picture.
In the days before social media, school principals coveted newspaper coverage, almost to the point of playfully fighting to see whose school could get the most publicity. Both parents and students were thrilled and proud to have their stories and photos published in The NSP.
My, how times have changed.
My own personal highlight reel of stories plays nonstop. It would take an entire issue of this paper to list the ones that have touched me to my very core, and to try would do an injustice to the ones I’d forget. Many were memorable. All, at the time, were important.
For me, the Marty Stemler story in 1996 was a watershed moment, and mostly because the end result showcased the essence of the North Scott community. I still recall former John Glenn principal Joe Ragona approaching me with the idea about how he had a first-grade parent who was suffering from AIDS, and was contemplating going public.
The Stemlers were taking a huge risk, because so little was known about the disease, and it was a time when the general public was quick to judge and paint unkind stereotypes.
It was the first time anyone local had come out and admitted they had AIDS, but they wanted their story told as a way to hopefully calm the fears of their son’s classmates.
That story took up the entire front page, plus three inside, and the photo, depicting Marty’s hollowed eyes, is still so vivid in my memory. The headline was simple: “Putting a face on AIDS.”
The quote from both Marty and his wife, Mary, that sticks with me to this day, is this: “By going public, we don’t know if we’ll be jumping into a pool of sharks, or a giant feather bed.”
When that story hit, it was definitely the latter. The end result was phenomenal. It showcased the North Scott community at its very best, and was just one of countless times over my 40 years where we’ve wrapped hurting individuals in a blanket of love and support.
Tears and tragedy
Our community has certainly weathered more than its share of tragedies, unexpected deaths, numerous battles with severe illnesses, and yes, teenage suicides. I can vividly recall many of the emotional and gut-wrenching phone calls or visits with parents, loved ones and friends.
Many of those stories were difficult to write, but few compare to the ones where North Scott students died in traffic accidents. From 1994 to 2003, at least 10 lost their lives, and even more in the years since. Those phone calls and conversations never got easier.
Each of us deals with tragedy and adversity in our own way, and I lift each and every one of them up for their courage and willingness to speak. Their openness helped many of us heal, and more importantly, allowed us to support and grieve with them in their painful journeys.
Education at its finest
The stories I’ve written run the proverbial gamut, from politics to human interest, but there’s no doubt that chronicling the accomplishments of North Scott students has been my signature calling card.
From the athletic arena, to the stage, to the classroom, I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of education at its absolute best. Along those same lines, I’ve seen the finest that 4-H and FFA have to offer, thanks to my 38 years of bringing the Mississippi Valley Fair to life with our annual Fair Issue.
I dare say, from the show ring, to The Pit, to the grandest athletic state venues in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Fort Dodge, I’ve seen it all. I’ve had the best seat in the house to witness both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and I’ll cherish each and every memory.
The written word can be powerful and everlasting, and is most certainly a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it’s a tremendous tool to tell stories that pull at our heartstrings, evoking emotions ranging from joy to sadness. On the other, it can cause extreme and unforgiveable pain.
Regrets? I have more than a few. There are some stories and columns I wish I hadn’t written. I know there are times I’ve caused unintentional hurt, and those stories, and the reaction, always gave me cause to pause and reflect.
I’ve saved almost every negative letter or email that I’ve received, and I can vividly recall any number of unpleasant phone calls usually punctuated with an abrupt click on the other end. I’ve been called just about every name in the book at one time or another, and some were probably deserved. Life lessons can be tough.
The timing is right
The decision to retire was not necessarily an easy one, and walking away, or at least giving up my front-row seat, is not something I’m doing lightly. I still love, and deeply care, for this community that has given me so much.
Back when I was the editor of the paper in Vinton in early 1980, one individual who stopped for a visit was Marvin Bush, the youngest son of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. We weren’t that many years apart in age, and we struck up a great conversation. He asked me what my dream job would be, and I said I wanted to write for Sports Illustrated.
As he walked out the door, with a look over his shoulder, he left me with this final comment: “Someday, I look forward to reading your articles in Sports Illustrated.”
Obviously, that never happened, but as it turned out, it wasn’t my dream job after all. Who would’ve thought I’d find it at North Scott?
I’ve had a great gig, and it wouldn’t have been possible without Bill Tubbs, and a host of dedicated and talented co-workers who have given me the freedom and platform to do what I do. The list is long, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the likes of former co-workers Barb Geerts, Jackie Duwa, Phil Roberts, Jeff Martens and Tracy Dunn, along with current staffers Mark Ridolfi and Erin Gentz.
However, I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to my wife, Beth, and daughter, Addie. The sacrifices they’ve made, and the countless hours they’ve spent alone, are unprecedented. They’ve been my biggest critics and most avid fans, and no husband or father could be more blessed.
While you may still see my byline from time to time, and while I’ll still keep my office for a while, it’s time for Beth and I to author a new chapter in our nearly 40-year journey together.
It’s one I’m excited to embark on.
As I move forward, I also look back, and my heart is filled with an overabundance of gratitude. I will cherish the countless relationships I’ve made, whatever trust I’ve earned, and the lifelong friendships I’ve forged.
I’m certain to suffer withdrawal pains when I read stories that I will undoubtedly wish I could’ve told, but it’s time for a new generation, and a different voice, to serve as our community’s storyteller.
I believe that whatever writing talent I possess is a gift from God. I also believe that He led Beth and me to this wonderful slice of Iowa that we are grateful to call home.
I’ve always believed that every person has a story to tell, and it has been the absolute honor of my life to tell the tales that are woven into the very fabric of the North Scott community. That scarlet-and-silver cloth is covered with tears of joy and sadness, and stitched with the love that has accompanied each triumph and tragedy that we’ve shared.
Thank you, from the very bottom of my heart, for inviting me into your home each week, and taking the time to share this incredible journey with me. I will always love North Scott.