My last Journal Star column (the one that never ran)
Six years ago, I was covering state government for a newspaper in Bismarck, N.D.
But I was tired of it. While other single reporters had moved up the newspaper ladder to big newspapers, I’d hung back, taken a few years off to stay home with my babies, worked part time to avoid day care, worked the night shift to avoid day care, and then finally sent those babies off to school.
My husband was mortified at the thought of settling down in the same city he’d largely grown up in, and itching to get his master’s degree from a decent university.
Our kids were 7 and 9 — still little enough to withstand one more move before we’d have to drop roots.
I ended up talking to an old friend in Lincoln, Neb., about it. Peter Salter was the city editor here at the Journal Star. We’d both started our careers in Bismarck around the same time. Young intrepid reporters we were: He trespassed on an electric utility’s land to get a water sample for a story on environmental issues there. I got death threats from the criminals I covered in Mandan, N.D.
Together we once wrote a story about a gang “problem” in Minot, N.D. I learned a lot about journalism when we sat down to pull all our reporting together and write. As I pulled out my piles of notes and began scouring them in search of the story, he calmly sat down at the computer and began typing – one agonizing word at a time — without once looking at his notebook.
I learned the story wasn’t in my notebook.
He was a writer; I was a reporter.
We did OK.
But now he was an editor in Lincoln, and I was looking for a change.
City hall was the only beat he had open, so I went for it. It wasn’t my top choice, but I’d covered pretty much every beat imaginable by then, so I knew I could handle it.
I was more worried about how my shy daughter, Jasmine, would handle leaving a small private school for fifth grade in a big, brick public school.
And then there was Jacob: He’d be going into third grade and was still getting used to losing all his hair two years prior. How would the kids at swanky Sheridan Elementary School treat him? Would they tease him or embrace him?
And my husband: He’d be going back to college with no job prospects.
My family stayed behind to finish the school year while I started my job in Lincoln. My predecessor, Nate Jenkins, took me over to city hall to meet the mayor, Coleen Seng, and her department heads. He said it’d take him a few days to train me in, but after the first day he went off to his new beat at the capitol and I never saw him again. (Actually, he and his wife became dear friends.)
Right away I had to write about a turn-of-the-screw development in some firetruck scandal. “Firetruck scandal?” I thought. In Bismarck, the only time we wrote about the fire department was when they put out a fire.
Eventually, I would learn more about chassis and change orders than I ever cared to. Little did I know, that kindly Mayor Seng would eventually fire the fire chief and the firetruck dealer would go out of business over it.
I believe it was my first day on the job that some guy named Dan Marvin walked in to announce his candidacy for the Lincoln City Council. I couldn’t believe they were making me write stories on my first day, before I’d even figured out how to use the computer,
Dan would go on to be a pragmatic leader on the council — and eventually take on coordination of the city’s largest public works project ever. We’d always gotten along well when he was on the council, but this arena project – well, let’s just say he wasn’t too fond of my reporting.
Our once-cordial relationship turned sour – and soon he was coming in to complain to my bosses about me. He thought I was out to get the arena project; I thought he was too uptight.
We’re OK now.
The kids are OK now, too. The bald kid with the huge smile and killer dimples – he’s got more friends than I can keep track of. And the shy one with the mile-long eyelashes and gentle spirit – who dyes her hair crazy colors to express herself rather than speak up – she’s come along too, slowly but surely making true friends.
A job at the J School fell into my husband’s lap – and he got his master’s degree and is now working on his doctorate.
Five years and eight months flew by, and now it’s time for me to take another leap of faith — I’ve been doing journalism for about 17 years and my pilot light is about out, and as my first city editor said, “you gotta have fire in the belly” to be a good reporter.
So I’m going to pursue my other dreams and passions. Truth is, I’ve always loved getting my fingernails dirty more than tapping out words on a computer.
So I’m going to take better care of myself and my family. Enjoy the next few years before my 15- and 13-year-old grow up and leave.
The beauty of leaving journalism is if I want to lobby the City Council to get buses off our too-narrow street or put a light on the corner where cars keeping hitting kids on bikes or fill up that empty fishing pond/skating rink in Irvingdale, I can do it.
You haven’t seen the last of me. Maybe I’ll start a blog, open a store, write a book, do some freelance writing, join a neighborhood association or run for public office. Why not?
Meanwhile, Journal Star readers are about to be treated to the work of a much better writer than I: Peter Salter.
Trust me, he’s good.