When I was in fifth grade (or so), I came home one day with an assignment: write a one-page paper about what started W.W.II.
While I realize now that the events leading up to U.S. involvement in the Second World War can’t really be summarized in one, heavily double-spaced, fifth grade paper, at the time I really thought it would be more simple. I remember walking into my dad’s study after school (he always had a room crammed with books, floor to ceiling, in addition to every other room being adorned with at least two tall book shelves). I knew that a roomful of these books would be about W.W.II, too, although I had no grasp of the reasons my father has spent much of his life studying the war my grandfather survived, but never spoke of.
“So,” I said, tossing down my backpack. “Why did we fight in World War Two?”
I recall thinking that he was going to just tell me a reason, some simple thing, and he could have. He could have just said, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Heck, he could have just said two words: Pearl Harbor.
But that was not my dad. I had opened a door, one that would lead me well beyond that one-pager. Before long there was a stack of history books taller than I was on his desk, each at least 300 pages long. And he had marked relevant chapters for me in only three or four of the towering pile!
“This is for a few paragraphs!” I exclaimed. “Just tell me the answer. I can never read all these books in time.”
For my dad, it didn’t matter how long my essay had to be. What mattered was how fully his daughter was going to understand the history that changed our family, and the world. What mattered was that I learn to seek out the whole story, that I not be satisfied with the cursory explanations that are so often enough to get us by.
I didn’t read the whole stack, but I did plug my way through a few of the chapters he had marked. And I’m pretty sure I got an ‘A.’
My mom was the same way. She’d cart us kids down to the public library at least twice a week, because if she didn’t, I’d check out so many young adult paperbacks to tide me over, one was bound to end up in that black hole that exists under every child’s bed, lost forever (or at least until my room was clean in a way that didn’t include shoving all items under the bed or into the closet). I’m not certain how many Nancy Drew books she had to pay full price to replace, but it was more than a few.
I remember my interview here for my job at the Winona Post. Fran was at home after a hip surgery, and so my interview was with John (I’m told this was one of the only—if not the only—times that Fran was not present to interview a potential writer). It was going well, and we had gotten to that spot at the end when the candidate has an opportunity to ask a question or two of her own. I said, “What is your newspaper philosophy?” which sounded pretty smart, I thought.
John got that thoughtful look in his eyes, and said something like this: “We are a community record, a completely local business devoted to that end. But we’re also a local government watchdog, and our duty is to give people the information and tools that they need to participate in this community and democracy. We don’t just rewrite press releases and deliver cursory meeting accounts, we write thorough, thoughtful, investigative pieces, and we take a lot of pride in our writing.” (John was way, way more eloquent than that, but it is really difficult to paraphrase such a master of words, so please forgive.)
John and I often stood on opposite ends of the political spectrum, which was new for me, as I had come from newspapers in which my bosses and I aligned closely, probably too closely. I cannot tell you how much this has changed me, both intellectually and professionally and personally. It is so easy to pigeonhole yourself into a political ideology, to find comfort in that place and simply consider those who disagree as crazy, dumb, or uninformed. So easy. At a newspaper, where your job on the news page is to be fair, balanced, to see each side of an issue and to have the ability to respect those who disagree with you, it can be toxic to have everyone in the office rooting for the same political team. For the first time, when I wrote a story, I would reflect seriously about what John would think of it, where his opinions might differ from mine, a true gauge for myself about whether I was being fair and balanced. John was a man whose convictions and opinions made sense, even to those who disagreed, and his intelligence played a tremendous role in helping me see the world through a wider lens, to see that the truth I sought often held two sides.
It wasn’t just that John knew everything about Winona, or that he was the most fantastic writer I have ever had the privilege to work with, nor his vast knowledge about all things political. He was one of the people who really challenged me to recognize the bigger world around me, to dig deeper, to strive to learn and keep on learning. Sometimes I think back to the woman who first came to this town, who sat down in a frilly green shirt next to John during that interview, and realize how much I have changed, how much my mind has expanded and how I have grown. It wasn’t that long ago. But I am a different person; I have learned how to look outside my own narrow opinions, and those opinions, too, have become more reasoned and broad. It is so hard to imagine where I would be, who I would be, without my time here, without John and Fran and Cynthya as mentors, as friends, as family.
So this one is for John; it’s for my dad, and for my mom too. It’s for Mr. Dick in seventh grade, for Ms. Madsen and all other teachers and friends and family who helped make me who I am today. And it’s for you, as a reminder: tell these people in your lives, too, how much they mean to you, for our time together is precious. It’s fleeting.