A retirement puts work in perspective

This past week was an emotional one in our newsroom. We celebrated the retirement of an admired employee who had been at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 23 years and began her journalism career 50 years ago this Monday. She was our modern-day Lois Lane.

As I thought about her time and dedication to the AJC, I began to think about the many talented people in our newsroom and all that they do and give of themselves, the sacrifices they make day-in-and-day-out as journalists.

Earlier this year, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies reported on an online poll where journalism gigs occupied more than one of the Top 10 spots as the most stressful job for the second year running. Long, unpredictable hours, deadlines, an urgent work pace, breaking news, coverage of stories that take a mental toll can add up to stress. Even so, the number of journalists in our newsroom with 20 years or more of newsroom experience is astounding, especially when you start to think about the impact of their work, at the AJC and newsrooms around the country.

The Poynter report said that most journalists seem to relish in stressful environments. That was certainly true of our recent retiree. “Adrenaline kicks in, there’s a clear sense of purpose, and newsrooms and teams tend to work well together in those situations.”

Journalists are some of the most passionate, driven and creative people out there. The recent retiree we honored was also proof of that. In addition to being a journalist herself, she had married a journalist and as she put it “when you are married to a journalist, headlines and news events punctuate your personal life.”

It’s that way for most of us, all of those who got into this business to make a difference. We are never really off. We are “on” 24-7. A major car accident is always a phone call or text message back to the office. A conversation with friends that sounds like news will lead us to ask more questions than the average person. Numerous times I’ve been out with friends who have dubbed me the news junkie, or urged me to relax and stop working.

We arrange our lives around the news and the news business. In addition to dedication, the recent retirement event also reminded me just how important our roles are in society. We chronicle history with our coverage.

The retiring journalist told us that on Jan. 27, 1967, she was in Amarillo, Texas, preparing for her wedding the next day. She and her late husband had met at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and graduated a few months earlier. They had new jobs as reporters and took a few days off for their ceremony. At the rehearsal dinner, she said, they learned that a flash fire on Apollo 1 had killed the three astronauts aboard. Staff was needed to cover the event so for their honeymoon, they spent a few months working for a Cape Kennedy newspaper.

It was only the beginning of a long list of history-making events that she and her late husband would be a part of covering during her 50-year career. Thunderous headlines rolled off the presses in the late 1960s. On April 4, 1968, she and her husband had just interviewed Marian Martin and Robert Preston, who were starring in the musical “I Do, I Do.” Driving home, they turned on the car radio. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been slain in Memphis. They went back to work.

Two months later, they were sound asleep when the call came: Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in California. They went to work.

Like so many journalists then and now, events became their social life. When something newsworthy happens, we drop what we’re doing and head to work, just ask our spouses and loved ones. On July 20, 1969, she said they gave a party at their apartment and watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and declare it a “giant leap for mankind.”

When they moved to California, they gathered with colleagues to watch the Watergate hearings. By then, she said they were working at separate newspapers because of nepotism rules. But she drove to her husband’s newspaper to watch Richard Nixon resign in 1974.

Eventually the retiree would go to graduate school. She said she was in a classroom, not a newsroom, when the Challenger blew up on Jan. 28, 1986. She ran to a pay phone (remember those?) to track down her husband. They both cried over the fearful symmetry of their 19th anniversary and their wedding day being bookended by space disasters.

As many journalists do, this retiree would also find herself not just covering the news but becoming the news. On Feb. 26, 1989, there was a headline in a San Antonio, Texas newspaper: “Editor’s Death Leaves a Giant Void.” Her husband had died of AIDS and the newspaper where he worked decided to reveal the cause of death in a front-page story. The first U.S. report of AIDS had come just a few years earlier. The retiree said she at first resisted. But her doctoral dissertation was on the politics of absence in the media – why news doesn’t get reported. She said she couldn’t in good conscience censor the news of her husband’s death and complete the thesis.

In his eulogy at a packed cathedral, she said she admitted her husband had died of AIDS and she called for an end to homophobia within the Church. She became the news. Wire services picked up what she said and it was front-page news in Texas. She described those moments as “the most meaningful act of journalism” she engaged in while she was out of the business.

Later she returned to journalism here at the AJC and covered her share of news events in various job capacities. She was here when our editorial cartoonist won a Pulitzer in 1995. She was here when the last The Atlanta Journal was published in 2001 and the paper became the AJC seven days a week. She recalled a few significant news events in print, including the Olympics in Atlanta and then the Centennial Park bombing and the abortion clinic explosions and the arrest of Eric Rudolph. The death of little Jon-Benet Ramsey. The Oklahoma City massacre. The O.J. Simpson trial. The Braves winning the World Series and a few Freakniks.

And after the launch of ajc.com in 1998, there were the Columbine and the Mark Barton day-trader shootings. The security breach that shut down the Atlanta airport. The Gold Club and Ray Lewis and Michael Vick trials. The assassination of police captain and DeKalb County sheriff-elect Derwin Brown. The Fulton Courthouse killings and the Atlanta Public Schools scandal. Snow Jam and the Braves’ move to Cobb County. And a long litany of mass death: Sept. 11, 2001, the Boston Marathon, Charleston and San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Paris and Pulse.

If this recounting of news events doesn’t show you the importance of journalism and journalists in our lives, nothing will. Our readers may not always agree with what we write, but I dare anyone to challenge our purpose. Even in an age where the average person can create news through social media, when it seems everyone with a cell phone is a reporter, there’s no disputing the purpose of true journalism as our retiree’s career span showed.

Just this week, some of our best journalists said goodbye to their loved ones in order to travel to South Georgia to cover the impact of Hurricane Hermine. They headed into the storm without fear. They go where they need to go without hesitation. And just like our recent retiree they are passionate about their work.