By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun
6:00 AM EST, December 3, 2012
While some reporters shy away from holiday stories, I cheerfully dive right into those toy drives, festivals, Santa appearances, seasonal parades and concerts. But this year, I have written only two and am retiring before the real quest for all things Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa reaches a feverish pitch.
I leave on a happy note, on the heels of two more published tales that hopefully spread the "goodness" news. Those stories centered on a storm-ravaged small town that served Thanksgiving dinner to hundreds of its own and a man who strung about 50,000 lights, put up dozens of trees and filled his yard with all manner of diverse decorations to raise money for a children's cause.
Nearly 24 years into my tenure at The Baltimore Sun, I leave grateful that, in an era when few in the news industry reach retirement age still at their keyboards, I have had that opportunity. I made it this far thanks to dozens of editors who afforded me chances to write, supportive co-workers, all the people I have met and all the stories so many have allowed me to share with our readers.
Years ago, a seasoned reporter told me this business either comforts the afflicted or afflicts the comfortable. I much prefer the former and have seen far more of the best of humanity than the worst. For 17 years, I covered Carroll County, and the last three digits of my office phone there were 9-1-1. I liked to think of myself as the provider of emergency reporting that saved many a lost cause, helped launch a fledging effort or righted a wrong.
My co-workers often referred to the growing numbers of downtrodden who arrived at our bureau with various tales of woe that they wanted highlighted in The Sun as "MG's people." I dutifully reported all sides of the issues, but compassion invariably seeped through my writing.
I know the power of the press. A fatally ill child on a field trip to a Ravens camp mentioned he had never watched the team on television because his family could not afford one. The story ran the next day, with his joyless comment. Two TVs were soon delivered anonymously to the child's home.
I savored the stories that brought results and reveled in the public response. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when many considered its victims pariahs, my first front-page story focused on a young mother and child, both infected with the virus. The dying mother sought a loving home for her 4-year-old. The day the story ran I received more than 50 phone calls — emails were years away — from readers, most of them offering to adopt the little girl.
My stories have landed on the front page many times since, with a variety of subject matter that probably had readers wondering what my beat really was. I have learned more than I cared to know about air and water pollution, biosolid fuels, safe farm practices and robotics. I have covered droughts and deluges and can spout off statistics about the depth of reservoirs, the expected life span of most area landfills and the effects of agricultural waste on the Chesapeake Bay.
I have covered small-town, big-city and partisan politics, growth that crowded roads and schools, land preservation, groundbreakings and crumbling infrastructure, businesses that opened and closed, just about all the world's religions, drastic weather and the encroachment of urban life on rural areas.
I admit that I have pestered nearly every spokesperson for every state and local agency in the pursuit of stories. Just this month, my persistent calls dragged one public information officer from the shower and twice woke him from a sound sleep. I have been on the morning news team for more than a year and have wrongly assumed that most people are also up at 7 a.m.
Though I have little affinity for animals, I earned a journalism prize for a pun-heavy account of a piglet's audition for a summer stock production. Over the years, I have covered a snake hunt, numerous bug surveys, a butterfly migration, fish stocking, sheep shearing, robotic milking, horse breeding and equine therapy and shepherding dogs. I even had a close encounter with a caged grizzly bear, whose favorite snack was deep-fried chicken.
Among thousands of stories, I have my favorites — and those all involve people who inspired, amazed, encouraged and entertained me. So many resonate, and I remain so thankful for the sharing.
One young man with a life-limiting disease allowed me to follow him through high school to a master's degree and his first job. Another teen played for me his original piano piece before embarking on a prolonged hospital stay and several painful procedures that ultimately could not save his life. I wrote of the loss of both those young men, whose courageous examples linger with me. I have detailed so many children's battles with dreadful diseases and their occasional triumphs over them, as well as their communities' remarkable responses.
I have written of farmers who persevere against the worst elements and direst economies; police officers and firefighters whose dedication to saving others is ingrained in their souls; and teachers who have devoted their working years and much of their own leisure hours to the success of generations of children. Then there are the countless reports of volunteers who never retire from tireless efforts that support so many organizations and causes. The most compelling stories have focused on soldiers who have lost their lives in battle and the wounded warriors who are putting their lives back together.
I came late to journalism, after my own three children were school-aged. I have often felt like the office mother to many young, talented and energetic reporters. But I am the office grandmother now, and it's time to go.
I am proud of my years in The Sun, and while I know every scribe is replaceable, I hope to be missed — at least through the holiday season.
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