Thursday, March 14, 2013

A quieter newsroom without Don Seeley

The Mercury newsroom is noticeably quieter these days. First, there was the departure of our effervescent reporter Brandie Kessler, who took a job as a general assignment and special projects reporter at the York Daily Record.
Then, business editor Michelle Karas left us, taking her witty intellect and friendly demeanor with her on a move to Vermont to become editor of The Bennington Banner.
But the departure that has most noticeably widened a chasm of quiet in the newsroom is that of Don Seeley, who has left the full-time position of sports editor while continuing as a columnist and sports writer for The Mercury.
Don's words haven't left our pages and sites, but his humor is absent from our newsroom.
And for anyone who knows Don, that's a big absence.
I first met Don when he started here 32 years ago. Unlike those who have heard all his stories in the past tense, I was in the newsroom as his exploits and antics were occurring.
News not necessarily fit for print, we heard about the road trips as a baseball writer to Boyertown American Legion World Series in far-flung places like Fargo, N.D.; Rapid City, S.D.; and Stevens Point, Wis., and about after-hours exploits and what he had for dinner and how it was affecting him.
His personal habits in the newsroom were a source of constant jokes. One former employee kept a gas mask in his desk drawer and used it whenever Don was sitting near him.
Although I have certainly endured the moans, groans and expletives about his habits -- I even had to put a warning letter in his file once when a co-worker lodged a formal complaint -- I confess I have never been personally offended by Don in all the years I've known him.
His reputation for sexual innuendo is well documented, but he has never said or done anything to offend me. Ever. And that counts for years before 1998, when shortly after being named editor, I promoted him to sports editor.
Don likes to say I asked him to be sports editor, but he never accepted. My version of that story is that he told me he'd probably get fired if he took the job because he speaks his mind and "corporate" might not always like what he had to say. I told him that honesty would never cost him his job.
He also said he didn't think he would make a good sports editor, using that same line of logic that he wasn't a boss's boss.
I told him he was my choice because I put readers first. Then, and now, no one is more respected and loved among our readers than Don Seeley. His words, both in the stories and columns he writes and when he speaks to groups, touch people's hearts.
He covers sports with an obsession for stats and accuracy, an eye for personality and an intuitive ability to discover the inspiration inside the story. That makes him a reader's choice, and thus, my choice.
The lowest point in our relationship came in 2005 when Don was diagnosed with stage-four neck cancer. The next eight  months were emotionally difficult for all who knew him. The aggressive treatments nearly killed him, more than once.
Radiation robbed him of his voice and his ability to swallow.  I made an effort to call him every day to let him know the newsroom was in his corner in this fight. Some days he could whisper; some days only murmur acknowledgement that he appreciated the check-in.
He was hospitalized with a feeding tube infection, then back home where he watched the Food Channel incessantly because looking at food was the only way he had to enjoy it.  Toward the end of that long summer, his voice was back but he still couldn't eat solid foods.
My husband and I were hosting a picnic at our house around that time for a retiring co-worker. Don was there with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Kathy, and all he could eat was fresh mozzarella and olive oil while the rest of us had filet and potatoes. Nonetheless, he joked, entertained, reminisced, and was the life of the party.
That night reminded me of how quickly he could make people smile, and of how, even in the worst times for him personally, he was our newsroom narrator and clown.
Don has been cancer-free seven and a half years, and his "retirement" now is not motivated by the recurrence of disease. Rather, it's a chance to do more of what he loves best -- write, play golf, spend time with Kathy, his beloved daughters and grandson and friends.
You, the readers, are lucky. You still have his presence loud and clear in his coverage of high school sports and the stories that only he can find.
But here in the newsroom, it's quieter.  We  miss him.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Series offers grim reminder to parents: This could be me

In the years I've been in the news business, I've edited stories about crime and tragedy involving young people, sometimes thinking, "Not my child. This could never be me ..."
One of the hardest parts of editing our series, "Fatal Addiction," is the awful truth that this could be me.
Or my child.
Or anyone I know.
The path to addiction recounted by the people interviewed in this series often began with painkillers prescribed by a doctor for an injury or anxiety.
What parent of a teenager hasn't made a fair share of doctor or emergency room visits, stopping at a pharmacy on the way home, per the doctor's orders?
"When our kids are hurt or sick, we tell them to take their medicine," said Coleen Watchorn in the interviews conducted for this series. "We're doing what we think we're supposed to do as parents."
That medicine can become habit-forming, or it can lead to friends or other family using the leftover prescribed pills to experiment. Addiction comes later.
Coleen and her friend Kathy Mackie shared their stories with us as parents who watched their sons fight and lose their battles with addiction.
These mothers spoke to us knowing that some people might judge them poorly. But they were  adamant that they wanted to speak out and help others who may be going through a similar experience.
They sought a greater good from their grief -- a mission to discuss heroin publicly, to confront the reality that opioids are a threat to all our children.
Their courage to be candid has been inspiring for all of us involved in this series.
In my case, their stories have touched close to home. 
My younger son was an active, athletic, risk-taking child from the time he could walk. Through middle school and high school, when sports became his passion, those trips to the doctor and emergency room were frequent.
Doctors prescribed pills for sports anxiety, pills for better concentration, pills for pain, pills for every ailment encountered.
Add the social pressure of peers, and the threat of abuse is obvious.
Reading these stories, I was frequently struck by a stark reality: "This could have been my child."
Trying to understand how heroin addiction can invade a family and rob a fine young man of his future and parents of their child was the most difficult part of editing this series, particularly because I know one of the families.
I attend church with the Mackies. Kathy and I were confirmed in the same class as teens and served on consistory together as adults. My husband and I chose Bob Mackie as confirmation mentor for our oldest son.
This series is about people we know who live good lives and who did everything right as parents -- and then suffered a loss no parent should have to bear.
This could be any of us; this could be our children.
Pills and heroin are a real threat in our towns. The goal of this series was to bring that truth into the open and prevent more lives from being lost.