Thursday, June 27, 2013

Damaged newsroom

We have a saying here at The Mercury, or at least among those of us who've been around a few decades. "There's something in the walls ..."
We use it to describe our penchant for odd news, our conglomeration of interesting personalities, and even our two Pulitzers.
For a newspaper this ordinary in a town this small to behave in the extraordinary ways we do sometimes ... well, it must be something in the walls.
On Wednesday morning about 11 a.m., that special something took a direct hit.
Our beloved recently retired sports editor Don Seeley died after being stricken while playing golf.
Seeley, who was 62, retired in March after 32 years covering sports at The Mercury, the past 14 years as sports editor. He continued to write for us as a free-lancer covering girls softball this spring and on Tuesday night, covering alongside current sports editor Austin Hertzog the first PAC-10 Boys Lacrosse Senior Bowl game.
It was the last event Seeley would cover.
An avid golfer, Seeley was at a regular Wednesday morning game with friends when he became ill around 10:30 a.m. He died a short time later at Grand View Hospital.
At about the same time, the newsroom was being stricken as well.
Editors here describe that about 11 a.m. they heard a "popping" noise and sizzling coming from inside the walls. A burning smell came next, and the desktop computers went blank -- on the side of the room and just behind the desk which Seeley occupied for years and which remains vacant.
I was out of town when these two incidents coincided, and upon returning here Wednesday night to edit and supervise the putting together of stories and photos paying tribute to my dear friend, I saw the wall ripped open just behind his former desk, the wiring inside exposed and damaged.
When Seeley retired, I was glad his words would remain with our readers, as he was continuing to write for us. I was glad, too, that he still had plenty of reasons to pester me about one thing or another. My sadness at the loss of both is profound.
I am not usually looking for hidden meanings when odd things happen, but today's message was pretty clear.
Something inside the walls of this newsroom was damaged today. We lost one of our own, one of our best.
RIP Don Seeley

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ready to Rumble

If there was ever a time to come out and support the Pottstown Rumble, this is it.
The Rumble is an annual grass tournament in Pottstown started more than 20 years ago by a group of volleyball enthusiasts.
The group, led by by Ken Kaas, worked tirelessly to grow the tournament, starting with some nets in Memorial Park to become the largest grass tournament on the East Coast.
Kaas and his cadre of volunteers got business sponsors to make the pot of prize money attractive to some of the best volleyball players in the country, some from other countries as well.

The women’s and men’s doubles teams compete to a crowd of their supporters; they patronize local businesses, stay in local hotels and campgrounds, and put on an event that’s entertaining both for the competition and the atmosphere.
Kaas takes pride in the fact that the tournament takes care of itself -- volunteers cleaning up after the June weekend competition each year so that no trash is left behind. In addition, the Rumble regularly donates to the Pottstown Fourth of July celebration and other events, giving back to its host community.
But for all that energy to bring a good thing to Pottstown, the Rumble has historically not generated a lot of local excitement. It’s one of those well-kept secrets in Pottstown that happens every year, and people outside the immediate area don’t even know about it.
This year, the Rumble hits the big time with a visit from Olympic gold medalist Misty May-Treanor.
May-Treanor is coming to Pottstown as a stop on her Dream in Gold tour sponsored by Spalding. The visit will include a clinic for youth volleyball players Thursday at Memorial Park and a meet-and-greet Friday at Smith Family Plaza downtown. A planned exhibition match has been cancelled because of injury.

The volleyball star power exhibited by May-Treanor proves that the Rumble is on the radar for volleyball enthusiasts around the nation.
Her visit is expanding the Rumble from two days to four days, Thursday through Sunday, June 20-23.
Memorial Park will be abuzz with volleyball action throughout the weekend, and vendors will offer food in the park for those enjoying the action. Pottstown-brewed Sly Fox beer will be on tap in the beer tent.
The event showcases Memorial Park and makes Pottstown a destination. With May-Treanor coming to town, the Rumble becomes even better this year.
If you have never been to the Rumble, this is the year.
Support this event that has for 22 years supported Pottstown.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fire in the Black Forest

About a year ago, I wrote a column recounting a conversation with my brother Jim Egolf about evacuations in case of forest fire. We compared notes about my experiences being evacuated during the French Creek forest fire two months earlier and his concerns watching the Waldo Canyon wildfires raging across town from his home in Colorado Springs.
"It's not this fire we're worried about," he said at the time. "It's fear of where the next one breaks out."
Colorado was like a tinderbox because of extreme drought conditions, he said. One spark could set off fire that would consume the side of the city where he resides.
Tragically, that prescient observation is what happened last Tuesday afternoon.
A fire of unknown origin started in the Black Forest on the north side of Colorado Springs, spreading quickly to destroy 14,198 acres, 485 homes and claim two lives.
My brother and sister-in-law JoAnne lost their home and all their belongings.
They evacuated their home on Swan Road near Black Forest Road at 5:03 p.m. Mountain Time on Tuesday, the order coming as an emergency, not an alert. The fire was spreading so quickly that there was not enough time to utilize the reverse-911 call system in place to alert residents.
Instead, they were ordered to leave immediately as sheriff's officials went through the neighborhood, flames already visible moving quickly through the forest to the south of them.
Jim and JoAnne got out safely, took Cap the dog to a friend's, and went to a hotel, joined for meals by their son who was visiting from California and their daughter's family, who live in Aurora.
And they waited, like more than a thousand others evacuated, for word.
Meanwhile, photos and videos of the spreading fire showed a mind-numbing path of destruction -- homes lit with flames, timber crackling like a bonfire, the broad expanse of Colorado's sky filled with black smoke.

At 5 p.m. MT Wednesday the El Paso Sheriff's office activated a website with a list of properties assessed as "total loss," "partial damage" and "appears unaffected."
Colleagues at The Denver Post city desk sent me the link by email soon after it went live. Jim and JoAnne's address on Swan Road was in the "appears unaffected" column.
Relief! I called him, interrupting a pizza dinner with his kids and three grandchildren. Emotions were running high.
But as the hours continued, he was worried. Jim and his son Jeff were spending time on the computer scanning the aerial photos posted online. They zoomed in on the location of what they believed was their home. They saw brick walls and piles of ash and rubble.
The picture conflicted with the data on the sheriff's department list, but that was not unusual, according to news reports. Much of the burned area was like a war zone, impossible to identify exact addresses of properties. As crews were able to clarify, homes originally listed untouched were being reclassified as destroyed.
I called Jim Friday night to talk about this discrepancy and found him at a practice for a softball team he coaches. A respected catcher back in the day for Boyertown Legion, Ursinus College, and the Gabelsville Owls, he decided after retiring from careers in the Air Force and at Lockheed-Martin to coach a Special Olympics team.
He had no time to talk when I called, no time to dwell on his misfortune because he was handing out team shirts for the season to his team of special needs kids. The question "why do bad things happen to good people?" came to mind.
Later that night, Jim emailed to say he was pretty certain the photos were accurate, despite the list.
"It looks like after 42 years JoAnne and I are starting out with nothing again. But we have family, friends, faith and hope. The material things are not that important," he wrote.
Early Saturday morning, I saw the list had changed overnight. His address went from green to red, as did the properties throughout his neighborhood.
When I talked to Jim that morning, he told me a humorous story about my Dad's tractor that he had hauled by trailer to Colorado from Pennsylvania some years ago. He said his son mentioned they could have tried driving it out of there to save and what a peculiar sight that would have been.
He said they were preparing to start a search for long-term rental housing and would be waiting some days before they could get back in to the Black Forest area to see if anything could be salvaged.
They're not alone. They're one of some 480 families dealing with loss in this fire, now the worst wildfire in Colorado history.
My brother makes a point of ending calls and emails on a positive note, despite everything. So I'll follow his example in this column:
This story about loss is also about strength and character. This is about faith and hope and courage, qualities my brother and sister-in-law have in abundance.
This is a story about people who coach a team of challenged children while waiting for news that they've lost everything.
Keep a good thought for them and all Colorado's fire victims as those qualities are tested in the weeks and months ahead while they work, putting their lives back together.

Monday, June 3, 2013

An apology

We are human; we make mistakes.
In the news business, those mistakes when printed are in front of the public's eye. They can embarrass, enrage or inflame a part of our community, which is never our intention.
We're embarrassed and often pretty angry with ourselves, too, when a careless error gets into print.
As editor, I am the first and last stop on the complaint chain regarding errors. The two-part question I get most often is: "What's wrong with you people? Did you ever hear of proofreaders?"
The answer to that is a) we're human, and b) proofreading as a single job title went out with hot type, which was a change in our industry 40-some years ago. We do "proof" our pages, but the editors who do that are juggling other work at the same time, and they may not catch every mistake on a page.
That is not a good excuse, but it's reality. Editors proofing pages are as human as the people who misspelled a word in the first place.
After a glaring error, readers often demand "a retraction." A retraction, or taking back a mistake, is impossible in print. More than anyone, we at The Mercury wish we could take back mistakes as if they never happened. But print is unforgiving.
Then, there are the "mistakes" people complain about  which are not our errors. It is not a mistake that we printed a shoplifting arrest or a DUI charge, even if it is embarrassing and may cause personal repercussions. I tell those callers that we print the police reports provided as public information, and if the disposition of the case proves the person innocent, we'll report that as well.
We also are sometimes accused for including too much detail in a story, or for using bad taste in story, headline or photo judgment. These are not as clear cut as spelling errors or public information.
The guidance on judgment is whether it is defensible. If there is a reason, such as consistent treatment of information, the public right to know or a higher level of importance to presenting information for which we may be criticized, publish.  If there is no good reason for something questionable, don't publish.
Recently, The Mercury published a headline on the front page that violated all the above criteria. The headline was a play on words on Hill School commencement speaker Oliver Stone that in its writing was thought to be clever. In its reading, it trivialized the accomplishments of the Hill class.
The day the headline appeared, I wrote an apology on behalf of The Mercury to Hill School headmaster Zachary Lehman. In part, it read:

"The headline in question was not representative of The Mercury's standards of journalism or view of The Hill School. We value your institution’s role in our community as a global institution of learning and respect your students and faculty leaders for your part in that role. ... We support your work in educating future leaders and trust that you support ours in promoting that education to the community."
Everyone involved, including me and the writer of this headline, sincerely regrets the publication of what was an ill-conceived attempt to be clever. We apologize to the entire Hill community, past and present, for its publication. 
Retractions aren't possible. We have to settle for lessons learned.