By Liz, enjoying the still-warm weather!
A couple months ago, a former co-worker from my reporting days called to tell me that one of our former editors was retiring. I’d known the day would come eventually, but I couldn’t imagine the Norwich Bulletin newsroom without Marilyn in it, working nights to put the paper out.
She’d been there the day I walked through the door eleven years ago, new to town and hoping for a reporting job. They didn’t have a position at the time, but they gave me some freelance work. Marilyn edited those stories, and I got used to her calling me an hour or two after I turned in my story, asking clarifying questions or suggesting a different way of phrasing something. I remembered thinking I better have my grammar up to speed, because there was no way Marilyn was letting me get away with any mistakes.
When I was hired full-time, I was on general assignment for a few months. I did all kinds of stories, from features to local news to education. General assignment also meant that during the local elections, which was two months after I started the job, we had to do “man on the street interviews.” These were my least favorite assignments – basically walking up to random people on the street to ask them what they thought about the candidates or the issues. Sometimes it was easy to find people. In some of these smaller towns, not so much. I remember stalking a liquor store one day just to find people. And let me tell you, they didn’t like my questions standing between them and their after-work activities. But we had to have at least seven people from each town. On this particular day, I had six quotes. That final person was eluding me. And that was after nearly seven hours of this. I called the newsroom and told her my dilemma. She was adamant about the “one more quote.” But before I could hang up and use a few of my signature curse words to describe the situation to the inside of my car, she got really quiet (so our managing editor wouldn’t hear her) and gave me the phone number of a friend in that town she kept on standby and told me to call her, that she’d give me a quote.
That was Marilyn. She pretended to be tough, but she always had the reporters’ backs. (She used to bake for us too. I remember one Halloween where I nearly ate myself sick off the cookie platter she brought in for us.)
Then, after a couple months on the general assignment beat, I got the main city beat. Which was exciting at the time. There was a lot going on, lots of development proposals in town and political dramas (although by today’s standards it was nothing) and it was a chance for me to learn a lot about myself. This was the first job I had after moving from New Hampshire to Connecticut after a really difficult time, and I’d lost a lot of self-confidence along the way. To be there for such a short amount of time and get the premier beat was exciting, and it also reminded me that I was good at what I did. I could earn–and keep–people’s trust. I was a good writer. I was even giving my competition a run for her money, and she’d been on this beat for a decade and had sources I hadn’t even met yet. I made new friends. I got my confidence back. Marilyn was a big part of that. She wasn’t overly exuberant with praise, but you knew if she was pleased with you. You also knew if she wasn’t, and nobody wanted that!
I remember nights sitting in the halls outside city council meetings at all crazy hours, typing furiously while I was on the phone with Marilyn, who was editing in real time. The buzz of all that was undeniable. Exhausting, but exhilarating. Marilyn was a fabulous editor, and she believed in repetition to keep us from making the same mistakes again and again. For example, I heard in my sleep for many years the AP Style guidelines about time, date and place (in that order) for an event. I will never, as long as I live, forget it. Or any of the other lessons Marilyn taught me, grammar or otherwise.
I had lunch with her last week, and I made her laugh when I told her I still heard her voice in my ear when I was editing something at work. I am still adamant about AP Style, even though I get a lot of blank stares when someone at work asks me why I wrote something a certain way and I explain. It doesn’t matter. I know it’s right.
We spent a lot of time rehashing the good old days, and all the crazy times we had in that newsroom. She told me how many former reporters from her many years at the paper had gotten in touch when word spread about her retirement. She seemed surprised that so many people would reach out. I wasn’t. She touched a lot of lives.
Surprisingly, she seems ready to retire and find another adventure. I never thought she’d let go of that life, but like she says, it’s changed so much. Small town papers have a low survival rate these days, and they’re operating on maybe a quarter of the staff they used to have. It was all getting to be too much.
And she seems content knowing she ran the city desk with an iron fist and had a grammatically correct influence on so many people’s lives in the process. But more than that, she lived and breathed the news, and she cared about all of us. Even the ones who drove her crazy. And that’s not something you find at every job.
I hope her retirement has a lot of happy headlines.
Readers, do you have a former colleague or someone else who greatly influenced your life?