The first letter to the editor I received at The Observer News Enterprise was short and not so sweet.
In response to one of my early O-N-E columns pondering why there’s a pause at a particular place in the pledge of allegiance, a reader wrote in 2002: “I hope you have a pleasant, but short stay in Catawba County.”
A little more than 10 years later, my stay here hasn’t exactly been short.
At the same time, as I have spent nearly a third of my life here leading efforts to produce The Observer News Enterprise, I’ve enjoyed so many wonderful adventures and met so many great people that “pleasant” doesn’t seem to cut it. That adjective isn’t enough to describe my stay here.
Quite literally, it has been nothing short of life-changing.
First and foremost, my life took a new turn when my future wife, Alison, walked through the door of The O-N-E in August 2002 — three months after I started work here. With one look, I told the publisher at the time to hire her. He did. A decade later, we’ve been married six years, and we welcomed our first son into the world this past summer.
Meeting my wife is the high-water mark of my life here, but there have been other “life moments.” Many of you shared the experiences I’ve enjoyed during my “short stay” here, as I conveyed my thoughts and adventures through this column and my reporting. Thanks to this newspaper and the opportunity it afforded me, you shared in some of the people, places and things I’ve enjoyed covering while living and working here.
I met Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway and worldwide super model Kathy Ireland — the former looked wobbly on his oft-sacked legs, the latter made me weak in my legs. There have been a few NASCAR stars, celebrities and other well-known folks along the way. Still, meeting those “big names” pale in comparison to getting to know some of the folks right here in this county.
I’ve met wonderful pastors, educators, leaders and salt-of-the-earth people all dedicated to improving the place they call “home” and helping the people they call “neighbor.” I even became friends with the man who wrote that first letter to the editor.
Of course, I probably made a few enemies along the way, too. That doesn’t bother me much, because, in the end, I believe that in everything I’ve reported — good or bad — if nothing else, I have strived to be fair. Hopefully I accomplished that mission, and if it upset people along the way, so be it.
There have been election fueled mud-slinging episodes, meetings with governors, U.S. congressmen and speeches by a pair of presidents. The media circus around those two heads of state was interesting, particularly the one that ended, for me, by being escorted away by Newton police. No, I didn’t have to wear the “silver bracelets” or get a free ride in the patrol car — I saved that for other stories.
Speaking of Newton police, the day I “rode the tazer” wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but it is certainly an adventure I won’t soon forget. Would I do it again? No, once was enough, but I’m glad I got to do it once.
I’ve enjoyed hot air balloon rides, climbs to the top of firefighters’ aerial ladders and lots of hugs from folk artist turned celebrity Margaret “Sparky” Sparkman, may she rest in peace. There were midnight photo shoots, “battle of the belly bulge” endeavors, cheeseburger food challenges, spelling bees, scout tours and career days. There’s also been a decade’s worth of Soldiers Reunion festivities, including parades featuring The O-N-E gang’s golf cart shenanigans. A word of warning: when we’re behind the wheel — keep your toes out of the road.
Then there’s all the football. During the time I have been at The O-N-E, I’ve enjoyed a LOT of football. From the sidelines where I shared Maiden Coach Tom Brown’s Gatorade bath, followed Newton-Conover’s state championship and cheered Appalachian State’s three consecutive national title seasons to the places where pro gladiators awed me on Sundays, I’ve witnessed the best the gridiron gods can offer. But that’s not all. There’s been a lot of softball, volleyball, basketball, baseball, wrestling, soccer, swimming and golf. For a sports enthusiast, it has been a dream come true.
There’s also been a few nightmares. A handful of horrific car crashes won’t soon fade from my memory, nor will the tragic story of Zahra Baker. Job losses, fatalities, missing persons and high profile arrests — those are stories that I don’t really want to remember, but they’re part of the job, and now, in some small way, they are part of me.
So, too, are the great people who work alongside me in the labors of love required to produce The Observer News Enterprise and OUTLOOK. OK, well maybe that labor hasn’t always been love, but there have been a lot of good times and a lot of good people. Among those are a handful of young journalists who I have been proud to hire for one of their first — if not the first — full-time newspaper jobs.
Admittedly, The O-N-E and I have broken a few of those young people, but there are some who graduated The O-N-E “school of journalism” and are now off in the world doing great things. Among those, it has been a pleasure to hire and, in some way or another, help coach Sarah Newell-Williamson, Stephen Bedford, Mary Katherine Creel, Corey Edwards, Ryan Herman, Chris Gilfillan, John Josey, Adam Houston, LaDonna Beeker, Jordan-Ashley Baker, Nash Dunn and Matthew Tessnear. I look forward to following their careers as they go forward. I’ve also enjoyed working with interns, several of which are pursuing successful careers, including Sara Wilson, Tyler Helms, Kelsey Johnston and Kelli Straka, among others.
Likewise, I look forward to seeing how the current young crop of writers fare — Cody Dalton, Heather Blanton and intern Ayla Rand — and following the work of newspaper veterans like Barbara Burns, Philip Rogers, Larry Brigham Jr., Jonathan Clark, Tina Cox, Cindy Hull and everyone who works extremely hard to produce The O-N-E, OUTLOOK and all the great products created in our Newton headquarters.
After next week, however, I will be watching all that work from the outside.
Sept. 21 will be my last day at The Observer News Enterprise, but it won’t be my last day in Catawba County. I’ll soon be starting a new adventure to go along with being a husband and father, and while I don’t know exactly everything the future holds, I think my “pleasant, but short stay” in this community is a long way from being finished.
To those who helped make it such a great adventure so far, thank you.
Michael Willard served as editor, then publisher of The Observer News Enterprise and Outlook since May 2002.