Thursday, July 25, 2013

Farewell to a Friend

Why can't we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together?  I guess that wouldn't work.  Someone would leave.  Someone always leaves.  Then we would have to say good-bye.  I hate good-byes…” --- Charles M. Schulz

I too hate good-byes.   I hate them so much that I have rarely written a column or an article about the passing of a colleague, a family member, a friend, in nearly 50 years in journalism.

But a person of exceptional wit, grace, intelligence and talent has left us.  Her passing leaves a void not only in our profession but in our hearts.  And I can’t let her go without saying good-bye.

Janette Williams was a familiar byline to readers of this paper and to the newsmakers of the community but for those of us who worked with her, she was so much more.   She was a teacher, a confidant, an invaluable resource, a popular leader, a joy to work with.

Most important, she was a friend.   But it could have been otherwise.

I first met Janette when I was hired as city editor of the Pasadena Star-News in 2001.   I had just finished a 33-year stint with the Los Angeles Times and was entering a new and different operation not knowing what to expect.

I learned that Janette, an assistant city editor, had also applied for the job.  It didn’t take me very long to see that she was a formidable presence and that I had better put things right with her if I was going to survive.

We had lunch.  I was apprehensive.  She was warm, gracious and supportive.  Was it a facade?   No, she was too classy for that.  She was clearly more interested in producing a good newspaper than indulging in the palace intrigue that is office politics.

Early on, I relied on her utterly and completely.  We quickly became a team, a couple of veterans trying to manage a staff that was eager and talented but young and inexperienced.

We laughed that we were the oldest editing team on earth but it was good that we had a few years on us because it was sometimes like raising children, equal parts sheer joy and scraped knees.

She eventually became city editor of the Star-News when I was made associate editor. There were no other candidates considered. It was a job she rightly deserved and wore with pride.

Young reporters were attracted to Janette because of her devotion to the craft of journalism and her incredible work ethic. 

This was a woman who lost her husband to cancer, then survived breast cancer while raising two children.   No challenge was too difficult for her to overcome.

She was literate and sophisticated, an expert on all things British having been born and raised in Scotland.  She had half the staff, including me, reading British literature in our spare time.

Indeed, she never abandoned her sense of British propriety.   I once referred to her in a staff meeting as a “work horse.”  Later, in no uncertain terms, she upbraided me, saying that it was no way to talk about a lady.  She said it with a laugh.  But I never did it again.

She was, of course, endearingly human.   She had a habit of losing things:  her keys, her purse, her glasses which more often than not were held together with a paper clip.   Her desk was a repository of discarded press releases and other odds and ends, many of indeterminate age.   She lived most of her life without a cell phone or a home computer which she perceived as nuisances.

Aside from her grandchildren, Janette had three loves:   The British Broadcasting System, which she watched religiously; the New York Times crossword puzzle which she completed on her lunch hour; and the Rose Parade.

The latter was sorely tested some years back when she was assigned to do an interview with the parade’s grand marshal.  It turned out to be Kermit the Frog.

Unfortunately, there is no record of that story.   But knowing Janette, I’m betting that she produced the most compelling and well crafted interview with a hand puppet in the history of print.

I retired from editing about six years ago.   Since then, I have gone to the Pasadena Star-News offices every week to write this column.   I tell people I do it because I like to feed off the energy of the newsroom.

That is only partially true.  I also did it so I could visit with Janette, to get her feedback on my work, to talk about our families, our lives past, present and future.

The last time I saw her I was about to leave for a week to visit friends out of state.   She uncharacteristically gave me a long hug before I left.   It was to be our final farewell.

I’m not sure how I will react at the sight of her empty desk next to mine.   Misty eyed might be a good bet.

So I will seek solace in words, the stuff our profession, in this case the wisdom of Thornton Wilder: 

“The greatest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.”  

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Game of Thrones

When I was in elementary school, we were marched into the school auditorium one fine June day where we watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on a 12-inch, black-and-white TV mounted on the stage.

It held our rapt attention for about 10 minutes before we began to wish that we were outside playing baseball. But no such luck. Final score: Queen 1, Baseball 0.

It should have cured me of all things royal for the rest of my life.

But lately I've been thinking that maybe we Americans should have a King or Queen of or own.
I'm not talking Burger King or Dairy Queen. We're talking about a bejeweled, ermine-robed personage who would sit on a magnificent throne and gaze benevolently down on all of us from a fine palace in Washington, D.C.

Or better yet, in Lebanon, Kansas, which is the geographic center of the contiguous United States. The property is a lot cheaper there and, besides, there is an abundance of self-anointed nobility running around Washington these days.

Smiling warmly or speaking in ceremonial sound bites would be the extent of the duties for his or her majesty. After all, we don't really want a full-blown monarchy here. Our founding fathers fled the excesses of royal rule and with good reason.

No, we're talking about figureheads, sort of like Great Britain but without all the crazy relatives and make-believe authority. We're talking about ribbon cutters, official greeters, visitors to the territories, subjects of a thousand souvenirs.

We could certainly afford it. After all, this is a federal government that recently appropriated $465 million for continued development of an obsolete fighter jet engine. Building a castle would be a drop in the bucket.

I don't have any candidates off the top of my head. I would volunteer my services but I think we would have to come up with something more elegant than King Bob I.

This all came to mind as the good residents of the British Isles wait breathlessly for the arrival of a royal bundle of joy, courtesy of Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton, or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to you.

The child will be third in line to the Crown and will be formally known as His or Her Highness, the Prince or Princess of Cambridge. Just in case you want to send a card.

The Brits are in a frenzy anticipating the blessed event. As the royal contractions increase in frequency, any and all news that is not baby related will be relegated to the back pages of the nation's press. Civil war in Egypt? Jumbo jet crashes? Give me three graphs and run it on page 20.

Jewel-encrusted baby gifts, betting on names, royal baby-themed crackers are much in evidence these days. The media has been camped out in front of St. Mary's Hospital in London for a month now, presumably interviewing each other since there is no actual news.

Perhaps an award for the height of madness goes to Sudocrem, which makes skin care creams. The company has commissioned British jewelry designer Theo Fennell to design a jewel-studded charm bracelet that also serves as a diaper-rash-cream holder for Kate, reports Headlines and Global News. The bracelet costs a reported $15,000.

In the meantime, the then-prime minister of Australia was photographed knitting a toy kangaroo for the baby. Finland sent the royal couple a traditional Finnish "baby box" of gifts such as diapers, bibs and even condoms.

I supposed if you lived in England you might be getting sick of all this

But what a wonderful distraction it is, unlike anything we have. What an outpouring of national pride. What great role models they have in William and Kate. What a great reason for a party.

Contrast that with the cynicism and contempt we too often display. On national holidays and other important occasions we have the President. If you don't like him -- and historically at least a half of us don't no matter who he might be -- such appearances frequently become an opportunity for derisive comments and displays of disrespect. We have traded patriotism for potshots.

By all means, let's build that castle and fill it with folks who can help unite us, celebrate a love of country and its institutions, even if they're just pretenders to the throne.