This has been a learning week for me since my recent column came out and a number of readers responded with emails. My column, “Should we save local journalism? Do we care,” talked about many things. One central topic was my questioning the anger I see “out in our world” — including the abuse and vitriol directed at our newspaper and our delivery folks.

Responses were both positive — “we appreciate what you do and thank you” — and negative — “I doubt I will ever come back to these local newspapers,” and worse. 

Those who were critical, for the most part, shared well-reasoned arguments why they felt the way they did. And, almost everything they pointed out demanded critical consideration no matter if I agreed or not. The points required careful thought and acknowledgement. 

I felt the weight of the wisdom of the reader who commented: “Lately, however, I’m missing from the paper. My views. My questions. My stories. Missing… Something has happened to journalism. It’s disappeared. It’s disappeared by the choice of a spin word. It’s disappeared by the absence of questions I would ask. It’s disappeared by the stories not covered. “

Beyond the email responses, I was able to benefit from several “learning moments” that occurred this Saturday while I attended services in Rome, Ga., for one of my high school friends who died in March. Because of COVID-19, it was only now — almost six months following his death — that we were able to celebrate his life.

I have always found that life almost always provides a path for us if we are alert enough to see it — if we listen hard enough, pay attention enough. The timing of the funeral service and the column was not happenstance. Fortunately, I was paying attention. 

On one hand, my friend Hank Dean saw the world in clear, non-ambiguous terms. He never wavered in what he believed, and he never side-stepped expressing his thoughts, even when they were not popular or comfortable. 

Hank had no filter when it came to this. You always knew where he stood. He gave no credence to being politically correct. That was not an agenda item on his horizon — ever. This honesty was universally appreciated and acknowledge by everyone who spoke at the service.

On the other hand, over and over during the service I heard his friends, his children, strangers he met along the way and others remark how Hank “always listened and was willing to wait for the answer,” and that “when he was there, he was really there — all in — for my story.” 

They all finished by including that he cared, that he would give someone the shirt off his back if he thought that it would help them.

One woman stood out. She spoke in a halting, soft, accented voice, pausing a number of times to collect her thoughts, microphone in hand, then speaking truths — simple and unadorned — that struck us all. “Hank,” she said, “welcomed anyone who needed shelter into his home.”  Then after a silence that seemed interminable, she finished with, “and into his heart.”

Everyone loved Hank because he gave them all the respect — in many different ways — that they felt they deserved.  And that seemed to be how they — at the end of the day — judged him.

“Listen, and listen well,” I thought to myself.  “And don’t side-step the hard issues or the uncomfortable ones.”

I can’t believe Hank is gone. It doesn’t seem possible. But, as somehow I suspected he would, he is sticking around to poke me — and us all — and remind us to speak our truth, to listen and pay attention, and to welcome friends and strangers into our home… and heart.

Ray is the Publisher Emeritus for Appen Media and the Herald newspapers.

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