A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Monday, October 4, 2010

A Reporter Who Did His Job

(Above: Andrew Meacham)

I'm not in the habit of praising other newspapers; but something remarkable happened at the St. Petersburg (FL) Times last week, and I want to tell you about it.
On Sept. 12 a 48-year-old Tampa man named Neil Alan Smith was struck by a hit-and-run driver as he was bicycling home from his work as a dishwasher at an eatery called the Crab Shack. His head struck a metal light pole, and he never regained consciousness, dying six days later.
The Times ran a brief story about the accident, and that was that - or so they thought.
But then a reader posted a comment - anonymous, of course - on the paper's website that said, "A man who is working as a dishwasher at the Crab Shack at the age of 48 is surely better off dead."
That impelled a Times reporter named Andrew Meacham to go back and revisit the story to find out what kind of man was Neil Alan Smith, whose life and death had been dismissed so cavalierly.
The first thing Meacham found out is that a lot of people miss him, including his landlady, who told Meacham that once, when she was worried that the power company would shut off her electricity because she hadn't been able to pay the bill, he gave her more money than she had asked to borrow and insisted she take it. "I'll never forget that," she said.
His co-workers called him steady and dependable, a man who showed up every day, rain or shine, biking four miles each way from his trailer park to the Crab Shack. He worked there for ten years - a virtual lifetime in a business known for heavy turnover - for the $7.25 per hour minimum wage.
"I'll probably go through another 10 people to find somebody like him," his boss said.
A native New Englander, he was a huge fan of the Celtics, Patriots and, of course, the Red Sox.
Aside from one open container violation in 2007, he was never in any trouble with the law. When he was hit by the car he was following all the rules, including wearing a safety helmet, light-colored clothing and reflectors, and staying in the bike lane.
His landlady plans to take his ashes to Boston and scatter a few at Fenway Park. Then she'll go to New Hampshire and lay the rest on his parents' graves - if she can find them.
In short, Neil Smith was a human being. He loved and was loved by others. He had both joy and pain in his life, just like you and me.
I called Meacham and thanked him for writing that story. He said he's gotten a lot of calls like that from reporters and editors around the country.
I think it's because he struck a nerve with the rest of us. In an era when newspapers are becoming an endangered species, he reminded us how important they really are.
I've heard people say that if newspapers go away, there will be nobody to keep an eye on the politicians, corporations and special interests that run our lives. And it's true: We need more Woodwards and Bernsteins, not fewer.
But we also need more Andrew Meachams, to remind us of our common humanity. He has brought honor to my profession. I hope he wins the Pulitzer Prize.