Commentary: With a little luck...

The Kansas City StarOctober 29, 2012 

Lives are shaped in great part by luck.

More than anything, I believe, they are influenced by the people one encounters at critical points in the journey.

Surely, looking back, nearly everyone can recite the list of individuals who were important contributors to the process of one’s own becoming.

Not only do the names and faces remain clear in memory.

Often one recalls the place and circumstances of the formative encounter.

Time passes. The years go carelessly by. One gets consumed by the overwhelming trials and obligations of simply living.

At some point though — and I suspect this is almost a universal experience — one is apt to be struck by a realization of the immense gratitude that’s owed and regret how many important words were left unspoken.

Often it’s too late and the chance is lost.

All that’s possible then is to consider with regret — as I do here — what one would have said if one had understood the ferocity of time.

My first luck, of course, was the childless couple — Hugh and Dorothy —who selected me at age four days out of the available merchandise in a hospital adoption ward.

That was in the middle of the Great Depression. For them, as for millions of others, times were terribly hard. But I had no sense of that. They were warm and supportive. They armed me with their values.

It amazes me now that never once in adulthood did I sit down with them for the explicit purpose of voicing my gratitude for all the years of affection, support and opportunities they’d given me.

Next was Miss Josephine Baity, high school English teacher and adviser to the school newspaper. She taught a course in journalism and I enrolled — not out of any interest in the subject, but because I’d heard it was a snap.

I was lazy. In the whole semester, I think my total output was a one-paragraph news item and a little essay about a vacation fishing trip.

She graded me with an “I” (for inferior) — the only one I got at any level of schooling. But she wasn’t angry, just disappointed.

Before commencement, she took me aside and said the one fishing essay had shown a trace of promise, but I should know that writing — whether journalism or any other kind — requires effort and application. It wasn’t for someone just trying to slip by.

After her it was Bill Bleifuss, a young professor of the 8 a.m. freshman English class my first day of college. I studied under him every semester of my four years, and he became as much friend as teacher.

More than just how to write, Bill tried to teach why to write — the transforming power of words if put to the service of important and principled ideas, and the need for a writer to bring to the work each day the best he has to give.

Upon graduating I had the luck to get employment at The Star. The editor in my early years was Richard Fowler, whose leadership would redirect what had been a largely provincial paper toward wider interests.

From him I received two milestone assignments: spending several months in the American South to cover the civil rights struggle, then several more months traveling in Africa, reporting on the promise and the travails of that continent’s newly independent republics.

I regret never having expressed to him, in so many words, my conviction that I owed him for my whole career.

There have been other debts, too many to mention.

By far my greatest luck of all, continuing to this day, has been to share my life, my joys and in a real sense my work with the girl who 46 years ago agreed to take a chance on a scribbler and rabbit hunter.

She’s the only woman I’ve ever lived with, or ever intend to. What’s more, she’s a fierce and wise editor who sees almost everything I write before it goes to print and who has saved me from uncountable errors and embarrassment.

She reads not for errors of fact or spelling, but for errors of logic or character.

“You wouldn’t be proud of that tomorrow,” she’ll sometimes say. And into the trash it goes.

To those other dear people mentioned here I may never have spoken the full measure of thanks I feel they were owed. But with her there’s no need for regret about words left unspoken.

What I’ve said here I try to tell her every day.

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