The graceful departure II

The clock read something like 4:00 a.m. in Room 102 of the Super 8 Motel in Bonne Terre last Wednesday morning when this reporter finished sending stories of the Ringo execution back to the network for use in morning newscasts.  It read shortly after 8:00 a.m. when I clawed my way out of sleep to pack and leave for Jefferson City where the legislature was gathering to consider whether it could override dozens of Governor Nixon’s vetoes of things they had done in the session that ended in mid-May.

A drive made somewhat  more hazardous by sometimes heavy rains on curving roads brought me to the Capitol at 12:30, before the Senate had started the serious work of overrides.  I had predicted I would miss little if anything because I expected Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal would be exclaiming at length about the inadequacies of Governor Nixon’s response to the recent incidents in Ferguson.  And indeed, she was.   And later, when word reached the Capitol that protestors were confronting police trying to keep them from blocking part of Interstate 70, there was a short reprise.

The veto session in the senate ground on and on, lengthened by her extensive discourse about Fergon and then lengthened more by minority Democrats talking against passage of the 72-hour waiting period for women wanting abortions, and extended to its final moments when Democrats seized the floor and let it be known no more bills would be allowed to come up for consideration because majority Republicans had moved the previous question on the abortion bill, immediately stopping the Democrat filibuster-in-development and forcing a vote on the issue.

The PQ, as it is called in legislative slang, is seldom used in the Senate.  It was last used in 2007, in fact.  It’s considered an insult by those who are gagged by its use in a chamber that regularly emphasizes equality among its members and respect for the rights of all Senators to debate an issue as they wish.

So the session ended in the Senate on an acrimonious note sometime after 1 a.m.  It was more than an hour later, with the House still in session, that this reporter headed to the newsroom to write veto session stories and record the morning newscasts.  The morning newscasts were a terrible struggle, poorly done, before I asked Sports Director Bill Pollock to wake me up after about half an hour on the full-length couch the company finally installed after 25 years in this building (and numerous all-nighters for elections, blizzards, and other events).  The remaining newscasts were better-done before the reporter finally made it home with, I am sure, divine intervention.  Somebody was steering that car and I’m not sure it was entirely the driver, operating on four and a half hours of sleep since 4:30 Tuesday morning.

One of the things I carried into the house was a framed resolution from the Missouri Senate, signed by all of its members.  At some point during that long, long 53-hour span, the Senate stopped what it was doing so Senator Mike Kehoe could bring up the resolution observing that this reporter will be retiring December 1.  It was filled with kind observations and best wishes and was adopted with a standing ovation.

I sat in my usual place at the press table enduring the reading—c’mon now, you’ve probably been in situations where people or a group lavish attention on you and it’s probably been kind of uncomfortable—and as the Senate applauded, I stood, nodded, murmured “Thank You,” and sat back down.  Senator Kehoe came over to present the framed resolution. The Senator photographer took a picture.  Kehoe has a big smile.  I appear uncertain about all of this.

Maybe it was fatigue layered on top of the discomfort about being fawned over.  But it would be easy for those who signed the resolution and applauded its presentation to think the recipient was ungrateful.

Well, I’m not.  The resolution was a nice, gracious, thing for Senator Kehoe and his colleagues to do and I appreciate it a great deal.

Most of us, I suspect, deal with compliments awkwardly at best.  Receiving a competitive award is one thing.  Having someone tell you, in effect, that what you’ve done with your life amounts to something—well, that’s a little harder because it’s boastful to say, in effect, “Heck yes it has!”

And it certainly is improper for the awardee to say, “I don’t really deserve this,” which insults the giver.  It is not up to awardees to determine their worthiness. It is instead a compliment paid by the givers and should be accepted as such.

So if you see the picture, don’t let it fool you.  The resolution was appreciated very much because, in truth, all of us want someone to assure us that we haven’t wasted our time on this earth.  Perhaps if more of us spent more time telling each other that, because most of us deserve to hear it, we’d know better how to accept a compliment as gracefully as it is given.

At the end of the week I was left pondering an honor from those who had sung my praises only about eighteen hours after I had watched the departure of one who left “unwept, unhonored , and unsung.”

And I have promised I will practice being more gracious.

The graceful departure

There’s a narrative here somewhere. Haven’t quite figured it out yet.  But it’s about leaving, going away, departing.  And in an odd way, maybe, matters of grace might seem to be involved.   Contrasts of a sort, too, we suppose.

Or maybe it’s just fatigue talking.

This will take a couple of entries to work through.

Let’s go back to last Tuesday, a day that began with an alarm clock at 4:30 a.m., as usual, and the drive through some still-dark streets of Jefferson City to the Missourinet newsroom for the first newscasts of the day to our sixty-or-so affiliated stations.   One of the stories in one of those early newscasts was this”

” If prison inmate Earl Ringo Junior is executed tonight, Missouri will, for a brief time perhaps, lead the nation in executions this year.  He’ll be the eighth person executed.   A few hours after his scheduled execution, Texas is scheduled to execute its eighth prisoner.”

We watched as Ringo was pronounced dead at 12:31 a.m. Wednesday morning.  Missouri led the nation in executions for eighteen hours and four minutes before Texas inmate Willie Trottie was pronounced dead at 6:35 p.m.

Some condemned inmates try to die with some grace, issuing last statements expressing remorse for the events that led to their coming demise, often apologizing to the friends of families of victims, sometimes expressing confidence that their religious growth in prison would bring them a satisfactory afterlife.   Some inmates leave defiant, even profane, final messages..   Someday we’ll post a series of “last words” of Missouri inmates and you may consider whether they have sought to leave this life with at least some grace.

Earl Ringo, Jr. left with no remorse or apology and it appeared the only comfort he sought or offered was to himself.  His last statement was an eight-verse segment of the Quran: “For they are enemies to me, not so the Lord and Cherisher of the Worlds.  Who created me, and it is He who guides me; who gives me food and drink; and when I am ill, it is He who cures me.  He will cause me to die, and cause me to live again; and whom, I hope, will forgive me my faults on the day of Judgment. O my Lord bestow wisdom on me, and join me with the righteous. Grant me honorable mention among the tongues of the later generations.  Make me one of the inheritors of the Garden of Bliss.”

Moments after the media witnesses returned to the press room at the Bonne Terre prison, the widow of one of his victims told us, “I don’t care if I ever have to hear the name of this person who died today, but you need to speak of Dennis Poyser…”   He was one of two people killed in a Columbia restaurant robbery Ringo masterminded.  The other was Joanna Baysinger, the mother of a two-year old son, who–said Jama Brown–”didn’t even get to see grow up.”

The closing lines of Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,”  has crept into the mind since those near-midnight events at the prison;

The wretch, concentred all in self,

Living, shall forfeit fair renown,

And, doubly dying, shall go down

To the vile dust from whence he sprung,

Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.

A few yards away from the execution chamber and a few minutes after life left Ringo, a woman who still mourned the loss of her first husband sixteen years ago lifted up his memory and that of the second victim, thanking those who had brought service to the families and, at long last, justice to a man who remained “concentred all in self” to the very end.

There is a second chapter to this post.  The connection to the events at Bonne Terre might seem tenuous.  We’re not sure.  It’s tenuous enough that we’ll reserve it for next time.

Lessons from Ferguson

Your loyal scribe is mingling with fellow journalists at the annual Excellence in Journalism Conference for a few days, a joint meeting of the Radio-Television Digital News Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. He has been asked to lead a workshop on “Lessons from Ferguson.” As this is written, the panel will include an NPR reporter who was there, an online editor, and a leader of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Some of our colleagues in the midst of the protest storm were caught up in some of the actions by police trying to restore order and their experiences prompted organizations such as the Reporters Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union to file legal actions that brought protections of the press’ right to cover the news.

Our panel discussion will no doubt touch on the successes and failures of the coverage and the relations between members of the press and demonstrators and those seeking to restore public order.

As preparations for the convention were winding down, word reached our newsroom that Missouri’s teacher of the year is Chris Holmes, a journalism teacher at St. Louis Hazelwood West High School. The timing of the choice is appropriate and at the same time ironic, we suppose. We immediately got in touch with him and had a fascinating interview. We’ve posted it (or will be posting it) with the story we are doing about him on Missourinet.com. There’s much more to Chris Holmes than his role as a journalism teacher. He helped start a program called “Project Walk,” which helps at-risk students. The first group of students who once saw little hope that they would succeed will be graduating soon. He also sponsors an award-winning Slam Poetry Club, a competitive organization that involves young poets performing their original works. “All people, especially adolescents, want to express their feelings,” he told us.

But we were interested in how he has turned the recent events in Ferguson into a teaching experience for him and a learning experience for his students, regardless of whether they pursue a career in journalism. What happened in Ferguson, however, changed the direction of the teaching/learning experience.

Classes started at his high school on Monday after the Saturday night shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. When he heard on Sunday that there was going to be a protest march that night, he went to Ferguson so he could have his class the next day talk about “ethically, responsibly, and compassionately” covering stories such as that.

When he saw that events were turning violent, he left the area. But to get to his car, he had to pass the Quik Trip that was being looted. He was hit in the head with a brick, a wound that took six stitches to close. His cell phone was stolen. Some women later helped him get to a police area where he stayed for 5 1/2 hours before he could go get his car and go home. What he taught the next day was understandably different from what he though it would be:

“Ninety-eight percent of the people that I met that night were there for the right reason. They were positive. They might have been angry but they were peaceful. They wanted to make a point. They wanted to participate in democracy. And that was all good And there was a very small portion of people who once the others kind of dissipated and left, they turned violent. But that was such a minority of the group that was there that night. And when you watch TV you don’t see it that way. So I wanted my students to realize that. And then we talked about that in a journalistic context. Is what we see on television, and what we hear on the radio and read in the newspapers, is that an accurate representation of reality? What responsibility as journalists do we have to try our best to keep that in context so people actually see the truth?”

He said the experience had given him a great deal of material use in teaching this year’s students and students in the future. And it, and questions from others, gave him some answers to his questions.

“It does provide great opportunities to talk about the difference between journalistic theory and ethics and the reality of the business, which can be ugly. And so many people, because they know I teach journalism, come up to me…and say, “You’re a journalist, what do you think about how the journalists are covering this?” And I’m objective and I see it from both sides but I tried to explain to them that at the time they are reporting on the truth that they see. And however skewed it may seem once other facts come out, at that moment, and they’re in a race to do it against other journalists. That’s their job. And it may not look pretty as it comes out, but we need people to do that.

“At the same time there are some—I live three blocks away from the police officer who shot Michael Brown, in Crestwod, and Channel 5 went to his house with a camera. Put it on TV. So we talked about that in class. Is that necessary? Is that journalism? So, yes, plenty of opportunities for teaching.”

We really enjoyed talking to Chris as reporter to story subject and also as journalist to journalist. We can understand why he’s Missouri’s teacher of the year. Look for our story about him on Missourinet.com.