I came to Huntington in 1987, straight out of Purdue. I joined the Herald-Press as a photographer, and I was pretty good. But I had also written articles when I worked at the Exponent newspaper at Purdue and during an internship at my hometown Milford Mail-Journal. So when the need arose at the Herald-Press, I picked up a writing assignment, usually a sports story.
In the summer of 1990, the sports editor left, and I made the move from shooter to writer and took the position. I loved photography, and while I wasn’t giving it up entirely, it was definitely a step away. I had no idea whether I could be a decent writer, but something told me it was the right move. It was a difficult time in my life. I was a young person struggling financially, and my father was dealing with cancer. By the summer of 1991, my dad looked to have gotten past the worst and was ready to go back to work. The optimism was short-lived. He had some pains and went to have them checked. The cancer had spread and there was no stopping it. Three weeks later he was gone. He had just passed his 50th birthday.
After his funeral, I took some vacation time, and went to our family’s summer place in northern Michigan. I had time alone with my thoughts and memories. My dad had instilled me with a strong work ethic, so I went back to the Herald-Press and poured myself into my work. A one-person sports staff requires long hours, and that helped me work through my grief. It also helped me to hone my writing and my style.
In November of 1991, Magic Johnson announced that he would have to retire from the NBA after being diagnosed with HIV. It was the blockbuster story of the year. It was a time when very little was know about HIV/AIDS, and it was assumed to be a death sentence. There was a kind of hysteria about it, and Johnson was the most prominent person to announce they had HIV. It shook the sports world and beyond, and the public struggled to put the announcement into some kind of perspective.
I had never written a real column, one tackling an issue or event. But at that time, I felt inspired to write. I was still emotionally fragile after losing my father, and the Johnson announcement only added to the confusion. I decided to examine what it meant to have heroes in our lives. I wrote about putting sports stars on a pedestal, and about my father’s influence in my life, and ultimately how we have to find the strength within ourselves to become the person we want to be.
In the days following its publication, I received numerous phone calls and letters from readers who had been moved by my column. That took me by surprise. For the first time I understood that words I wrote had meaning.
It also earned me my initial Hoosier State Press Association first-place award as the year’s top sportswriter.
The column had been cathartic in dealing with the loss of my father. It had answered any questions I had as to whether I could do the job as sports editor.
Now, after almost 30 years later, I look back at that at a turning point. We never get over the death of a parent, but expressing myself allowed me to tap into my strength to move ahead with confidence into a successful newspaper career.