Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mourning one of our own

Most nights when I drag my bones in the front door, and plop down at the kitchen table, the first thing I do is pull out that day’s newspapers and start going over them one more time.

Then I flip on the TV to the local news, if by any chance it’s still on, just in case there’s anything going on that wasn’t covered on KYW, my accompaniment in the car for the ride home.

It’s about this time I usually catch a glance at my wife. She has managed to get a peek at the newspaper, or heard a headline on the news.
She has only one question for me. “How can you deal with this every day?”

It’s a good question. One I’ve been thinking a lot about since Saturday.

When you get into this business, you get used to dealing with unpleasant topics fairly quickly. The truth is that a lot of what we do every day is heart-achingly sad.

The stereotype of the newspaper man or woman is the crusty, hard-edged cynic who puts aside emotions in search of the story. There’s more than a little truth to that image.

You tend to build up a pretty tough façade, some might call it cynicism; others simply label it cold-hearted. We use it as something of a defense mechanism to hide the emotions that bubble underneath the surface.

You build up that rough exterior pretty quickly, or you find another line of work.
Most of the time we’re pretty successful in dealing with the worst life has to dole out.

In the 30 years I’ve been in this racket, I’ve had countless number of phone calls with people suffering in the worst kind of circumstances. Many times they’re looking for information. Sometimes they need the newspaper’s help. Often they are questioning how the newspaper can be so unfeeling as to report on the tragedy involving their loved ones.

It’s part of the job. For the most part, you get used to it.

Until it involves one of your own.

Monday morning I had a phone call unlike any I’ve had in the 25 years I’ve been at the Daily Times. It was from Ginger Whalen, the mother of one of my staff reporters.
Stephanie Whalen died Saturday morning. She was 27. Stephanie took her own life.

No one knows exactly why. Her mother says medical investigators believe believe Stephanie was suffering from postpartum depression. She had a 11/2-year-old son, Logan, who she adored. And she recently informed her co-workers she had another child on the way. She was a doting mother, and a crackerjack reporter.

Stephanie joined the Daily Times in 2004 as a general assignment reporter. It doesn’t take me very long to size up new hires. And it didn’t take very long for me to realize this woman could flat-out write. That’s something we take pretty seriously around here. Words are our life-blood.

Her last assignment was on Thursday, when she covered the opening of the new terrain at Styer’s opening, the hip new home store and gardening center at the former Styer’s site out on Baltimore Pike in Concord.

This was how Stephanie led into her story:
“At one ‘garden room’ entrance, a hand-carved 300-year-old wooden door from India invited visitors to revel in the colors and scents of the season — orchid pink, marigold yellow and moss green.

“Bubbling Zen fountains temporarily drowned out the road noise from bustling Baltimore Pike, leaving room for onlookers to marvel at a sculptured bathtub hand-carved from a piece of stone from Indonesia.”

If you get the feeling in reading those words that you’re actually in the store, that’s the whole point.

Like I said, Stephanie could write. Any assignment, no matter how difficult, nor mundane, got the same sparkling treatment from “Steph.”

She was joking with co-workers Friday night. No one sensed anything was wrong. Less than 24 hours later she was gone.

Now I find myself struggling to come up with words to describe just what happened, why none of us had any indication something was amiss, and what — if anything — we could have done to prevent it.

I have been struggling to find the right words since I first heard the news Saturday afternoon. I can really only think of one. It’s just unbelievably sad.
There is something else that must be said here, something I’ve already related to the staff.

There is almost nothing I can think of that will ease what we’ve been dealing with since Saturday and for the days ahead. We will be there for Stephanie, for Logan, for Ginger and the rest of the Whalen family.

But it does remind us that these are precisely the gamut of emotions so many of the people we write about every day are dealing with.

The policy of the newspaper in these situations is pretty clear. If it happens in private, we do not consider it news. But if it is done in public, or affects the public, it is considered news. It would be hypocritical for the newspaper to change its policy simply because it involves one of our own. I also wonder what I would say to the next family member who questions why such information has to be included in the newspaper.

But that’s for another day. Right now, I am dealing with a family coping with the worst kind of tragedy imaginable. And an extended family, those of us here at the newspaper, trying to put the pieces back together.

I fall back on my training, and search for the proper words. It’s just so damn sad.

Philip E. Heron is editor of the Daily Times. Call him at (610) 622-8818. E-mail him at editor@delcotimes.com. To visit his daily blog, the Heron’s Nest, go to www3.allaroundphilly.com/blogs/delcotimes/philh/blog.html.


Anonymous Robb said...

I met Steph at the Trainer standoff and she seemed like a great person and very friendly. My condolences to the paper and her family.

May 20, 2008 at 4:36 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading your article today, I was overcome with tears. I felt the connection to what you and your staff are experiencing.
It's almost one year ago that one of our men took his life. You think as being part of the "extended family", it would get easier. I guess in due time.
Like you said "It's just so dam sad." You, and your staff our in my prayers.

May 20, 2008 at 8:59 PM 

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