The real faces of journalism

Charles “Hap” Fisher is pushing 103. He doesn’t hear well, he’s got a bum hip, and he needs a pacemaker to keep his ticker beating right. And yet every day he still pulls out his calculator, trying to bring new chemistry formulas into being, trying to do good in the world. “People who don’t work 10 hours a day are sissies,” he says.

One of a growing number of centenarians, he also happens to be the oldest living resident of Brandon Oaks retirement community, the oldest alumnae of Roanoke College and more than likely the oldest scholar still actively publishing research.

My profile of him, which ran in Tuesday’s paper, was essentially a trend piece. I used one very extraordinary individual to reveal one slice of an aging America, a place where the term “senior citizen” can’t begin to capture the diversity of this demographic.

As a Nieman fellow this fall, I’ll get to learn more about the age boom — how it fits into health-care reform, its impact on programs like Medicare and Social Security, and all the other personal and political challenges that present themselves when 76 million baby boomers prepare to turn 65. I’m unspeakably grateful that I’ll get to sit in on classes taught by some of the world’s greatest brains — cutting-edge Alzheimer’s researchers, health-care economists, architects and urban planners who are trying to design the retirement communities of the future.

But I doubt I’ll meet many like Hap, who reads voraciously — The Economist being his favorite publication. When he indulges in a novel, he prefers to read it in Spanish, to keep his mind sharp.

I won’t be spending time with people like Lucille “Big Mama” Blackwell, who died a week ago Friday at the age of 85 and whose obit I had the privilege of writing Sunday. The great-granddaughter of slaves, Big Mama dropped out of school in the third grade to help her parents work a white man’s tobacco farm. She never learned to read, but there was a wisdom about her that I doubt I’ll bump up against at Harvard — or anywhere else. “I have no spirit of fear, and I thank God for that,” she told me last year. “See, when it’s my turn to go, I’m ready to stand before the King and hear him say, ‘Well done, Lucille.’ ” 

I won’t be a five-minute drive from the home of Linda Rhodes, whose struggle to take care of her dementia-diseased husband, Tommy, has been the subject of some of the most heartbreaking and most rewarding reporting of my life.

These are moments you don’t get to witness every day, which is what keeps so many journalists plodding away still — despite all the industry red flags, despite the so-so pay, despite all the times we bolt upright at 3 in the morning worried about a possible layoff, or a possible mistake in the next day’s story, or how we’re going to get our kids to school and practice and music lessons — and still get that story turned in on time. 

I won’t miss the anxiety and the second-guessing you create for yourself when you’re in the middle of a complicated project — and, even though you’ve been there hundreds of times before, you’re still not sure you can pull it off again. (“You’re full as a tick with this one,” my friend Mary told me once, mid-project.)

But I will miss people like Hap, Big Mama and Linda Rhodes. No matter how complex the conversation or how heady the academic vibe, they are the teachers I want to keep foremost in my mind.

Statistics are well and good, but I think the best journalism begins not with a number but with a story.

 

I love it when I’m leaving a profile subject after the last of many interviews and ask the profilee: “Is there anything you’re worried about with the story?” And the subject answers, “No, we’re good.”

Trust, people. It’s No. 1 in the toolbox,  tied closely to picking the right person to begin with — someone who puts the truth ahead of their image, someone with whom you can develop a near-immediate rapport.

Yesterday, I learned that our 2008 series, Age of Uncertainty, won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. Many people worked on this newspaper and multimedia project, a 10-part series documenting the struggles of caregivers for the frail elderly — both paid and unpaid, medical and not. Their names will be all be listed on the award, and deservedly so.

But two of the many people featured in the series deserve to be singled out for honors, too. One is Linda Rhodes, the 60-year-old full-time worker and full-time caregiver of her husband, Tommy, who’s had dementia for going on seven years. The other is Cheryl Jones, a single mom and community college student who works as a home-care aide for Family Service of Roanoke Valley.

Linda let us into her life like no other subject I’ve encountered before or since. Between photographer Josh Meltzer and I, we probably took 80 hours of her time over the course of several months. She fed us. She invited us to holiday meals. She shared what keeps her awake at night, opened up old photo albums, invited us to her workplace and described in perfect detail who Tommy Rhodes was before the disease stole him away. As a journalist, you’re really not supposed to fall in love with your subjects, but in my 25 years of storytelling I have never been as blessed to garner such trust from a subject. And love her deeply, I do.

Cheryl was angel-sent; there’s no other way to put it. She took time to explain everything from the Medicaid spend-down to the real-life troubles her frail elderly clients have in accessing services. More importantly, she showed us by inviting us into the homes of her patients, friends and even some of the neighbors she keeps tabs on in her Rugby neighborhood. Her name wasn’t in every story in the series, but her presence surely was. If an agency official or medical expert taught me something in an interview, I appreciated it. But when Cheryl said it, too,  I knew for a fact it was true.

Statistics and computer-assisted reporting are well and good, but I think the best journalism begins not with a number but with a story: A wife who has to stop herself from dialing 911 when she thinks her husband might be dying — and remembers the Do Not Resuscitate order. A home-care aide who makes $13,000 a year changing Depends and checking blood sugars and, when a client is too poor to afford cleaning products, balls up little bits of tinfoil to scrub the toilet with instead.

Those are the images that move me and, I hope, allow me to move others. At the heart of it is the thing we talk about least in this business and yet, when you really peel back the layers of any complicated, intimate story, it’s what we lean on the most: trust.

Thanks to editors Carole Tarrant, Dan Beatty and Brian Kelley for giving Josh and me the time to establish real trust. And thanks to Linda and Cheryl for pushing the media stereotypes aside and letting us into their lives.

 

Cheryl Jones visits Margaret "Mother Bass" three times a week, taking care of cleaning, personal errands and light medical duties.

Cheryl Jones visits Margaret "Mother Bass" three times a week, taking care of cleaning, personal errands and light medical duties.

 

Linda Rhodes helps her husband Tommy get ready for bed in a scene from late 2007. Recently, she had to place him in a nursing home while she underwent knee-replacement surgery, but she looks forward to feeling better so she can resume her twice-daily visits.

Linda Rhodes helps her husband Tommy get ready for bed in a scene from late 2007. Recently, she had to place him in a nursing home while she underwent knee-replacement surgery, but she looks forward to feeling better so she can resume her twice-daily visits.