What other profession allows a person to crawl into the personal space of another, to enter their homes, their offices, their happy places, ask nosy questions, and then have the audacity to write about it for the whole world to see?
I’ve always been curious. I used to annoy my dad when I was a kid because I always wanted to know, “Why?” or “How come?”
His patience thinning, he’d say, “What are you doing, writing a book?”
For the past 24-plus years, I’ve had the privilege of being that nosy, often intrusive busybody who’s had the nerve to call complete strangers on the telephone and cajole them to tell me their stories. And, even worse, shoot photos of them, too.
But I like to think that most of my subjects knew I would treat their words and their stories carefully and respectfully. That’s because a community journalist lives among the people he or she writes about.
We see our subjects in the grocery store, at Target, at the gas station. We live among you. We don’t have the luxury of dropping in on the juicy stuff, then leaving, avoiding the wreckage that often comes in the aftermath. For us, once you burn a bridge, that’s it. No one will trust you. No one will talk to you.
Community newspapers shine a bright light on our communities. These stories don’t make the 10 p.m. TV news, but are important to you, your neighbors, and your community. They are stories that made you proud or happy, or intrigued you enough to cut it out of the community newspaper and tape to the refrigerator, or for the scrapbook. Or to post and share on Facebook.
Or incensed you enough to write a letter to the editor. Or become a volunteer or an activist.
But the world is changing. The way we get our news is changing. What the public considers as news is changing. And after a lot of thought, I realized that it was time to move on.
Some of my most memorable experiences have come through my work as a community journalist.
How else could I be encouraged to get drunk on the county’s dime? Will I ever forget the four-day hangover I lived through as a volunteer in the Sheriff’s Office patrol officer training program?
“Come to the Sheriff’s Office,” the deputy said. “We’re training area patrol officers in conducting DWI stops. It’ll be fun. You can write about it.”
Or, how else did I find myself on the roof of a classic fire truck, shooting photos of the firefighter’s casket in the truck bed? Getting both quizzical looks and happy encouragement from the firefighters (take as many pictures as you can) who’d worked so hard to restore this truck and wanted to commemorate its first appearance at a firefighter’s funeral.
I'll never forget the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was headed to the Chanhassen Villager office, and stopped at a local coffee shop. As I waited, I looked at the TV on the wall. And saw the footage of an airplane flying into one of the Twin Towers.
It happened to be a Tuesday, our paper’s deadline day. I’m not sure how we finished our stories and did editing and proofing that day. One of the salespeople brought in a small TV from home and set it up in the conference room. We were all in shock.
And I was too young, too green at the time to appreciate the significance of my interview with Paul Murphy, one of the 316 surviving sailors from the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
During the last days of WWII in 1945, Murphy’s ship had just delivered the atomic bombs that would destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus ending the war. On its journey back, the ship was torpedoed by the Japanese. After four days drifting in the Pacific Ocean, only 316 seamen survived, and one of them was Murphy of Chaska. It was only after reading his complete story in the newspaper, did his adult children finally learn of his ordeal.
At one point in my career, I had an “All the President’s Men” moment. I would tell you, but then I’d have to kill you. Suffice to say, it made the world a little bit nicer.
And once, I made a government official cry.
Trying to shoot a photo of Paisley Park (Prince had forgotten once again to pay his tax bill) one of his guards reprimanded me (not very nicely) for standing too close to the fence. I shot back that I was with Prince’s hometown paper, the Chanhassen Villager.
I shoved a business card through the fence.
“You know, it would be nice if you guys contacted us once in a while when he has a press conference.”
Months later, I got a phone call. From Prince’s press people. Would I be able to attend a press conference with Prince? It might have been around the time he was releasing music online. That was an innovative move for an artist at the time.
You bet! I took two other reporters with me. It was fabulous. And I was the only person who said something that actually interested the Purple One. When he complained about the taxes in Carver County, I suggested he go to a Carver County Board meeting. He said he’d think about it.
A reporter from one of the local TV stations caught my eye, his hand in the internationally recognized gesture of “Call me.”
I smiled and thought, “As if.”
I witnessed the media circus that landed in Chanhassen when Prince died in April 2016.
A co-worker called me in the morning. Something was going on at Paisley Park. The Carver County Sheriff’s Office had been called, and I should check it out. I arrived, a little after 9 a.m., and saw the Sheriff’s vehicles. I parked across the street and waited. I learned that a body had been found; it was Prince.
I’ll never forget the sound of a woman crying and wailing as she walked to Paisley Park from a nearby office park. I heard her before I actually saw her. The grief was real.
I spent most of the day there, taking pictures, interviewing fans who had begun gathering, and watching local, national and international news station trucks arrive.
I’ve also had great fun getting to know and befriending so many people in Chanhassen, Chaska, Victoria and Carver.
Thank you for letting me into your homes, your businesses, to share with me and the community your hopes, dreams, and sorrows.
Thanks to the wonderful people with Chaska Valley Family Theatre, I also got to appear in a couple melodramas and co-write a play called, “Garage Sale.”
Because of the people I met and the features I did, I threw myself into dollhouse miniatures, doll collecting, baking, knitting and even boxing for a short time.
And, covering city and county government made me somewhat conversant in matters of road reconstruction, CUPs, PUDs, even the slightly racy SAC and WAC.
And, I can't forget all the fans of "Where the Heck Is It?"I hope that it got you out and about in Chanhassen and Victoria through this offbeat and popular feature.
There’s more to be said, but then this would be a book, not a column. Just know that I will miss you.