Editor’s note: Since leaving The Register-Guard Dec. 6, 2013 I’ve had numerous requests from readers who missed my final column. Here it is:
Column writing, it’s been said, is a little like running in front of a combine in a farmer’s field: exhilarating, exhausting and fun — until you trip just once.
After 14 years as a columnist, 24 years at The Register-Guard and 37 years in the newspaper business, I’ve grown weary of trying to outrun three deadlines a week.
Today is my final offering as the newspaper’s general columnist.
Though I’m leaving the paper, I’m not forgoing my passion for trying to inspire people through written and spoken words. I’m excited about writing books, speaking at events and teaching my Beachside Writers Workshops and at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.
But for the past two decades, my life has read like a series of CliffsNotes condensations. I zip from one event to the other without immersing myself in each with much depth — and without enjoying the journey as much as I should be.
It’s time I did.
It’s time to slow down and smell the roses — should the Ducks ever again settle for a pulse-numbing week in sunny, warm Pasadena.
To hole up in Yachats for more than a weekend.
To see my grandchildren — four of them, with a fifth on the way — not just at family functions but across the restaurant table from just me, their mouths ringed in waffle syrup.
To hop in the car with She Who Loves to Wander (aka Sally) and head east with no idea where we’ll wind up.
And, finally, to look back at nearly 2,000 columns and be reminded of what a privilege working at this paper has been.
In June 1976, the day after I graduated from the University of Oregon, I left to work at The Bulletin in Bend with one ultimate goal: to someday return to The Register-Guard, where I had spent three years working part-time in sports.
In September 1989, after seven years in Bend and six at a now-defunct Bellevue, Wash., paper, I got that chance. And I’ve never taken it for granted — stints as a features reporter, features editor and, beginning in November 1999, columnist.
“I see myself as something of a tour guide,” I wrote in my first column. “If I’m leading this day hike three times a week, I do so as both teacher and student.”
As expected, the people I’ve written about have taught me much: That life is short. Courage is required. Change is necessary. And risk brings rewards.
Thus, it’s time for a new adventure — my “second life,” as I call it — while still appreciating the one I’m leaving behind.
“You have a dream position,” a reader told me after my first column.
I believed her then; I believe her now. In fact, I still have the Post-It stuck to my cubicle wall, a reminder to never take this job for granted.
I’ve had the freedom to share some humor, whether it was inventing Eugene-related words that aren’t in the dictionary but should be — “hydrospine: the line of spray that forms vertically on the back of a fender-less bicycle rider” — or, in Yachats, trying desperately to listen to a Duck football game that was fading in and out with other stations. “I started getting worried,” I wrote, “when (quarterback Jason) Fife threw a long pass to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
I’ve been able to honor the people we lost; among the ones that hit me hardest was Mario Miranda, killed in an automobile accident in 2000 and one of the high school students I led as head of the 20Below team, a group of young writers who used to contribute stories to the paper.
“I am young, Hispanic, compassionate, sensitive, non-Protestant and certainly not rich,” he wrote in one of his 20Below essays. “In fact, after I pay the $70 for my Advanced Placement history class credit, I will have a net worth of $7.50.”
I’ve been able to tell the stories of people who don’t pine for the spotlight but deserve it. The people who inspire us with their resilience, such as Katie Barr, the Pleasant Hill High School teacher who lost her husband, daughter and dog in the split-seconds of an automobile accident but rebounded to start a foundation to help the slip-through-the-cracks kids that her school-counselor husband had so passionately believed in.
The people who inspire us with their courage, such as Kayleen Johnston, a bartender at Shooter’s Pub & Grill who gave up a kidney to a stranger.
And the people who inspire us with their commitment, such as the 100-plus men and women we featured in our December 2011 World War II series, the most profound journalistic project I’ve worked on.
So, thanks to The Register-Guard for three canvasses a week on which to paint — even if, at times, I slipped outside the lines. (Sorry about the Eugene-oriented haiku — “Better head for Jerry’s” — and the mock interview with Smokey the Bear; they seemed like good ideas at the time.)
Thanks, editors, for allowing me to climb that crane above Autzen Stadium during its 2002 addition. To take readers along with me on the Pacific Crest Trail by building a special website from which they could follow the journey online. And, after I wrote “I don’t get hunting,” to go on a weeklong elk hunting trip on which I was thrown from a horse with the dude-ranch name of “Rusty.”
Thanks to those who allowed me to tell their stories and their families’ stories. The trust between subject and writer is often tenuous. I still remember former UO President Robert Clark’s reluctance to let me interview him; at 93, he was ashamed of his forgetfulness. When, after gentle coaxing, he finally relented, he flawlessly recited Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” among my most precious newspaper moments.
Whether as a columnist or features writer, I’ve always favored stories about those who toil with tenacity in the shadows, far from the press conference spotlight. I count it an utter privilege to have spent afternoons with the delightful Barbara Bowerman in Fossil; the courageous Myrlie Evers, wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, in Central Oregon; and the indefatigable Lewis L. McArthur, editor of the “Oregon Geographic Names” book that his father first had published in 1928, in Portland. (See photo with this entry.)
Thanks to the handful of “holiday angels” who, since 2008, donated the $10,500 that I’ve handed out in random acts of kindness; I sometimes felt guilty getting credit for the sacrifices you made.
To those of you who’ve sent me questions for the 164 Q&A columns I wrote; together, we answered nearly 1,500 questions about this quirky and quacky place we all love — well, most of the time.
And to those whose ideas were often the underground spring from which many of my columns flowed; for example, I would never have known about Mike Hawley’s 125-foot fall from Mount Thielsen — and amazing rescue — had UO sociology professor Patricia Gwartney not notified me about the harrowing incident and the friends who helped him survive.
And, finally, thanks to you, dear readers; you’ve encouraged me when I’ve succeeded, taught me necessary lessons when I’ve failed and withstood more references to sports metaphors, s’mores, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and hot chocolate than UO’s new football complex has flat-screen TVs. (Whoops.)
Together, we convinced the federal government that it should name that prominent notch in the Coburg Hills Hayworth Saddle, came up with 300 names for rain and had a racist sign removed after a Brownsville man aimed it at his Hispanic neighbor. (Thanks to a reader who ripped it off the offender’s fence and personally brought it to me.)
My 86-year-old mother, the subject of a few columns herself, has told me we enjoy an experience three ways: by looking forward to it, experiencing it and looking back on it.
In that spirit, I’ll long cherish our racing together across the farmer’s field, staying one step ahead of the combine.
To e-mail Welch: email@example.com. Website: bobwelch.net. Follow him on Twitter @bob_welch.