When I was in the eighth grade, I sewed myself a cape.
Mrs. Bartels had commanded the fine young pupils in her Red Cloud Junior High home economics class to make a sweatshirt, and we scholars dutifully picked our patterns and headed to the sewing machines. I quickly flubbed up my Chicago Bears sweatshirt.
So I decided to freelance. I put my hand in the fabric scrap pile and pulled out a red square. I sewed it to a piece of leftover blue rectangle. I sewed that to a green trapezoid, a yellow triangle, a pink circle.
Soon I proudly wore my new rainbow cape around the classroom, flapping it behind me, marveling at my own brilliance.
Mrs. Bartels was significantly less impressed.
I mention the cape because this cape is what I picture when I think of my career here as a columnist. For almost six years, I have sought out the journalistic equivalent of blue rectangles and green trapezoids. I have tried to tell the stories that weren’t otherwise getting told. Scrap by scrap, I tried to piece together something that I hoped told a bigger story about this city and state we love.
I bring up the cape because I need to tell you that my sewing job is nearly complete at this newspaper. After 13 years here as a reporter and columnist, my last week is next week. I have taken a new job as a managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.
This has zip to do with a recent heart attack I suffered. Yes, you read that right: On July 1, I had a very mild heart attack, maybe caused by a rogue blood clot that snuck in through a tiny hole in my heart. (I had none of the normal signs of a heart attack, like high blood pressure or clogged arteries.) A week later, I’m doing remarkably well, walking every morning and actually working on a column about the episode that you will read soon.
I am very excited for the new gig at the Buffett Institute and will explain why in a few moments. But I’m also sad to say goodbye here, and I want to tell you why right now.
I’m gonna miss the stories. I love stories. I love hearing them, love telling them and considered it a gift every time one fell from Story Heaven and thudded onto my desk. Occasionally, these stories were fun but fleeting, like the one about the 85-year-old outlaw who nearly went to federal prison because he wouldn’t stop growing ... bandit asparagus on federal land.
I loved that story.
But every so often, when I got really lucky, a story mattered long after I wrote it.
In March 2014, an amateur historian named Eric Krelle emailed me to say he had discovered something shocking about one of the most famous photos in American history, the image of six men raising the flag over Iwo Jima. He wanted to show me his research. I agreed, almost canceled, and then reluctantly went to meet him.
Two years later, thanks to Eric’s persistence and my columns, the U.S. Marine Corps officially changed the history of that photo, removing the most famed flag raiser, John Bradley, and inserting a previously completely unknown Marine named Harold Schultz, who seven decades late got the honor he so deserved. The switch is now the focus of a documentary, and I’m still receiving emails from people stumbling onto my original Iwo Jima column for the first time.
That story mattered. It never would have happened without Eric.
In 2016, several employees of Goodwill Omaha came forward to tell reporter Henry Cordes and me about a stunning number of problems festering at the well-known nonprofit.
Those original tips, and months of reporting, led to the ouster of Goodwill Omaha’s entire leadership structure, a turnover of its board, an investigation by the Nebraska attorney general and, I think, a greater recognition in Omaha that running a nonprofit like a good ol’ boy’s network circa 1979 isn’t acceptable today.
That story mattered. It never would have happened without rank-and-file employees who stood up and spoke out.
A caller once left a voicemail suggesting that I look into Seneca, Nebraska, a small town that was in the process of voting itself out of existence.
The resulting column — really, a column about a community and maybe a country tearing itself apart — became one of my best-read columns and the subject of an hourlong “Radiolab” episode on National Public Radio.
A bartender once suggested that I write about a crazy viral photo appearing to show a series of manhole explosions in downtown Omaha. I did — it became a column about the nature of reality in the Internet era — and a few days later my office phone rang, and it was David Carr, a journalism hero of mine, wanting to interview me for his column in the New York Times.
And a mother once sent a desperate email. Her insurance company was throwing up roadblock after roadblock in her quest to get her daughter, Ellie, new teeth. Ellie had been born with enamel hypoplasia, a fancy way of saying she had no enamel on her teeth. Her teeth were chalky, brown, easily broken. But insurance wouldn’t pay to replace them.
I wrote a column. Dozens of people called this newspaper, bemoaning health insurance in America and demanding to donate to get Ellie pearly whites. And then a local dentist called and simply offered to do the procedure himself, free of charge.
That story matters each and every time Ellie Kolesik smiles. It mattered because you decided that it did.
I never would have left this job unless I thought that I could do something else that mattered. I’m going to work for the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska in August, helping to start and run a new online publication devoted to early childhood education and the institute’s cutting-edge work in that field.
The importance of early childhood education has been drilled into my brain since I myself was a preschooler — before her retirement, my mom, Sally Hansen, was a longtime early childhood educator and administrator.
I believe that if there’s one way to make the future of this city, this state, this country better than its present, that one way is greater investment in our youngest minds. And if I can use my storytelling skills to make people see that early childhood education is essential, then yes, I think my new job will matter very much.
That doesn’t make saying goodbye easy, and one reason it’s so hard is you.
The connection between a newspaper columnist and a newspaper’s readers is something I did not fully appreciate until I became that columnist. You called me on the phone with ideas almost every day. You stopped me on the street, in restaurants and coffee shops, to ask: “Hey, have you ever thought about a column on ... ?”
You emailed to praise me, to harangue me, to poke and prod at a column’s conclusions, to ask me questions, to give me answers, to say thank you.
“You are the best thing to happen to Omaha since Orsi’s pizza,” says one email I saved.
“You give new meaning to the term ‘slimy, dirt bag a**hole reporter,’ ” begins a handwritten letter I have tacked to my cubicle wall.
Thank you for all of that. Even the mean stuff.
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You motivated me to keep finding new stories. You reminded me over and over that life here is endlessly fascinating, and all a columnist really needs to do is dip his or her hand into the scrap pile and pull out something suitably revealing.
I’m going to miss writing about this city’s characters, like one of my very first columns focused on the man who long ago got scalped, lived and then donated his own scalp to the Omaha Public Library. I’m going to miss pointing out the city’s and state’s struggles, like Omaha’s lack of transportation foresight or the state’s overreliance on property taxes.
And I’m going to miss sharing it all with you, two or so times a week, this makeshift patchwork of hundreds of happy columns and sad columns and triumphant columns that together made one helluva weird journalistic cape.
I’m proud of that cape. No word on what Mrs. Bartels thinks of it. But, since you all had so much to do with it, I hope you are proud of it, too.