Sheehan

Goodbye, from Ruth

Staff WriterAugust 18, 2010 

Back when I was in college, a guy I was dating wanted to know why I didn't write more often for the campus paper.

The answer was simple: I needed a job that paid real money. Besides, I told him, I'll be working in newspapers for the rest of my life.

I genuinely thought I would.

But over the last few years, changes in the industry have made it plain that, for me at least, being a reporter and columnist won't carry me to that great Social Security check in the sky.

It's not that I'm down on the industry. Not at all. There will always be stories that need to be told, bad guys who need to be exposed. In a world of blogosphere blather and talking heads, solid reporting and column writing are needed now more than ever.

Journalism is changing, but it isn't dead.

That said, after almost 19 years at The News & Observer, I am embarking on a new adventure: attending law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For a gal who decided she wanted to be a reporter in the third grade, it is a huge leap. A terrifying one for someone who hasn't cracked a book in more than 20 years.

People ask what sort of law I plan to practice, and my answer is, honestly, I don't know.

I suspect I'll be drawn to, and by, the same social justice issues that have frequently appeared in my columns. I'd love to be involved in expanding the mental health courts across the state, for instance. I'm also told that folks who think they know what sort of law they will pursue are usually wrong.

What I know for now is that, as excited as I am about the adventure ahead, leaving the paper will leave a hole in my heart.

The N&O has been the backdrop for every significant event of my adult life. I started here as a guileless young woman with big dreams and not a cent in the bank. Since then, I've married and had three sons, who all have been more patient with being written about in the newspaper than I could have ever asked.

(Men: Imagine for a moment your wife launching a public campaign for you to have a vasectomy. "Snip snip, singe singe." Enough said.)

I have worked with some of the smartest, funniest, most irreverent people anywhere, all engaged in a shared mission to make the world around us a better place. Or at least better informed. That has been a privilege and a delight. My husband tells me there are some people who don't look forward to going to work every day. I can't imagine it.

Eleven years ago, when I began writing columns, I started out seeking a conversation with readers - and what a conversation it has been.

You have given me some of my best ideas. Like my family, you have been more than kind - and I don't make you dinner every day.

I have made mistakes. There are some columns I would write differently today. There are some I would reel back in.

Shaking things up

Sometimes writing the column has been like hollering down a well.

But every once in a while, remarkably, it has made a difference.

The work has changed laws and regulations, gotten people released from prison or jail, gotten bad actors into deep trouble.

Sometimes the column got people talking, like one 11 years ago about teenage girls who raised money for a fun trip to Cancun by scrubbing cars in bikinis. It began: "I used to wonder where the dancers at Thee Dollhouse got their start ... Now I know." That one caused a firestorm.

Sometimes the column brought help for people in need: Money, a minivan and more for a family with a desperately ill baby boy in Zebulon; dozens of offers of tutoring for a 21-year-old man in Garner who graduated high school with the ability to read only "real small words."

Sometimes the column simply raised awareness.

The work I'm proudest of was my series tracking the release of Phil Wiggins after four decades in a state psychiatric hospital, thanks to mental health "reforms."

The ringtone remains

Sometimes this job has been just plain fun.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column for Life, etc. about a woman with Alzheimer's disease whose daughter tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange for her mom to meet singer Michael Bublé at his concert July 9; Bublé's crooning seems the only thing that tethers her mother to reality. After the column ran, I returned from some time off and began to go through my voicemail. Message No. 2 was from Bublé. He had read the column and wanted to do something to help.

I, of course, now have my law school ringtone: "Hi Ruth, it's Michael Bublé ..."

"Michael Bublé won't be calling when you're a first-year law student!" one of my colleagues quipped.

True enough.

But he might need a good lawyer some day.

Meanwhile, to all of you who called or wrote over the years to give me a tip, to urge me on or to tell me I'm full of baloney, thanks for keeping me honest.

To all who simply read, I am simply grateful.

To my colleagues: Write on. I'll be reading.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828