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Ford: Out the door, with lights left on

December 8, 2012 

An occasional correspondent with whom it turns out I have some things in common, such as experience with East Coast train travel and familiarity with various sites in Connecticut, was thoughtful enough to issue a recent warning as to what I’m getting into.

“Retirement is not for sissies,” wrote Bill LaPorte, who is himself retired from the insurance industry and now, as he said, is nearing 80. “It involves a good many factors that most do not consider. I pray you have been at this awhile and have a good grasp of your decision.”

Points well taken, Bill. I haven’t ducked the fact that leaving the newspaper where I spent most of my career will likely be as disorienting, at least for a while, as liberating.

The sense one gets in the news business of being patched into the community’s nervous system is in its way addictive.

And on the opinion side of the operation that has been my focus, we’ve helped readers discuss and debate while also sharing our own views on the newspaper’s behalf. It has been a great way to make a living, and it’s hard to say goodbye.

The calendar, though, is merciless in its advance. Early this year I concluded that once the drama of the November election was past, that would be a good point at which to bow to reality. So here I am, at 66 and in good shape, taking the plunge.

When Bob Brooks, The N&O’s iconic managing editor, back in 1981 offered me a job as an editor in his newsroom, he said he hoped I’d stay for a long time. My response was something to the effect of “Sounds good to me.” My switch to editorial writing in 1986 is what set the hook.

It was a fascinating line of work, and a promotion to head the editorial department, in 1989, magnified the responsibility and the challenge. Meanwhile, Wake County was proving a fine place for my wife, Jeanne, and me to raise our three sons.

Our editorials have covered a lot of ground. In particular, we’ve stayed true to The N&O’s franchise as watchdogs over the affairs of North Carolina’s government, state and local.

We’ve advocated for schools that give every student an equal, and ample, chance to learn, and we’ve called for a well-supported, affordable university system that has its priorities in order.

We’ve spoken up relentlessly against the corrosive effects of special-interest money and influence when laws are being written and policies are being set. We’ve called for stringent environmental protections and for fairness in the courts when it has seemed in short supply. When officeholders of either party have stumbled ethically, we’ve called them out. We’ve celebrated our exemplary civic leaders and our communities’ successes.

It could be said that we’ve tried to hold a mirror in which all of us can see ourselves. There are things to be seen in that mirror that should warm our hearts, encourage us that people of good will are making headway against deep-seated problems. And there are things that should appall us as they reveal our own self-centeredness and failure to treat others as we’d like to be treated.

I envisioned this weekly column, which I assigned myself in 1992, as a complement to our editorials. I wanted to let our readers see some of the thinking that lay behind our editorial positions and to use the discipline of writing to develop and test my own views. When I had a chance, I liked to give the column an investigative edge – for instance, helping connect the dots when some of our politicians broke bad.

Beyond those meat-and-potatoes kinds of topics, I liked to carve off little slices of interesting history, or bring a fresh set of eyes to places in our orbit that are part of the North Carolina experience, such as the little towns and countryside linked by U.S. 258.

I spotlighted the Cedar Creek Gallery near Creedmoor and tried to convey the magic of a Raleigh recital by pianist Alfred Brendel. My old Washington Senators heroes were given their due, as were each of my four friends killed in Vietnam. I had the privilege of telling the life stories of my late parents, who adopted me at 10 months and raised me in a then-rural corner of Fairfax County, Va., and of my late in-laws.

The column occupied the same spot on the Sunday editorial page where for many years The N&O’s editor, Claude Sitton, had his say. Sitton named me to my current job, and I was honored to serve with that great American newsman until his retirement two years later.

Frank Daniels Jr., The N&O’s publisher at the time, decided to keep me on, and that became another honor, to work for Frank and his two successors, Fred Crisp and Orage Quarles III.

To the extent I’ve succeeded here, huge credit goes to my valued colleagues, especially in recent years Jim Jenkins, Allen Torrey and Burgetta Wheeler. Cartoonist Dwane Powell’s skill and wit were a source of delight.

Allen, whose retirement coincides with mine, edited our op-ed pages, wrote perceptive editorials and helped ensure the quality of our opinion section in more ways than I can count.

I’ll miss my friends and miss this connection with The N&O’s readers. Thanks to all who have offered their good wishes – and their warnings. And don’t worry: As a conscientious Southerner, I’ll take care not to let the screen door hit me in the butt on the way out!

Editorial page editor Steve Ford will be reachable at sbford12@gmail.com.

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