Mike Dunbar

We’ll never run out of stories, just out of time to tell them

Mike Dunbar, Editor of the Editorial Pages
Mike Dunbar, Editor of the Editorial Pages jlee@modbee.com

When I started this joyride in 1975, there was a building on fire. It was a big, commercial building and the volunteers in a small town near Louisville, Ky., had climbed up ladders to the roof so they could aim their hoses down into the flames.

No one said I couldn’t, so I climbed the ladder. Soon enough, a firefighter was by my side. Before he could order (or throw) me off the roof, he noticed me moving from one foot to the other. “My feet are getting hot,” I explained.

“Off the roof! Now!” he yelled – not to me, to everyone. The roof soon collapsed.

Three years later, in a tiny town in Indiana, another commercial building was burning. This time, it was 20 below zero, and I was standing well back as water flowed down the street and around my rubber boots. I tried to move, but couldn’t – my boots were frozen to the street.

Two tales from a newspaperman’s career. Talk to any journalist, you’ll get a dozen just like them. Probably better.

My days at The Modesto Bee are coming to a close. I’m leaving the best job I ever had, writing editorials and columns. I’ll miss the deadlines, the irate editors, the dark places and bright lights and remarkable people – all irresistible aspects of the job for those of us driven to report the news.

There was drudgery, too – job reviews, heartaches, headaches, timecards and even some embarrassment (happens when you misspell a name). Such things are, thankfully, set aside in the constant amazement, excitement, joy and exhilaration of working in a newsroom among so many smart, funny, caustic, honorable, irritating and inspiring people.

A conversation with any one of them can range from profound to profane to purely hilarious in a matter of a few moments.

When you’re editing the editorial page – writing editorials and columns, choosing op-eds and editorial cartoons – there are different sorts of conversations. Readers call when they’re angry, and what makes them angriest are the cartoons. How dare we treat President (fill in blank) with such disrespect!

Others write letters. We’ve gotten them from governors, senators, Congressmen, mayors and many other elected officials. They’ve come from little kids, teachers, priests, farmers, factory workers and people who spend too much time in front of their TVs. Often furious, always opinionated, sometimes wrong and sometimes right, the letters are occasionally funny – especially in the ways they tell you to, well, go somewhere warmer.

After an editorial demanding protection from roaming pit bulls, there were letters and emails – more than 500 of them – offering to alter my face, detach my limbs and then feed me to the most wonderful, docile, loyal, loving canine breed in the world.

After an editorial excoriating a certain president, someone left a phone message threatening to run me and my family off McHenry Avenue in his pickup. Our phones run through the internet, so it wasn’t hard to figure out the caller’s ID (his threat was hot air).

Serial killer Cary Stayner once wrote a letter to the editor, thanking us for our even-handed coverage of his brutal crimes; even drew a little cartoon face on the corner of the page. I could barely stand to touch the paper.

A few years earlier, Mark Vasché had assigned his editors to read portions of Stayner’s confession to determine if we should print it. The portion I read contained Stayner’s description of two killings. The worst kind of evil isn’t so much cruel as it is indifferent to its own depravity. We didn’t print it, but I can’t forget.

I owe too much to too many people to thank each one. But I will thank the editor who gave me my first job, then schooled me on reporting while thickening my skin. To the editor who quit his job rather than fire me. To the 6-foot-3 photographer who stood next to me, quietly staring down someone intent on doing me harm. To the boss who first assigned me to write about water. To the two newspapermen who became godfathers to my kids. To the publishers, editors, reporters, photographers and artists who bring determination, integrity, creativity and guts to their jobs.

And to the newsroom survivors who remain heroic in their dedication to bringing you the news – my admiration and gratitude.

Especially to a mother who loved telling stories and loved listening to mine, and a father who worked hard and lived by his word.

My deepest gratitude is for those who have explained then explained again what I so frequently did not understand. Without their patience, knowledge and dedication, there would be no stories. Thanks, especially, for your courage. When people are no longer willing to stand in the face of power and speak their truth, the stories will die. Freedom will follow shortly thereafter. These are the real heroes; journalists just tell their stories.

So one last story: This one involves a firefighter’s daughter, the one I met when she walked through the Stockton Record newsroom some 36 years ago. Try as he might, the firefighter couldn’t extinguish that flame. But that’s another story.

Mike Dunbar retired as editorial page editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star.