Saturday, December 3, 2011

For Mike, from the intern: July 24, 2005

There's very little about my life now that I can't trace back to the day I wandered into a media writing class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Through that class, I learned to love journalism -- which became my career. Because of that class, I went to work at the university newspaper -- where I met both my best friend and the man who would eventually introduce me to my husband. 

That class also helped me score an amazing summer internship that became the foundation of my work life and brought me friendships that made my world a better place.

When it’s too late for ‘thank you,’ just pay it forward
    Ten years ago I walked into the newsroom of The Chattanooga Times, a nervous 23-year-old summer intern hoping to make a career in newspapers.

    That summer I covered everything from broken water mains to Red Bank City Council meetings. I figured out how to read a map while driving and learned to interpret criminal court records.

    I also spent a lot of time trailing after a couple of irreverent, talented reporters named Brian Hicks and Mike Davis. Mike was a business writer; Brian covered government. They were best friends and took the time to teach me the art of both the two-hour lunch break and the well-turned phrase.

    Mike put me to work writing the occasional small business feature and once asked me to contact all the banks in town to find out what fees they charged for checking. I found a phone book, made the calls immediately, then reported to him that I was finished.

    He beamed. "You’re a machine!" he crowed. "Let’s go get some Thai food."

    When Mike wrote the story that accompanied the list I’d compiled, he put my name in the byline. In fact, he put my name first in the byline, a spot generally reserved for the reporter who does the bulk of the writing on a piece. I tried to thank him, but he shrugged it off — it was no big deal, he said.     

    But it was.

    After my summer at The Times, I took a job as a reporter at the newspaper in Dalton, Ga. My bosses told me I’d be covering the Georgia Legislature. I was absolutely terrified. I called Brian to tell him about my new job — and my scary assignment. He picked me up, drove me to Atlanta and spent a day showing me the ropes of writing about life under the Gold Dome.

    "You’ll be fine," he said.

    And I was.

    Two years later I returned to The Chattanooga Times as a reporter. Mike had moved away, and Brian was gearing up to leave, too. I kept in touch with Brian, read the books he published, visited him a few times. He kept me up to date on Mike’s latest news — law school (briefly), the Nashville paper, then a newspaper in Virginia.

    We all got older, we all moved on. But in my mind, Mike and Brian were frozen in that summer in 1995 — they were always best friends and gifted writers with a soft spot for nervous interns.

    My phone rang the afternoon of July 6. "Mary, it’s Brian. Mike Davis died."

    He was 39. He had cancer but didn’t know. He was diagnosed and then dead in a week.

    I had already been thinking about them a lot lately, Mike and Brian, thinking about that summer 10 years ago, about how lucky I was to stumble into that internship in that place at that time with those guys.

    After that summer there was no doubt in my mind that I would work in newspapers. The only thing I didn’t know was whether I’d be any good at it.

    But, like Mike said, no big deal.

    Like Brian said, you’ll be fine.

    At Mike’s funeral in Atlanta, I listened to Brian speak with humor and grief about his best friend. I hurt for Brian, for Mike’s family, for everyone who will miss him and wish they’d had just a little more time.

    I also wondered briefly if I should have tried harder to thank Mike for all his help that long-ago summer. I decided, though, that Mike knew I was grateful. Brian knows, too. And I think they probably enjoyed helping me turn into a reporter.

    Actually, I know they did.

    Because last week a nervous intern walked over to my desk with a fistful of criminal court records.

    "I don’t understand these," she said. "And I haven’t finished my story yet, and I just found out it’s going to be on the front page tomorrow."

    I smiled and thought of Mike and Brian.

    "No big deal," I said. "You’ll be fine. Have a seat."

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