I practiced the journalism of neutrality and objectivity for most of my reporting and editing career. I became aware that my humanity helped me identify with the people I interviewed and persuade them to tell me important and intimate stories. But the stories were always about someone else.
I learned when Mimi was a columnist (and wrote about our lives frequently, to the readers’ appreciation) and relearned as a blogger that journalists have our own stories to tell, and I believe we should tell them more often.
So here’s my buried lead: Tim McGuire, a longtime editor and now a journalism professor, tells a powerful personal story in his memoir, “Some People Even Take Them Home.” Tim edited a lot of big stories in his career (the Minneapolis Star Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1990, when he was managing editor). But I doubt that he did anything more important than sharing the story of his physical disability (which he denied for years), his son’s mental disability and their “journey for acceptance.”
I don’t know how much it says about Tim’s success in his lifelong quest to be “normal” and how much it says about my observance of propriety in terms of not commenting about people’s differences, but if you asked me to choose adjectives to describe Tim, I’d likely have chosen funny, thoughtful, candid, intelligent, ethical, helpful, irreverent, fierce, blunt and maybe a few more before I would have landed on disabled. I am pleased to note that all those other adjectives come through loud and clear in “Some People …” but only disabled made it into the subtitle: “A Disabled Dad, a Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey to Acceptance.”
All those other adjectives were crucial to the journey, but Tim is honest in acknowledging the extent to which his disability and the related journey have defined his life, including developing the fierceness, the sense of humor and some of those other traits I mentioned. Tim’s honest and compassionate in describing how his son Jason’s disability has shaped family life and fatherhood for him.
For most of his life, Tim steadfastly refused to check human resources forms that invited employees to disclose disabilities. But when you meet Tim, the disability is the first thing you notice. He was born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, or, as Tim simplifies in the book, “badly crippled limbs.” I think we first met when I led a Newspaper Next workshop at Arizona State University, where Tim teaches, in 2007. I certainly knew who he was and may have corresponded with him before that, but I remember being surprised at how short and misshapen he was, and then ashamed at myself for noticing. I hope I didn’t stare. Or look away too quickly.
But as you get to know him, all those other adjectives quickly crowd out disabled. You start noticing the smile instead of the limbs. The “crippled” boy who strove so hard to be normal really turns out to be extraordinary in ways that appear unrelated to the disability. (Tim is candid in the book about using the language of the times he and his son were born and discussing how language has changed.)
Tim and I got to know each other pretty well. We’ve seen each other lots of times since that first meeting, collaborating on an ethics seminar, crossing paths at conferences (once because he asked me to be a panelist) and meeting for drinks or office drop-bys when I’m in Phoenix.
Tim has been a reference when I was looking for work, a sounding board about moving from the newsroom to the classroom and a stern friend encouraging moderation when my voice became shrill. He’s been a guest blogger here twice, offering advice for new editors and journalism professors, and his statement of core beliefs about the news business prompted a similar statement from me. He’s also mentioned me several times in his blog, including a statement that made it into nearly every cover letter I send prospective employers: “I think Steve Buttry is to journalistic innovation what pre-steroid stars are to baseball —the real damn deal.”
Our paths even cross accidentally: We were equally stunned in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving weekend when a Mandalay Bay elevator opened and Mimi and I stepped onto an elevator and saw Tim there. Other than introducing his son Jeff and all of us commenting on the coincidence, we didn’t have time to talk much beyond stammering. The bride and groom who were also in the elevator seemed amused, and perhaps a bit surprised at being the only people not noticed by the others.
Our friendship included our wives. Mimi used to work at the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and Tim, as a former president, was a regular at conferences. Tim had kind words about Mimi’s novel and said Jean loved the wit Mimi showed on Twitter.
I never met Jean, but felt as though I knew her. Tim and I discussed her ups and downs with cancer and MDS on various visits to Phoenix, including one in May about a month before her death, and we discussed his stages of grief when I visited last month. I feel as though I’ve gotten to know her through Tim’s blog about life, disability and grief and I got to know her even better in reading Tim’s memoir. Tim and Jason each get four chapters and Jean only gets one. But she’s like a supporting actor who sometimes steals the scenes in Tim’s and Jason’s chapters.
But even the people that you know pretty well don’t tell you all their stories. Our children haven’t come up much in our conversations, that I recall. I knew Tim had a Down Syndrome son, but didn’t know much more, even after Tim told me he was working on the memoir. And I knew Jeff worked at ESPN. I think I knew Tim had a daughter in the Twin Cities, but if I knew she was a special education teacher, I had forgotten. I’m pretty sure he knew about my son in the Twin Cities, but that was probably just because of his own Twin Cities connection or because he has seen photos of our Minnesota granddaughters on social media. But I doubt he knew about our son in Vegas until we mentioned it in the elevator. And I might not have mentioned our son in DC.
I’m sure Tim has much closer friends who know more about his relationship with Jason and about his own disability. Many journalists have personal stories that can touch people’s lives. But too often we keep those stories to ourselves. We may give a glimpse to friends, but only a few of them get the full story (usually in lots of installments over lots of lunches and drinks).
We should tell those stories beyond just our circles of friends. We have special storytelling skills and we should turn those skills loose on the stories of our hearts. I have been honored and touched by the response to last week’s post about my earlier and current experience with cancer. And I know Tim’s story will provide laughs and encouragement to many individuals and families dealing with physical or mental impairments. I think people without such challenges in their lives will enjoy the book, too.
I’m glad Tim wrote this memoir. I hope more journalists will be bold enough and candid enough to share the stories of their own humanity.
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