“I feel like a farmer watching his corn grow. This is great!”
It was another Wednesday morning at The Stowe Reporter, the weekly newspaper in Stowe, VT, that gave me my first full-time job as a reporter. We were up against our deadline, and I was in my office, pounding out the last article I had due. In the other two offices, my colleagues were at their keyboards, finishing up their pieces and working through suggested revisions.
The wannabe farmer was our editor, Pete Hartt. His corn comment was yet another of his double-edged witticisms that spoke to both the beauty of writing and our general lack of adherence to his desire for early submission.
A farmer watching his corn grow …
There’s a lot of satisfaction in watching your crop come to life. Tiny little shoots of life appear in the empty field in mid- to late-June. Knee-high by the Fourth of July, if Mother Nature is cooperating. Stalks over your head by early August. And ready to chop in mid-September.
Pete took a lot of satisfaction in seeing the paper come together each week, and he genuinely loved the sound of fingers at work on the computer keyboard. Every new issue of The Stowe Reporter was another season of planting, growing, and harvesting.
On the other hand, literally watching corn grow is an act of sheer madness. It can’t be done. Or it shouldn’t be, at any rate. Your time would literally be better spent watching paint dry. It’d be less time consuming.
And in our case, we were running late. Those stories shoulda been done ages ago. Waiting for them was, for Pete, like watching corn grow. Anyone else would’ve just said, “Get your asses in gear and get the damn stories done.”
Not Pete, though.
Four hours or so earlier, I’d been downstairs talking with Pete in the production room after getting to the office. I was there in time for one of his favorite rituals. He put on “Walking On Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves and cranked it. He loved that song. It made him happy. And in so doing, he made me love that song.
Then it was upstairs to work on those articles. The day had begun. Pete declared it so with Katrina.
Pete wasn’t all business all the time, though.
There was one early-spring Thursday in 2002 that I’ll never forget.
I had a three-year old son and a two-month old daughter at the time, and I was scared. I felt like I was in way over my head and doomed to failure. I’d recently been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and I equated that with an inability to be a good parent. I was doing a decent job hiding my worry, but Pete was the sort of guy who saw through facades fairly easily.
“Come on,” he said, appearing in my office doorway after our weekly editorial meeting to plan out the next week’s paper. “We’re going for a ride.”
“Does it matter?” he said. “Somewhere not here.”
I didn’t argue.
We rode and talked until we got to Moss Glen Falls, a part of Stowe that is breathtaking, even during mud season. Pete pulled the car over.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he said.
I checked the back seat for a crowbar and shovel. Seeing none, I agreed.
Over the next hour or so, Pete and I talked in a way I’d never talked with anyone before. He helped me process what I was going through, called me on my bullshit, and helped me confront the reality of my situation.
Then he turned to me and said the most wonderful thing.
“You’re doin’ great, buddy.”
I wish you could hear that spoken in Pete’s voice. It was comforting, supportive, and genuine. When he made the crack about watching corn grow, the dual nature of his words was clear. As clear as the singular meaning of his words to me that April day. Those words kept me writing, and when the time came, they propelled me on to becoming a newspaper editor myself.
Pete passed away on March 2, 2009.
I was heartbroken, along with everyone else he’d spent any amount of time with. He was that kind of guy. The best kind of guy.
Last year I was going through some tough stuff. I had a lot of doubts about my abilities as a parent, a husband, and a writer. I went to bed one night, and I had a dream. I was standing in a school gymnasium – Pete did a lot of coaching – and Pete was there. He looked at me and said the most wonderful thing. Again.
“You’re doin’ a great job, buddy.”
The next day, I had one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I went with my client at the time to a presentation at a local high school. It was in the gymnasium, which I noted as a nice coincidence. As I sat on the bleachers, out of the corner of the my eye, I swore I saw Pete. I knew it couldn’t be, but I turned to look anyway. Of course, it wasn’t him, but it was a guy who was close to a spitting image.
I’m not saying this was anything other than what it was: a dream, a coincidence, and a trick of the eye. But sometimes I wonder. Either way, Pete did it again. He kept me going.
Without even being here, he’s doing what every good editor should do. He’s keeping his writer writing.
Wherever Pete is now, I hope he’s watching the corn grow.