bob maginnis - 12/30/01

January 02, 2002

One I can't change and three I'd like to

By Bob Maginnis

The end of the year always brings mixed feelings for me. On the plus side are the holiday celebrations and the opportunity to gather with cousins and others I haven't seen for a while because they've been busy with their own work and families.

But year's end is also a time of reckoning and balancing the books. As I look back on the work I've done and the things I've written each year, I'm amazed at the volume, but not always satisfied with the content.

And then there are the things that I meant to do, to write about, but never did. Sometimes things get lost in the crush of other business, like when somebody calls about something urgent, something they say won't get fixed or handled unless I write about it.

Many times it's someone who's got a serious disease and has to raise money - or fight the insurance company - to survive. I get angry whenever I write one of these stories. It's ludicrous that someone's survival in the richest country in the world depends on how many brownies people buy at their bake sale.


The other frustrating thing about writing these stories is that after they're done, I seldom hear whether my writing had any effect on the problem, positive or negative.

For example, I recently wrote a column about a retarded teenager with cerebral palsy and scoliosis, who was facing surgery that would make it impossible for his mother to bathe him in the family's tiny tub.

A new, larger bathroom and some special equipment were needed. So I wrote the story, but whether it helped or not, I couldn't tell you. Nobody's gotten back to me.

This is not unusual, nor do I imagine that people in desperate situations have nothing better to do than to call me. But I could name half a dozen causes I've written about in the last year and never heard a thing afterwards.

Sure, I could call them back, but that would sound like I'm fishing for a thank-you. I'm not, but I would like to know whether I'm effecting a change or just making myself feel good.

This yearning to know whether my writing helps the people I write about is something that came later in my career.

When I was a young reporter in the 1970s covering the Washington County Commissioners, members of the county board would often ask me what I thought about the issue under discussion.

My reply was always that reporters aren't supposed to have opinions. What I didn't tell them was that I often didn't care which way things turned out, as long as my stories were fair and accurate.

Caring about the outcome came later, after I married a local woman and decided that unlike many in the newspaper business, who move up journalism's job ladder by moving from place to place, I would stay here, raise a family and become part of the community.

There are three things about Washington County I would change if I could. The first is the prevalence of what one consultant hired by the City of Hagerstown called "the backward lament."

That's the tendency to see the past as better than the present and the future as a time when things will only get worse. It is a corrosive sort of nostalgia that kills the imagination that might improve what happens tomorrow.

The second is the reluctance to speak out against things that are ugly, unethical or just plain stupid because "I might have to work with those people someday."

It's a statement I've heard a thousand times. Because people fail to protest, we end up with development that's unattractive, compromises tailored for individuals instead of the community at large and the general feeling that for the favored few, the fix is in.

The last thing I would change is the all-too-common feeling that we have plenty of time to solve our problems. It's not true. Sometimes opportunity knocks, and we dither around so long before we answer the door that the prize goes to somebody else.

The University Systems of Maryland campus planned for downtown Hagerstown is one such possibility, except in this case the people knocking will be coming to snatch the prize - or the money involved - away from Washington County. I hope we're ready for them.

The one thing I wouldn't change about this area is the caring nature of most of its people. I talked to many after the Sept.11 attack and for most, their concern was not what might happen to them, but the safety of children, friends and relatives.

For 2002, the question will be whether the caring spirit we see when people respond to a personal tragedy like an illness or a house fire can be turned into action on items - like fire/rescue service funding, for example - that have been on the back burner far too long. I'll be watching. In the meantime I wish you and everyone in the region a Happy New Year.

Bob Maginnis is the editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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