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Thirty years and counting...

May 07, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

It was May 18, 1973, the kind of day that gives spring its good name - the sun shining in a cornflower blue sky, a few puffy clouds and just enough of a breeze to keep me from sweating in my cap and gown. As my fellow University of Maryland graduates took off for home or the beach, I packed for Hagerstown, where I'd been hired before I even graduated.

I was lucky. That was the time of the first oil embargo and employers weren't sure what would happen next. The only newspaper jobs open in Maryland were as a reporter on a "shopper" in Ocean City and a post covering county government in Hagerstown.

I'd interned in Hagerstown in the summer of 1972, so they knew my work, since I'd covered some of the Hurricane Agnes stories. Since then I've held six different jobs at the paper, the present one since 1985.

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I owe much of the early goodwill I received to a man I've never met. Dan Maginnis, they tell me, was a test pilot at Fairchild. He was a nice guy, too, judging from the way people smiled when they asked me if I was "Dan's boy." Thanks, Dan, wherever you are.

I ran into one of Dan's kids in the pediatrician's office a few years ago and she said people now ask if she's related to the newspaper guy. I hope they ask that with a smile.

What have I learned in 30 years? A few things, including:

  • Some of the best elected officials I've known were people like Lem Kirk, Pat Paddack, Keller Nigh and John Schnebly, who were successful in business first. Not only did they know how to read budgets and conserve cash by "buying smart," but they also knew that the essence of getting the deal done is compromise. That and sharing the credit when it's time to celebrate.

    - I yearn for elected officials with the vision to plan for the next 20 years, but visionaries aren't popular with Washington County voters. That's because planning for the future requires somebody to make some sacrifices now.

    And so the area keeps electing people with familiar names who look at investments for tomorrow as wasteful spending in the here and now.

  • I've done a ton of stories and columns about people with terrible health problems who need money for everything from hearing aids to hospital beds to bone-marrow transplants.

    I'm glad when we can help, but I still get angry when I see a notice for a bake sale or a dance to raise cash for someone's life-saving treatment. Why, in the richest country in the world, should the medical care anyone gets depend on how many cupcakes their friends can sell?

  • The most interesting - and aggravating - elected official I've covered was the late Hagerstown Mayor Donald R. Frush. He had a vision for the city that included providing tax credits for new construction and renovation, creation of a separate city economic-development effort, building a northeast bypass of Hagerstown and starting a downtown merchants' promotional agency.

    Unfortunately, he ran himself ragged during his re-election campaign and landed in the psychiatric unit of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Why do I describe him as aggravating? Because he could turn short discussions into marathon sessions in which those who disagreed with him sometimes felt their choice was between going along with him or going on until dawn.

  • The recent plan by the Greater Hagerstown Committee to jump start downtown Hagerstown's redevelopment by turning a block at a time into market-rate housing may signal a new willingness by the business community to act when government seems incapable of doing so.

    It that too harsh? In my 30 years here, I've seen a variety of approaches and even advocated what Greater Hagerstown now plans - the creation of housing for people with the disposable income to attract retailers to downtown.

    The answer to why it's taken so long for city officials to see that is less important than what I hope is Greater Hagerstown's willingness to keep them on track.

  • The specter of "being like Frederick County" has been invoked for years by those who want Washington County to keep its rural character, but no one in local government, to my knowledge, has seriously researched how to make farming more profitable. This may be the generation that sees farming cease to be a major industry here.

  • Nobody in the newspaper business survives without a great deal of help from co-workers who catch our mistakes, console us when we've fouled up and remind us that we are not here just to record elected officials' statements, but to provide, as Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame said, the best available version of the truth.

    That version is sometimes not revealed until the last phone call is made or until someone puts themselves or their job at risk to pass along some bit of information about something that shouldn't be happening. I thank those folks and everyone I have worked with for their help for so many years.

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