Shortly before I graduated from the University of Alabama, my Dad told me I needed to find a real job, because I technically didn’t have one. So for two weeks in May 1997, I drove my Mom’s blue Cadillac around the Southeast, popping in and out of small towns wearing the same dark suit, hoping to land a job at any sort of newspaper.
In Milledgeville, Ga., I interviewed with an angry lady who spent her time away from the Land of Oz moonlighting as editor of the local newspaper. She cursed more, and talked louder, than a drill sergeant. She boasted of the town’s two state prisons, and I’m not so convinced she didn’t end up in one of those lock-ups soon after I declined her job offer.
In Alexander City, Ala., I interviewed with a wonderful lady who worked for a company that owned almost 40 community newspapers. She wanted to hire me, but she thought I’d fit better in a larger paper the company owned in Natchez, Miss. My mother got a call later that night that I needed to get home because the company was sending a plane to pick me up for an interview. Talk about making an impression on a college graduate. They were really sending a plane?
Before I hopped on that flight, I had one last interview in Eufaula, Ala., where the Chattahoochee River opens to 640 miles of shoreline around Lake Eufaula.
The owners of the newspaper, Joel and Ann Smith, took me to lunch with their son, Jack. We walked across the street from the office to the Holiday Inn. Two decades later, I still remember the table where we sat and the perfect green beans I ate.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith talked with a Southern charm we all adore. I don’t remember a word they said, but they loved their little city, and they loved their little newspaper even more. Jack, their son who was just five years my senior, had come home with a master’s degree to run the family paper, bringing a lovely wife to live in a perfect house.
I had a hard time saying no when I left that interview, so I didn’t. Even though another newspaper was sending a private plane for me the next day (and there was no way I would ever turn down a job from them), I told Joel, Ann and Jack that I needed a few days to think about the offer.
The flight to Natchez had the impact you’d expect on a 22-year-old. The meal that evening with the publisher and editor was perfect, fresh seafood. The flight back home the same night, to sleep in my own bed, all but sealed the deal.
Except it didn’t. I woke up the next morning, declined the Natchez offer, and told the Smiths I wanted to work for them. I knew Mr. and Mrs. Smith would be like second parents to me. They’d teach me everything they knew, and they’d take care of me when I wasn’t chasing stories around the city.
But the real deal closer for me was Jack, a pleasant, if not jumpy, young man who loved the business his parents built and appreciated that I was a young guy who knew how to write a story.
Jack was more than that, though. He and I slipped out of the office every once in a while to play 18 holes before the sun disappeared. He and his wife invited me to their home every weekend. They took me on their boat, introduced me to their friends, and even tried to find a suitable lady if ever one moved to town.
They became siblings to me, even though Jack was a wonderful editor who taught me nearly everything I could learn about this craft of newspapering.
I stayed in Eufaula for one year, when a better job came along. When I gave Jack the news, he treated me like a brother, excited for me while hiding the disappointment of losing a decent writer (he told me that later).
In the years that passed, Jack and I stayed in touch – through social media or a text or an email. Then, a few years ago, I learned Jack went through a tough time in his life. His family sold the newspaper (which was a great deal for them), but demons of depression attacked Jack from every direction. He told me about a lot of them in one conversation a couple of years ago, about how he lost his marriage, and he tried to take his life.
There are people in my family who have dealt with the same mental health issues, and as I’ve learned more about the disease, Jack’s story of triumph over his chemical imbalances was one I shared with someone very close to me.
About three months ago, I reached out to Jack to ask if he would mind having coffee or lunch with the person in my life who might benefit from his story. No kidding: The very next day, Jack was at a restaurant talking my loved one through the process of beating this disease.
Jack had faced his demons, found the right medication and, in the process, had remarried a wonderful lady, started a new business and had developed an incredible relationship with his children.
Last week, Jack took his own life.
No, we weren’t as close as we were in 1998 when he was my surrogate brother, but when we talked a few months ago, it’s like we had worked together last year.
I don’t know if there’s still a stigma in this country about mental health and the real disease it is, but Jack’s battle must not be wasted on those of us who knew him.
If you have people close to you who struggle with mental health issues, be a friend, offer support and stay in touch with them. Most times, they’ll be the first to offer themselves to you, while maybe we should offer more of ourselves to them.