A Hall of Fame Speech that Inspires Hope
I am always looking for signs of hope in the world. Sometimes I don’t have to look very far; they just fall into my lap. Here’s one: The acceptance speech of a former student of mine who was recently inducted into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame. His name is John Drescher and he graduated from Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh in 1978.
First, a few words about John. I taught John religion and English in his senior year. Gibbons was small back then. Total enrollment: 217. (Now Gibbons has an enrollment of 1570!) One of my goals my second year there was to re-start the student newspaper. I had an understanding principal, Sister Colette (now Joanne), who allowed me to create and teach a one-semester journalism course. I had about 8 students—one of them was John. He became the first editor of the revived newspaper while simultaneously doing much of the photography for the school yearbook and playing on the soccer and baseball teams. After graduating and enrolling at UNC-Chapel Hill, John became editor of the The Daily Tar Heel. Later, while doing graduate work at Duke University, he served on the board overseeing The Chronicle. After that, his journalism career really took off. He served as a reporter for Raleigh’s News & Observer as well as The Charlotte Observer. John eventually became editor of the N&O that investigated critical issues such as nonprofit hospitals, dangerous working conditions in chicken processing plants, and corruption in government.
John’s talents did not go unnoticed. He eventually received a call from The Washington Post and was hired to join their national politics investigation team, editing several exclusive stories about President Donald Trump. Recently he retired from The Post and now writes for and edits The Assembly, a new digital magazine for North Carolina. John and his wife Deanna have three adult daughters.
Here’s John’s acceptance speech:
I’m honored to enter this Hall of Fame with such a distinguished class. It’s prompted me to think of all the great colleagues I’ve had over the years in Raleigh, Charlotte, Washington, Columbia, and where it all started for me, here at The Daily Tar Heel. It’s a thrill to see so many of my former colleagues here. I could never properly thank all of them, but there are two here tonight whom I would like to mention.
The first is Melanie Sill, who brought me back to North Carolina 20 years ago as managing editor of The News and Observer, and who always set a high journalistic standard. The second is Orage Quarles, who elevated me to executive editor when Melanie departed for California. Orage was a terrific publisher who understood and supported good journalism, and I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me.
I’d also liked to thank me wife, Deanna. Being married to a daily news journalist is like being married to the mob. Once you’re in, you’re all in. No time is sacred—not weekends, not holidays, not birthdays, not vacations. But Deanna has always handled my calls to duty with patience and grace, even when I didn’t deserve it, which was often. (Pause)
I was asked recently if there was a moment that stood out in terms of its influence on me as a journalist. And there is. In September 1991, when I was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer, a huge grease fire erupted in a chicken-processing plant in the small town of Hamlet. The plant was a primitive death trap with locked exit doors and no sprinkler system. Twenty-five people died, 49 children were orphaned, and others were grievously injured. Some of them still suffer today, including Annette Zimmerman, who recently had yet another surgery on her spine to repair the damage from that day 30 years ago.
I was part of a team of reporters who covered the initial daily news, and then pursued follow up stories for several months. North Carolina journalists did a great public-service work. They showed that various government agencies had let their guard down, and allowed a completely preventable tragedy to occur. The plant was 11 years old, but it had never been visited—not once—by a government safety inspector.
We’re here tonight to honor individuals, and those of us being recognized are grateful. But more importantly, we’re here to honor the power of public-service journalism. After journalists reported on the failures that led to the Hamlet fire, state government rallied itself in a way that it rarely does, and produced long-overdue workplace safety measures. I wish I could say that 30 years later, these measures were keeping North Carolina workers safe. But sadly, the number of inspectors and inspections are down, and other indicators are moving in the wrong direction. (pause)
When we turn our eyes away from the people who do the toughest, dirtiest, most dangerous, and lowest-paying jobs, the result—as we saw in Hamlet—is always bad. Journalism has many roles, but one of them is to shine a light into places that we might not want to see. (Pause)
It’s a difficult time to be a journalist. We’re having to invent a new financial model, and politicians with base instincts are working to divide the country and turn the people against us. We must persist. As Marty Baron, the former editor of The Washington Post, said after attacks from a politician, “We are not at war. We are at work.” To the hard-working journalists of this state and across the country, I say, “Stay at it.” The people are depending on you, whether they recognize it or not.
Thank you for this honor, and may North Carolina’s best journalism be ahead of us.
I mentioned John did most of the photography for the ’78 yearbook. After he graduated, he presented me with a small yearbook he created for me. It consisted of pictures from the REAL yearbook with my head superimposed on some of the students. Here’s a picture of John (on the left) with his fellow soccer player Mike on the right—only Mike is wearing my head! Note John’s caption.
Is there anything in today’s reflection that stands out for you?
Is there anything you would like to add?
What are some of your feelings/thoughts with regard to journalists?
(I want to thank my friend Sister Barb D. for helping me transfer the special yearbook picture to this blog.)
As we Americans celebrate Memorial Day this year, our hearts are heavy with the recent news of more mass shootings in our country—especially in Buffalo, NY and Uvalde, TX. May these horrific events cause us to ask the right questions about the state of our nation, and may they call us to responsible action. Memorial Day is dedicated to all those individuals who gave the ultimate gift, the gift of their lives, that others may live in freedom and peace. May all of us continue to work for “liberty and justice for all”—as articulated in our Pledge of Allegiance. This Memorial Day I have chosen this unique and beautiful version of our National Anthem, sung by hundreds of teenagers in Kentucky. This story was reported on CBS news. It moved my heart. I hope it moves yours too.
I encourage you to respond to this blog below. We all enjoy hearing from you very much!
Sister Melannie….Look at you!!!!!!!
Thank you for all that you do.
What a gift to know that you had an impact on a young person’s ultimate career choice. Thank you for honoring journalists and their important work.
Loved the video of all those young people singing the National anthem. So perfect as we honor those who lost their lives serving our country.
Wonderful tribute to journalists who are invaluable and can be our national conscience – when they do it right. Thank you.
Good morning Sr Melannie.
What a lovely show of humility. Thank you for sharing this.
Have a wonderful day.
I was moved to tears.
Good Morning, Sr Melannie.
You were sowing sunflower seeds of hope at Gibbons, and these seeds continue to bloom for years. Thank you.
That is so true, Elizabeth!
Thank you for a fitting start to Memorial Day! Thoughts and prayers for all military who are serving now, veterans and those who gave their lives for all of us. God Bless!
I’m going to thank God every day for journalists and add our local and
national news anchors and reporters to my prayer list. Thank you!
And how uplifting to see all these teens spontaneously singing our
National anthem! Thanks so much
Sister Melanie, you continue to move and inspire, sharing these examples of excellence that give hope to a world that is broken in so many ways.
I love hearing your stories as a teacher. It is wonderful when we get to see our “kids” succeed. I teach middle school special education. Sometimes it takes a long, really long, time to see what grows from the seeds. Thank you!!!
Thanks for sharing you sweet story of your connection with John Drescher and his uplifting speech cheering us on in our attempt at a perfect Union on this Memorial Day. We needed to read this today, to hear the Kentucky Kids inspiring voices and most of all to see you as John’s soccer buddy. You must be very, very proud.
I loved this post, Melanie, and I affirm so much of what others have written. John’s speech is wonderful and I’m going to keep his piece in my heart a long time especially “Journalism shines a light into places that we might not want to see.” I pray we will always have such journalists and others who report the news.
Thank you, Melanie, for your wisdom, openness and creative spirit that you share so generously.
Thanks for the blessings. Through you, God blessed Mr. Drescher, who was the channel for years of journalistic truth for North Carolinians. The young folks singing accepted the grace of God to do good for all who would hear, as did Steve Hartman, Norah O’Donnell et al at CBS. May the Spirit blow past the toxins in life and keep fertilizing our hungry world.
Thank you for sharing. As a proud resident of Louisville, I have had the honor and privilege to witness that event. There is not a dry eye in the house when they are done. The sound carries out into the street and people come walking in to listen. So needed today to give hope to the world.
Beautiful Thanks Melanie.
Here’s a poem I think that is so timely and fits right in with HOPE.
Hymn for the Hurting by Amanda Gorman
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
Even our children
Cannot be children,
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered —
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.
The poem is so meaningful.
Hearing these students sing so heartily gives me hope for our country. Now if some politicians in US and Texas legislatures would open their hearts and minds to the need for gun control measures to keep us safe. Forget the lobbying.
Thank you Sister Melannie for all that you do! The song by all the young adults on this Memorial Day is amazing!
Sr. Melannie! This blog gets three “wonderfuls”! The speech, the photograph, and the song — which moved me to tears!
I am, perhaps for once, at a loss for words!
God bless you!
Very special blog today with speech, song and memory of the seed you started years ago while a young teacher. Thank you
Melannie, this blog is wonderful. I loved every part of it–the speech, the picture of you and John and all the students singing. It was perfect for Memorial day and touched one’s heart. Thank you for your great blogs.
I will second that.
And Melannie, what big hands you have!
Dear Sr. Melannie,
You weren’t at Gibbons for a long time, but you left your own special mark of God’s goodness there. John is just one—although a very fine one—example of the students whose lives you’ve influenced.
As usual, perfect choice of video song for this Memorial Day! Beautiful!
Thank you for the pick me up of such GOOD news in the article and the song! I love the picture!
Thank you so much for this inspirational piece, and especially for our Anthem. And the speaker at the end said so well, “we are not a nation of soloists, but a chorus of sheer values.” As well we should be,