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!