Thursday, June 30, 2016

Columnist celebrates 20 years at newspaper

Author is still writing in her 70s!
6/22/16 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Betty’s 20 years of Sentinel memories

My, how time flies! This month I am celebrating an unplanned, 20-year career in the newspaper industry. It all began in 1996 when I walked through the front door of the Sentinel and applied for an office job that they were advertising. I knew absolutely nothing about office work…but how hard could it be? Talk about chutzpah!

Nevertheless, Publisher Jody Rolnick decided to take a chance on this older newbie. On June 9, 1996 I entered a new world. My colleagues, Retta and Rosie and I were busy. We answered phones, fielded questions and complaints; and forwarded calls to the appropriate ad or newsperson. All classified ads and bills were written by hand as were subscription receipts. Those went into notebook files. I loved the office buzz and meeting new people.

My job description was: Accounts Payable. I remember thinking, “How hard could this be?” I managed our checkbook at home and it always balanced. Enter a new animal—the computer. Gulp. Let’s just say that I was a slow learner and there’s a special place in heaven for those who were my instructors. But I did learn and that experience began my love affair with computers today.

So how did I morph from the front office to the newsroom?

Well, I’ve always loved writing. I grew up in the era of Emily Post and would write a thank you note as soon as a gift was opened. In school essay tests were a breeze. Put me on a committee and I would end up secretary or writing a “how-to-do-the-job” manual. In college I had taken some journalism classes and written for the campus paper but that was the extent of my formal experience.

Jody and I would occasionally talk about the need for a column on people, parties, places to go, things to do, celebrations, recipes, etc. Sort of a hybrid commentary, old-fashioned local gossip column. News staff was not available for that sort of thing so I volunteered.

The Chatterbox debuted on April 7, 1999. In that column I requested the public’s input. I was counting on them to be my eyes and ears in the extended Cottage Grove community. I started sharing my life experiences and readers responded with stories of their own. Thus the adventure began.

Originally, ABC/Disney owned the Sentinel. Later it was sold to Lee Enterprises. Then Editor Finn John came aboard. He was young, enthusiastic, energetic and full of ideas! One of his visions for the newspaper was to include an old-fashioned society page level of hometown news. I was already writing the Chatterbox so he brought me from the front office into the newsroom.

Suddenly my job morphed from one to three columns a week—The Chatterbox, Cook’s Corner and Neighborhood News. We often had a full page of military news, graduation lists, anniversaries and weddings. Eventually I added the monthly Faith Page and started covering news stories as well. It was one of the best times of my life.

I loved telling our town’s stories. Interesting things happen in our corner of the world. Some good. Some bad. Some ugly. Lee Enterprises published my columns on the Internet and I started hearing from people around the world. Wow. That was fun.

One of the most memorable stories I covered was Uno, a German Shepherd and his handler Pat Gartman. A certified crisis response dog, he and Pat, with Bill as support, flew to Ground Zero after the 9/11 tragedy. The core temperature at the attack site was 1,800 degrees. The workers were numb, tired, dirty, grieving, expressionless and overwhelmed with the enormous task.

Pat said, “Uno would pick the one who needed the most comfort. He'd put his head in the worker's lap and inevitably, the worker would start petting him, talking to him, holding him. Uno's back would be wet with tears,“ I cry every time I remember that story.

I prefer to write good news but reporting an ugly situation won me a First Place Social Issues award in 2004 from the Society of Professional Journalists. My three part series on homeless teens was titled, “Under the Bridge,” it opened the public’s eyes to the needs of these hurting, invisible teens and those in organizations like Parent Partnership who work on their behalf.

I briefly retired in 2006 during a time of turmoil when my husband had a very serious back surgery. At that time, my friend and editor Jonni Gratton summed up my eclectic style and newsroom career:

“Betty Kaiser was a big city California girl who moved to the country in 1989 and settled into the groove of the Grove.

“She put her heart and soul into everything that she wrote — good, bad, funny or bitter-sweet. She wrote from the heart about every segment of local life and her own experiences — from bats in the bedroom, a Saginaw slum, homeless teens, falling off ladders, women in the military, the tragic death of children and bad hair days.
A born and bred Grover once told her “that she wrote like one of us.”

 “Readers enjoyed bantering with Betty — correcting her Spanish, disagreeing with her politics and banning her from their hair salons.
Mostly, they just opened their hearts and told her their stories.”

For all of the above reasons and more, I wasn’t very good at retirement. I returned to work in 2007 on a part-time basis writing one column a week. That has since been reduced to every other week, which is just about my speed for this stage of life.

As my 20-year career winds down to a crawl, I am so grateful to those who helped me along this path and the readers who supported me. I was a stranger and you took me into your hearts, sharing your stories and lives. It has been a wonderful relationship. Lord willing, I plan to continue doing this as long as I am able and still making sense.

So, Cottage Grove, thanks for the memories and keep them coming!

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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