A master of words; a man of integrity

On that afternoon, I didn’t know what to expect inside Room No. 34.

I’d seen Ron several days before, at Piedmont Hospital. I hadn’t even fully stepped into his room when he looked up from his bed. “Ah, Moni Basu and Kevin Duffy!” He recognized us instantly and we had a delightful two-hour conversation about things past and present.

At one moment, after Alex showed up and we began talking about India, the talk veered to Varanasi, an ancient, holy city on the banks of the Ganges River. Many Hindus hope to have their last rites performed there; their ashes scattered in the murky waters; their souls dancing free.

“Perhaps we should talk about something else,” Alex finally said.

I realized then that I had never even thought that Ron might die. Even though he had cancer.

He was lucid that day, his spirits strong. He even laughed, the way he used to on the 6th floor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newsroom.

It was the kind of laugh that echoed through the hallways and was instantly recognizable. It was comforting, like a mother’s embrace. And reassuring —  it made me feel that everything would be all right.

Ron edited my stories occasionally when we both worked on the National Desk. I remember how he tightened up my prose, took out unnecessary words. Verbiage was baggage, he told me. It just weighed readers down.

Everyone knows what a master Ron was with words. At Piedmont, I meant to tell him what a mentor he had been to me. But the right moment never seemed to arise that afternoon.  Surely, I would have other opportunities.

Two weeks later, when I entered Room 34 at Hospice Atlanta, I knew I would probably not get to say much to him. He was weak and frail. And sleepy from the drugs.

His longtime friend and journalist Ann Woolner was there that afternoon, as was his sister, Angela, and niece Stephanie.

The family had brought a bunch of photos that showed Ron at various stages of his remarkable life. As a baby. A child. A teenager. A young reporter. A professor. A father and grandfather.

I sifted through the photos. Some were colour and some not. Some were indentified, others not. It didn’t really matter. I saw in them a man who was always true to himself and to those he loved.

Ron’s mother, Bertha, had saved all his early clips from the Summerville newspaper, the Red and Black and the AJC. Angela had painstakingly collected them in a scrapbook. I flipped through the pages and marveled at Ron’s ability to write with wit, with grace and always with clarity and honesty.

Again that day, the conversation turned uncomfortably to death. I suppose that’s what people talk about when the end of a life seems inevitable. So many arrangements to be made, loose ends that need sewing up.

Ron himself had recognized his circumstance and told Alex: “I don’t want all this to get too complicated… I’d prefer to just go out like an old Indian and walk off into the woods.”

Now, as we spoke of Ron and his life, we did so in the third person. Ron lay still on the bed, his eyes closed. Before I left, I held his hand and said goodbye. Ann told him she loved him.

“Dad,” said Alex. “Your visitors are leaving.”

Ron opened his eyes for a moment and nodded his head.

The next morning he died. His close friend Joni was with him.

When I heard the news the next day, a dark cloud descended upon me in the midst of the CNN newsroom. I wanted to run home. Or at least, run to my car so I could cry without notice.

Someone asked me a question and I blurted out: ”Please give me a few minutes. I have just received some very sad news.” I told my friend Joyce that Ron had died. She did not know him but for me, it was matter of saying it out loud. I was not there when my father died. I had to mouth the words before it sank in.

Later, I read on the CarePages website, that in Irish tradition, a nurse opened the French doors to the patio outside his room to allow his spirit to leave.

It was as just as we had spoken that day about Varanasi. And it gave me great comfort to think that Ron’s soul will shimmer everywhere, like the eternal waters of the Ganges.

Honoring Gayle

This year, the Religion Newswriters Association chose my friend Gayle White as its lifetime achievement award recipient. I cannot think of anyone who deserves this honor more.

The ceremony in Minneapolis Saturday night was even more poignant for the both of us because Gayle and I were among almost 100 journalists who left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its latest round of buyouts and layoffs last May.

Gayle worked at the paper 37 long years. She spent 16 of them covering the religion beat. She reported each story in depth and detail. Her writing was elegant and mellifluous. She taught me the power of ordinary stories told in extraordinary ways.

Gayle was the best at her craft and yet she never exhibited the arrogance that overtakes some award-winning journalists. She remained modest and humble to her last day and approached every story she wrote with the same enthusiasm she had when she started out in the business all those years ago.

Gayle’s husband, Bob, died of cancer two years ago. She endured the most painful experience of her life with the same perseverance and grace that made her such an incredible reporter.

I had the privilege of sitting next to Gayle for the last five years I was at the AJC. If there is one thing I miss about going to work at 72 Marietta Street every day, it’s seeing Gayle’s smile first thing in the morning.