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Celebrate life - the other side of the story (Spring 1996)

by Dennis Mansfield, reporter for the Ogemaw County Herald

Working as a part-time sports writer for the Shiawassee County Journal while attending Michigan State University, I was on my way back to campus after an exciting girls' hoops game in Morrice, a small hamlet nearby.

My return was delayed as I came upon an accident. A car carrying a young couple, just 21 and 20, was struck broadside by a delivery truck, which, according to police, had failed to stop at the intersection. Having a few frames left on the roll of film in my camera, I took pictures of the smashed car, the truck, and the busy emergency crews. As I would find out later, the couple's marriage of just 11 months had come to an abrupt end. The young man was dead and the woman was placed in intensive care.

Already feeling uneasy, knowing this was my first accident story, I called the hospital to check on the woman's condition, unsure of the questions I should be asking. Family members were notified of my call and were soon calling me to ask why I had wanted the information. At first the person on the phone was defensive; after all, wasn't it bad enough that a person was killed? In their opinion, there was no need for a vulture to circle.

But then the voice began to crack, grow weak. I could only imagine what was happening at the other end of the line.

I asked if there was anything the newspaper could do, any fact about the young couple that the family wanted people to know. I was told about the young couple's marriage, their hope for the future.

As the person talked, I took my notes needed for the story. Then I just listened. Hanging up the phone, I didn't even want to write the story. It's not what I had begun studying journalism to do. I had wanted to cover sporting events or the political arena. Now I was trying to summarize a couple's life in just a few short paragraphs.

Just days later, a young girl was killed when a train struck her car, which had stopped on a set of railroad tracks. I later handed in both stories as projects for one of my reporting classes, taught by my mentor, Bill Coté. Both received high marks, but he knew that meant little to his student.

We talked - he explained and again I listened. These stories are part of the job, no matter how much we would like to avoid them, he said. "Just do the best job you can."

Since then, I have spent countless hours typing stories about death, including the recent tragedy of an 11-year-old Rose City girl who died in her home. Making the trip to see police officials, I was neglectful in my duties to call others who better knew the youth. Thankfully, that was done by my managing editor. My mentor reminded me, without knowing it, of my duty during his remarks at the convention. And his student listened.

But the lesson wasn't complete until the screams of Connor James were heard at 11:54 a.m., January 28. There was the other side of the story. Poor weather on the way to my brother's home in Battle Creek forced me to stay the night with a friend. But a good night's sleep was not on the schedule.

Shortly after 6 a.m., we received notice that my friend's sister was in labor with her second child and that she should get to the hospital. With nothing better to do, I tagged along. By 8 a.m., at least six family members were crowded into a small waiting room. And the waiting continued for nearly four more hours.

Finally, Connor decided to make his entrance, as the second son of his proud parents, Larry and Mindy, not to mention even prouder grandparents. The red eyes, full of tears of joy, told the story better than any I would ever be able to write. But it deserves to be told.

So many times, we judge our world in negative terms, citing the violence, the crime and the inhumanity we see in print, on television and on the radio. Seldom do we give proper due to the other minor miracles around us, the simple joys that make the drudgery of life worth it all. Then another Connor James comes along with a small reminder.