Sunday, January 18, 2009

Readers became focus of column

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Shanna Flowers is The Roanoke Times' metro columnist.

Shanna Flowers

Recent columns

My college professor once told me that life-altering events often are accompanied by pain.

The death of a loved one brings heartache. The arrival of a new life comes with the suffering of childbirth.

So as I move into the next phase of my professional life, I write this farewell column with a heavy heart.

This marks my last week with The Roanoke Times. I will appear in this paper twice more before beginning a new job with Carilion Clinic.

I've often joked of having only two skills: the abilities to string a few words together to make a coherent sentence and to interact easily with people. My new job at Carilion, as a member of its Guest Services team, will allow me to use my people skills working with the hospital system's hundreds of volunteers.

It's an exciting time, but also a sad time.

Journalists are nothing without readers. I never took for granted that you gave up your valuable time to see what we were talking about on any given day. Even when you didn't agree, many of you came back time after time.

For nearly four years, my column appeared in this space. Here, you met unsung heroes. You responded with comforting e-mails and cards when I publicly grieved the loss of my father.

Words in this space prompted you to buy soup, donate blood and surprise needy children with Christmas gifts. The column drew strangers together to undertake community projects.

My opinions provoked outrage. They drew responses I can't print in a family newspaper and sparked protest letters, calls and e-mails to my superiors.

In my first column on May 3, 2005, I wrote:

"I'm not naive enough to think that you will agree with everything I write. My job is not to endear, but to enlighten and engage."

Certainly, not all of you found me endearing. That was evident when the column was only a few months old when a colleague shared a comment he heard from a woman at a party.

"I always read Shanna Flowers, so I can see how she's going to p--- me off."

Some of you hit the roof when I wrote about guns, race, said Dick Cheney had "the devil" in him, and wrote satirically about Minnesota.

As Del. Onzlee Ware told me one time, "You must be doing something right. You've made everybody mad."

What I sought to do was speak truth as I saw it. To trade in common sense. To come down not on this side or that one but on the side of right.

Nearly four years ago, I penned that it was just wrong for a former American Idol winner to glorify teen motherhood in song. Given the circumstances confronting us today, I feel even more strongly about that.

Later that year, I let loose that it didn't make sense for holier-than-thou sourpusses to try to deny children the fun of Halloween.

And no, I couldn't hold my peace last year about parents who aren't engaged in their children's education, and by extension, their futures.

What could be more important than a child's education? That's why you read a lot in this column about students, teachers and great programs and decisions in school systems over these years.

The longest interview

In trying to deliver an engaging column to you three days a week, we logged some interesting moments, all in an effort to get the story.

Some were outrageous, like the time in 2005 when I crashed a vacation Bible school at Garden of Prayer No. 7 in Northwest Roanoke to get a mother's permission to use her teen son's rather lascivious quote about teen sex. Then there was the time I tailed a car carrying Virginia first lady Anne Holton through the streets of downtown Roanoke to try to deliver her a promised package.

Other moments were poignant. I will never forget the opening of Sabrina's Place, a domestic violence refuge in downtown Roanoke named for fatal victim Sabrina Reed.

During the ceremony, as the veil was pulled from a beautiful, smiling portrait of Reed, her young daughter buried her head in a family member's side and began weeping. It was all I could do to maintain my role as detached observer.

The longest interview I've conducted in 24 years of journalism was with Larry LeGrande of Roanoke, who regaled me with stories from his days as a former Negro League baseball catcher. We talked for three hours, and I still didn't want to leave.

You became the focus

Many of you may have noticed that this column has evolved. In the early days, it focused more on governmental institutions and policymaking. But in recent years, it increasingly became about you, the people who make up this region.

Those columns were the ones that most moved me -- and the readers.

I am not a great writer but was fortunate to meet many people willing to share great stories.

People like Donald Burnette, a laid-off Circuit City worker whose plight was that of America's left-behind unskilled workers.

There was Keith Thomas, a young married father who grew up without his dad but is determined to be there for his wife and two boys.

Nancy Burgess' pastor put me on to her. Each year, she devotes hundreds of hours sewing clothes for dolls given to needy girls. I still admire the courage of Juli, the fictitious name of a real woman in Roanoke who is HIV positive. She bravely shared her story with me to prevent others from the same fate.

Volvo mechanic Walter Williams represented the Everyman who quietly performs the services that keep our lives quietly ticking along.

There were too many others to name, people whose stories touched readers' hearts and made them think.

"It's time we all applauded the folks of all races who achieve rather than suck the system dry," Mike, a frequent correspondent, e-mailed six months ago.

"That is a message that I've learned from you, and I appreciate your untiring effort to find success stories about folks whom we can all look upon as role models."

Mike, for three-and-a-half years, it's been my pleasure.

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