AS features editor at The Republic, I truly believe that I have the best job on staff. I love that I write about the people, places and things that give our lives color; and for the most part, I get to talk to people who are passionate about what they do and want to share it with the community.
In short, I get to write about the fun stuff.
But on the morning of Oct. 12, I experienced a rite of passage for a journalist that has nothing to do with fun.
I was ready to cross the final few things off my to-do list before coasting into the weekend when our news desk received a tip from a newspaper in Sarasota County, Fla., that a Columbus teen was found dead while vacationing with his parents. With other reporters out of the office or otherwise occupied, the responsibility of further reporting fell to me.
I can only describe my reaction to this assignment as panic. Of all the breaking news stories I could have been called upon to report on that day, I couldn’t think of anything worse than the sudden death of a child. The news tip made it to the office so quickly that the police in Florida hadn’t even had time to file their report. In other words, chances were good that I would be breaking the tragic news to some individuals when I contacted them for more information.
Seeing my distress, another reporter kindly stepped in and offered to take the assignment. And, boy, did I want to take him up on the offer. But something told me I would regret it if I didn’t follow through.
As I searched for phone numbers to call, silently relieved every time no one answered, I grappled with issues I imagine all reporters do at one time or another. How do I intrude on this family’s private grief? What right do I have to call them at their homes and ask them the unanswerable questions? Is it even my business?
After all, the nuts and bolts of the story already were posted on the newspaper’s web site in the form of a news release from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department. Didn’t the public already know what they needed to know?
It turns out that, no, they didn’t.
While scanning the comments section of our web site’s post, hoping for (or perhaps fearing) another lead to follow, I read a comment from someone I presume to be a friend of Garrett Mabrey, expressing anger that the brief article “made it sound like he was just another kid.”
He was right.
Then I learned that Garrett, who was 17, loved playing video games, was a history buff who wanted to join the U.S. Air Force and always made a point to visit his grandparents when the family traveled to his hometown of Kenton, Ohio.
Everyone has a story to tell and deserves a chance to tell it. Due to the tragic circumstances, Garrett’s story would have to be told through others, and it fell on me to make that happen.
The truth is, I barely scratched the surface of his story that afternoon, and I won’t pretend that I was able to do his life justice. But I like to think that the next morning, a few Bartholomew County residents read the story and stopped to consider for a moment a young life that was cut far too short.
Though I never laid eyes on him, Garrett will always matter to me. I will never forget his name, and I will always be grateful to him for reminding me, in death, what I chose to do with my life.
Beth Clayton-George is the features editor at The Republic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org