Even if they let me have every page of this week’s newspaper, I don’t think I’d have enough room to write everything I want to say.
First things first: After 612 editions spanning 11 years, eight months, I am leaving the East County Observer.
Truthfully, that’s a statement I never thought I’d make. Even still, the words — I am leaving the East County Observer — strung together in that order, look foreign to me, like the first time I cracked open my calculus textbook in high school.
But, they are true. And oh-so-bittersweet.
However, although my time at this Observer newspaper has come to an end, they can’t get rid of me that easily. My wife, Jess, and I have an opportunity to launch The Observer Group’s first foray into Hillsborough County, and particularly, Plant City. So, as I type this, our home is under contract (keeping our fingers crossed for a smooth — and quick — sale), and we are packing our belongings and headed up Interstate 75 to begin the next chapter of our lives.
We hope to publish our first edition of the Plant City Observer July 3 — just in time for the city’s Fourth of July bash. Although the paper will have its own special features that will make it unique to Plant City, it will be modeled heavily after the East County Observer — with a focus on hyperlocal news and prep sports.
Stepping into my role at The Observer will be longtime news editor — and one of the best journalists I know — Pam Eubanks. You know her. You love her. She is more than capable of assuming the reins — and the perfect person to succeed me. The paper is in its proper hands.
The East County Observer was my second “real” job after graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in May 2000. I had a short stint as special sections editor with the Columbia Daily-Tribune in Columbia, Mo., before packing my life into a moving van and trekking down to Florida with three college buddies in August of that year.
I interviewed with The Observer Group Sept. 1, 2000, and began my career here three days later.
Best decision of my life.
The Observer ultimately led to meeting my wife, and, in turn, my children. Professionally, this small, family-owned and -operated publisher allowed me to write every story imaginable — and later gave me the opportunity to grow into an editor and leader.
But it was you — the East County community and loyal reader — who gave me the knowledge and courage required to open a completely new publication. When I started here in 2000, I often had to repeat the name of the newspaper every time I called a source for an interview. Today, the East County Observer is the premier source of news for Lakewood Ranch and its surrounding communities.
I wish I could sit here with my chest puffed out and take all the credit. But — sappy as it sounds — we could not have done this without you. For a community newspaper to fulfill its mission, we require quite a bit from our readership. Of course, we need you to pick up and read the newspaper every week. But even more than that, we need your feedback, your scrutiny, your ideas. We need you to buy into our mission, to feel ownership, to consider us your newspaper. We need you to hold us accountable, to challenge us. And we need you to inspire us.
And inspire you did — every week, without fail.
I’m too chicken to try to cull together a list of names to thank here — surely I would accidentally forget a few folks. But, I simply could not leave you without one more list, so, drawing on the theme in inspiration, I will bid adieu by sharing my memories of five of the most poignant and inspiring stories I had the privilege of telling through the East County Observer. There are many, many more, for sure. But again, they wouldn’t let me have the entire paper. If you want to read these stories in their entirety, click on the links below.
Thank you — for everything. Thank you for opening your lives to us. Thank you for inviting us into your homes, your schools, your businesses, your places of worship. Thank you for your kudos. Thank you also for your angry phone calls. Thank you for making my job a privilege each and every day.
I will miss you, East County.
1. Fueled by Fantasy: Published July 18, 2002
Circus legend Tito Gaona told me it felt exactly like flying as I eyed the trapeze nearly 30 feet above our heads. I scrawled the quote in my notebook. It was for a story I wrote about the Gaona’s summer camp for the Girl Scouts of Gulf Coast Florida. All the girls just love to fly, he told me. Then, he grinned.
“Now, you’re going to fly,” he said. “You need to know what it’s like —' for your story. Come on. Let’s get a harness.”
My head spun at the thought, but several Girl Scouts standing nearby insisted it was a chance of a lifetime. The writer in me wondered what the sensation actually felt like. I imagined the opening paragraph on the page, gritted my teeth and — despite my fear of heights — strapped up. Just a big swing, right? Determined, I kicked off my shoes and climbed the rope ladder; my stomach groaned with each rung.
Three stories below, 200 Girl Scouts stared up at me. The assistants at the top told me not to look down. I concentrated on chalking my hands; sweat bled through the powder.
“Lista!” Gaona shouted. “Go!”
I jumped. The sudden weight on my hands almost forced them off the bar, but somehow, I hung on. I stared at my feet as Gaona, the Girl Scouts and the net sped into a blur around me. I heard some cheers, lots of laughter and Gaona’s voice booming instructions. He was trying to get me to flip my feet up onto the bar. Whatever.
Less than a minute later, I plummeted to the net —' to my surprise, it didn’t collapse. Gaona helped me to the ground, my knees nearly buckling upon impact.
2. Jessica Marie Stock: 1978-2004: Published July 15, 2004
Jessica Marie Stock was my age. My age. And she was found dead July 6, 2004, on the south side of State Road 64 just east of Interstate 75.
I had known her mother, longtime Bashaw Elementary School art teacher Rose Stock, for years. And I absolutely did not want to write this story.
But, that’s our job, and I was the only one on staff with any relationship with the family.
We had no good phone number for the Stocks, so I drove to the home with notebook in hand. Several extended family members were standing in the driveway when I arrived, and after chatting with a few of them, her aunt, Sherry Perny, invited me inside. In those early hours of the investigation, I was the only reporter the family allowed that kind of access.
Because the East County Observer is a weekly newspaper, we always have handled large, breaking stories differently: If we can’t be first, let’s be best. So, with Jessica Stock’s story, we wanted to humanize her, to allow her to be more than a Manatee County Sheriff’s Office incident report.
And, thanks to Jessica Stock’s family members and their willingness to share her story, we were able to publish a story celebrating her life rather than one chronicling her death.
Later, Perny sent a comment to us via our website. And as hard as it was to report on a family’s darkest day, knowing we were able to help in some small way reiterated why I became a journalist in the first place.
“I would just like to thank Michael for the article on Jessica Stock,” she wrote. “I talked with many reporters during that first week, but none like Michael. His respect for the family’s situation, and just the way he approached me for the interview caused me to want to talk with him. I did not provide anyone with the details that I did for Michael. Please thank him for me and for printing an accurate article. Continue to pray for the family.”
3. Operation: LOVE: Published April 14, 2005
Forget grammar. There was no better description for a dirt lot in the heart of Arcadia than what was scrawled on a sign and posted in the middle: All Our Park.
In the months following the crisscross hurricane season of 2004, All Our Park became a square of refuge for the homeless living in the town just east of Myakka City. For this story, I rode out to Arcadia with Arlene Rosemeyer, a volunteer at Myakka City United Methodist Church who for months delivered food, clothing and other necessities to the hurricane victims.
With her minivan packed with supplies, Rosemeyer and I drove the streets of Arcadia, and I watched as dozens of residents flocked to her car for a sandwich and a hello.
Most of the victims called Rosemeyer The Angel. I couldn’t think of a more perfect nickname for her. So, that became my lead for this story. This was a story of a community’s love overcoming tragedy, and one that gave me goose bumps as I watched Rosemeyer work.
4. Jamie Ann Popielinski: Published Nov. 10, 2005
I first met 8-year-old Jamie Ann Popielinski when she received a puppy — her Children’s Dream Fund gift — in February 2005. Jamie had been diagnosed with cancer — rhabdomyosarcoma — and was in the middle of her 42-week chemotherapy/radiation treatment.
She was so vibrant, so full of life, and she could rattle off the spelling of her tumor perfectly. I just knew I’d be seeing her pull through.
It didn’t happen. Jamie died at 2:30 a.m., Oct. 27, 2005, at home in her mother’s arms. She was 10.
At the time, I wasn’t a parent, so I really couldn’t comprehend just how devastating a loss this was for parents Kathy and Jim Popielinski. Still, Jim asked to share their story with me, and as I sat there in his study, with the late afternoon sun pulling long shadows across the floor, he opened a file folder titled, “Jamie’s tumor,” and allowed me in. He showed me letters she had written, pictures she had drawn.
And then there was this one, which Jamie wrote after doctors told her no additional surgeries could help: “I don’t know what has happened to me, but I kind of got over the surgery thing, and I feel like I am trusting in God now.”
Jamie’s strength and resolve are still a source of inspiration for me to this day.
5. Covert’s Operation: Published Feb. 7, 2008
I had known Bob Delaney for years. The Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club resident was one of the National Basketball Association’s most celebrated referees, and every so often, I’d get an email from him from somewhere in the country. He signed all his emails with “Be Safe … BD,” but I didn’t know why until 2008, when he released his first book that revealed an entire life before the NBA.
Co-authored by former Tampa Bay Times sports writer Dave Scheiber, “Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob” recounted Delaney’s three-year undercover assignment as a New Jersey state trooper. As a writer, I marveled at Scheiber’s ability not only to capture accurately all the minutia of a 30-plus-year-old story but also his knack for letting Delaney’s voice through. The book sounds the way Delaney talks.
Ultimately, the book led Delaney into his latest work as a public speaker about post-traumatic stress disorder — a career that has taken him all around the world. Just last week, he was awarded the U.S. Army Chief of Staff Outstanding Civilian Service Medal from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, chief of staff of the U.S. Army. The other recipients included Super Bowl champion New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin; Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh; Lynn Chwatsky, vice president of Sesame Street Outreach and Initiatives; and Linda Patterson, who founded America Supporting Americans.
Delaney’s story is proof positive that pure, unfettered passion can fuel greatness. And it’s his dedication and work ethic I hope to employ in The Observer’s newest venture.