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Side of Ranch

It's always story time at the East County Observer

The Lakewood Ranch-area newspaper celebrates 25 years at the Nov. 3 Music on Main.

Tennis Coach Dickie Herbst and Cornell Professor Emeritus Joe Novak formed a friendship after Herbst read a story about Novak in the East County Observer. Novak died in September.
Tennis Coach Dickie Herbst and Cornell Professor Emeritus Joe Novak formed a friendship after Herbst read a story about Novak in the East County Observer. Novak died in September.
Photo by Jay Heater
  • East County
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Joe Novak had a story that needed to be told.

Fortunately, since Sept. 8, 2022, I was able to tell at least part of his story, twice.

I say fortunately because on Sept. 2, Novak died at 92.

If someone at The Sheridan at Lakewood Ranch hadn't tipped me off that they had an amazing resident living there, Novak would have remained obscure in our area, at least to me.

When I visited Novak in his room at the Sheridan, I met an amazing man with a wealth of knowledge to offer, not just me, but everyone. He had written 41 books and published more than 150 papers on human learning, cognitive psychology in learning, and concept mapping.

He was a professor emeritus at Cornell University who wasn't enthralled with the sound of his own voice. He would listen to the other side of the conversation before speaking.

I was lucky to have known him for whatever brief time we spent together.

As the East County Observer celebrates its 25th anniversary on Nov. 3 during Music on Main at Main Street at Lakewood Ranch, I will be looking for that next Joe Novak story.

Sometimes those stories come right to your door. But often, we as reporters and storytellers need help from people just like you. That "tip" might be a phone call, or an email, or as in bygone days, a hand-written letter. Your neighbor might be the Boo Radley recluse of "To Kill a Mockingbird" fame, who could be somebody you would love to read about — if, of course, he wants to tell his story.

We certainly can't guarantee that your story will be newspaper worthy, but it doesn't hurt to make a suggestion. A perfect dad who works two jobs, raises four kids, is a loving husband, and volunteers at his church might not translate into a feature story ... but how about a Father's Day story?

The East County Observer has plenty of space that it dedicates to good-deed doers. We run countless stories and photos on nonprofits, church events, community gatherings and such. The East County Observer always has been dedicated to being your paper of record, and that might just mean splashing your photo on the cover for all to see when you grow that prized pumpkin.

When it comes to community issues, new business, sports, achievements, education, we are right there with a notebook and camera. I might add that you don't last in this business unless you love your job.

We like to keep you informed about factors that affect your wallet. Will out-of-control growth increase or decrease the value of your home? Are they building a car lot in your back yard? Is your garbage bill going up, and why?

Once again, though, we appreciate your input as readers. The residents of Lorraine Lakes informed us earlier this year of a cell phone tower that was being built next to their playground. We wrote about it, and the project was cancelled. Information can be powerful.

I knew this newspaper was going to be different from the first day I started in 2015. The first issue on Oct. 8, 2015 featured the story of a guy, well, here is the headline — "Who is that guy in the crazy pants?"

It was written by former reporter Jessica Salmond about Gary Masengale, a Manatee County EMS paramedic and a musical consultant to the Braden River High Marching Band. He had a collection of the most wild pants you will ever find. I can guarantee that someone tipped us off on that one.

Wanting to hold up my end, I did a Thanksgiving story that year about what you do with giblets. The headline? "Turkey giblets — Fair, fowl or ... gnarly."

At Christmas we fielded questions from kids for Santa Claus.

"Do you need to go to the bathroom while you're out?"

Santa — "I have certain secret stops."

We probably annoyed some residents back in 2016 with our headline, "Roundabouts to the rescue."

But I guarantee that story stirred up debate.

We've always liked surprises in the East County Observer, and on March 16, 2016, our banner headline was "A firefighter, orchid shop owner and retiree-turned-fossil hunter walk into the Everglades ..."

They walked out with 33 Burmese pythons.

If you are a regular reader of the Observer, you know that we love animals, of every kind. You have read about elephants, giraffes, bears, tigers, horses, and on and on.

We also have a sense of humor.

On April Fools Day in 2016, we ran a story that said, "Environmental group forces Tara Preserve to return algae to retention ponds.. The banner head was "Return of the scum."

Tara Preserve posted this notice later after the paper came out.

"The article on the first page of the Observer was an ill-conceived, stupid "joke" played on the residents of the Preserve. As described on Page 4A of the "paper," it was an April Fools joke. The board of supervisors is not laughing."

Hopefully, our readers were laughing.

So come down and see us on Nov. 3 at Music on Main. Let's us know what you think of the paper, and please give out any story ideas you might have.

The tragedy that scares me is the untold story.

Joe Novak had resigned himself to never writing about education again when I met him for that first story. The story, though, attracted Lakewood Ranch's Dickie Herbst, a former professional tennis player and a longtime coach.

Besides his professional and college career at Pepperdine, Herbst, who is coaching his second season as Lakewood Ranch High's tennis coach, is known for coaching pro stars such as Patrick McEnroe and Tim Mayotte.

"As a coach, it is difficult to improve, to get better," Herbst said. "I was fascinated on Joe's theory of education, and his concept mapping."

Herbst incorporated Novak's strategies into his coaching, and through a nonprofit he formed with other noted tennis coaches, he used Novak as a consultant to positively influence the way kids in general learn tennis, or any sport for that matter.

They built a friendship and began meeting weekly. Novak woke up the rest of his life "highly motivated."

And that is the power of storytelling



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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