South Jersey and I hit it off from the start.
In 1976, I was 23, with lots of hair and a bit of flair, I’d been told, for newspaper work. A month after moving to Philly from Syracuse with two friends, I answered a want ad and got a tryout at the Suburban Newspaper Group in Cherry Hill, then the publisher of nine weeklies, now out of business. My assignment: Cover a public meeting about the future of a local police chief who’d been convicted of drunken driving.
I crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge in the 1965 Rambler Classic I’d bought from a friend for $50 and somehow managed to find the meeting in Audubon Park, a town I’d never heard of, in a state I knew about only by way of Bruce Springsteen. The room was packed. A red-faced man rushed the dais and had to be restrained, the chief suggested the guy be charged with resisting arrest, and I felt as if I’d died and gone to heaven. I got the job, and the chief kept his.
Despite having countless opinions and a congenital gift for gab, I certainly didn’t start out as a columnist. First I had to drive around South Jersey in that Rambler until it more or less exploded and cover the news. At “The Suburban,” as it was known, the building smelled like ink and the newsroom had rec room paneling. Every desk was equipped with a telephone, a manual typewriter, and a dictionary, as well as a pair of scissors and a pot of glue for analog cutting-and-pasting. Those were the days. Miraculously, I got promoted to editor of the Cherry Hill News, only to discover that editors still had to cover countless municipal government meetings and do pretty much everything else except sell ads and operate the press. The pay was $140 a week.
Back then, South Jersey was held in such high disdain that even Philadelphia made fun of it, and still does (some things never change). My college friends had relocated to the glamorous metros of New York, D.C., and Boston, so the primary selling point of my new turf — you won’t believe how close it is to Center City — seemed unconvincing, perhaps tragic. But I loved Philly, loved journalism, and with each passing story, I came to know and care more deeply about South Jersey. So much so that I’m in my 40th year as a resident of the 856.
I’ve reported from every county south of Trenton and many of those to the north. I’ve written about cities — I was the one-man Courier-Post bureau in Camden for eight invaluable, unforgettable years — and have covered stories in small towns, resort towns, old and new suburbs, rural hamlets, and Philadelphia, too. I’ve written between 7,000 and 8,000 news stories, features, reviews, and columns, including hundreds I wrote at the Courier and more than 1,000 I’ve done for The Inquirer, where my South Jersey column is being retired, but I’m not. More about that in a moment.
Some readers who reside west of the Delaware River may insist otherwise, but South Jersey is essential to the Philadelphia region and the distinctive character of the Philly brand. Like the city, South Jersey is an in-your-face sort of place where great stories grow wild in abundance. It’s home to pretty much every known variety of human being, all of whom are as one in the belief that you are driving in their lane. Philly and South Jersey share a signature accent, an assiduously maintained chip on the shoulder, and a mystical devotion to Wawa. A business born, by the way, in South Jersey 200 years ago and reincarnated much later as the unofficial symbol of the fabulous Philly lifestyle.
People sometimes ask me to name a favorite column or story and I always dodge by saying they’re all my favorite, which is what my mother always told me and my five siblings. She wasn’t lying, so I won’t either: I do like certain subjects more than others. I’m not particularly interested in chronicling the powerful, who get more than their fair share of ink (and everything else). I’d rather write about the rest of us, the people with stories that often are overlooked but deserve to be told with nuance, empathy, and respect.
I especially like to write about what connects us and the communities we create and nurture. And I’ve been grateful to the people I’ve met, across the region, who have shared their stories with me. Telling those stories has been a privilege and a pleasure.
Today’s column will, however, be my last, for now. This is not because I’ve run out of things to write about or say, but because starting Monday, I’ll be doing so as a full-time member of The Inquirer’s Editorial Board. It’s a great job where I also will have the opportunity to write commentaries from time to time. I expect some of those will be about South Jersey.