It’s funny, the things you remember most when big life changes are ahead.
I recently spent some time searching through an old email archive for a note that landed in my inbox 12 years ago. I’d received it while in the old Inquirer newsroom at 400 North Broad St., where I sat amid a cluster of fellow business news specialists at the time. We were weary from covering the global financial crisis and Great Recession.
In a piece I had just written, I had gotten a bit salty. Why, I asked, had my generation of public school kids learned to stitch homemade mouse-shaped pillows and carve actual bullets on a lathe (no lie), but no one thought to pony up a single home economics class about how not to go broke?
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“I enjoyed reading your column on Sunday,” the reader wrote in 2009. “I am curious to learn if you attended first grade at Bywood Elementary in Upper Darby.”
I saw the woman’s name. My body froze.
Suddenly, I was no longer the journalist who’d just spent a 6-degree January in Detroit with auto-industry executives whose companies were teetering on collapse. Nor was I the streetwise reporter who years before had connected an FBI drug investigation with an FBI bug in the Philadelphia mayor’s office.
I was just a kid again, transported back into an old school building near Garrett Road in Upper Darby.
“Yes!” I wrote back. “You were my first-grade teacher. You played piano and had us sing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ every morning to start things off. And on one report card you actually wrote in the comments section ‘very nice singing voice.’”
Like I said. The things you remember. And in this job called journalism, there are many good and bad things that stick with you forever. In much the same way that your earliest childhood memories become permanent. The best, however, are the surprises like these. As I prepare to leave this job and The Inquirer in the next couple of days — I am taking a generous buyout for a welcome breather with my husband and children before my Next Act — it is these magical moments of connection that remind you of the privilege it is to be the teller of people’s stories, the seeker of justice, the voice for the voiceless.
“I have told a story about you to friends many times. You are unnamed, and the story is a joke on me,” my dear old teacher continued as she replied to my reply. “One morning I came into class, and you asked me if I had gotten my hair cut. Bracing myself for a compliment, I replied that I had, and you said, ‘I liked it yesterday.’”
Who knew I had the “gift” of speaking truth to power the same year I dressed as 6-year-old Ben Franklin in a school parade?
Her recollection reminds me of a time, a little later in my career, when an aide to an influential legislator in Harrisburg shouted at me in the rotunda of the Pennsylvania Capitol, “WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?”
My answer: “Philadelphia,” a place and word that inspires loathing among a cadre in the commonwealth’s seat of power. (I did that last one for you, Jake Tapper.)
He apparently was annoyed that I was intent on interviewing lawmakers about the statute of limitations that they were refusing to expand for children sexually abused by Catholic priests.
I took that same focus to a Dallas apartment complex in August 2017. I’d found defrocked Philadelphia priest James Brzyski, a man who’d assaulted an estimated 100 altar boys at two parishes but who had never faced charges for his crimes. He was the son of a cop and I was about to confront him. His adult victims were now suicidal, tormented men in their 40s. I had boarded a plane with Inquirer photographer Jessica Griffin and copies of a 2005 grand jury report outlining the man’s depravity and the bishops who had let him get away with it.
I knocked on Brzyski’s door. He opened it just barely.
“I’m here because the boys from St. Cecilia’s still remember you,” I said as Jessica’s camera went snap, snap, snap. He slammed the door shut. Three weeks later, Brzyski was dead in a Fort Worth, Texas, motel room, surrounded by pill bottles.
I often wonder how a Delco kid of a war-orphaned, Greek immigrant sandwich shop owner ever ended up in the English words business. It’s not an easy line of work. Just ask my husband, I.J. Hines, a saint in any religion’s hierarchy.
Journalism done right requires guts, resilience, intuition, and strong thinking. You also need the bedside manner to know when it’s best to just be quiet and listen.
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In the last four years, I’ve had the privilege of being a columnist. It’s a singular job that allows you to layer persuasive voice, personality, and personal reflection onto the work of sharing news and trying to win people’s hearts and minds. For that, I have been rewarded not just with emails from old teachers but readers from across the country who know me only as the mug on a printed page, the byline on a story that caught their eye as it flew across the internet.
If only you all knew: The first time I ever set foot inside the Inquirer building was to carry a photo of my father, Christos, up to the Daily News newsroom in 1995. A man with dark, wavy hair scanned and cropped out a head shot of my dad from one of my few college graduation photos. Christos was wearing a suit! He looked handsome, like the boy who’d once had parents before the German bombing.
I left Broad Street and within days a bylined obituary about the proprietor of Ariston Deli was in the very tabloid that he had sold every day from a metal stand in our Ludlow Street shop in Upper Darby. A tribute to a working-class man who had only ever cried once, at an Upper Darby High School concert of mine. I never dreamed that newsroom would be the place that would become my working home.
“You will be in my heart forever,” my old first-grade teacher wrote in that brief exchange from 2009. “It makes me very proud to know that you were once in Room 110.”
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I could say the same about The Inquirer, its readers, my colleagues, and everyone I’ve met, interviewed, aggravated or delighted in this messy, soulful metropolitan region of five million people since May 1998.
You will be in my heart forever.
Maria Panaritis can be reached after July 2 at firstname.lastname@example.org