Blame it on a milk shake.
On a summer day 32 years ago, I visited my alma mater. Back from a year in Europe, I was looking for work, in a vague way. After a feckless hour in the career counseling office, I felt a yen for one of the college snack bar's legendarily thick chocolate "frosts," as they were known in New England. So I set off across the lush quad.
A voice called out my name. An old classmate. "What are you doing on campus?" she asked. "Oh, looking for a job." "In what?"
At certain moments in life, thresholds materialize, unbidden. Barely aware, you cross them. "Oh, I don't know," I replied, "something to do with writing, maybe newspapers."
"Oh," she said. "My daddy owns a newspaper."
Indeed he did, the Express in Easton, Pa. Within a week, I had a job there. (It was a sunnier epoch for finding work in the ink-on-paper racket.) For sitting through endless zoning and school board meetings, I made 150 bucks a week.
So a milk shake marked my start in newspapering.
This column marks the end.
Today is my last day at The Inquirer. In a week, I'll begin a new job as executive director of news and civic dialogue (yes, it's a mouthful) at WHYY, the public broadcaster. Somehow, I get to continue doing what I love (journalism) in the city that I love. Lucky, lucky guy.
So today is a time for looking back - at three decades of testy interviews, droning hearings, grammatical debates, adrenalized races against deadline, hard-won nuggets of fact, bolt-upright-at-3-a.m. panics over surname spellings, inner smiles at phrases well turned, and rolling conversations with readers.
I leave a business that seems to have lost both the will and the way to support the craft of journalism it once burnished to a fine sheen.
It's a business that, in its pig-headed insularity, authored some of its own woes - but now is being swept helplessly along by the cascading changes of a Gutenberg moment. The Internet is changing our world as definitively as the printing press changed Europe - and more rapidly.
In my time, newspapers - and the journalists who worked for them - have made some mistakes. We embraced a priestly elitism, failing to explain ourselves clearly to readers or to confess frankly our mistakes of judgment. We were slow to respond when people, money and power flowed to the suburbs, slow to grasp the game-changing implications of the Web (though catching up now).
We screwed up plenty. At the same time, though, we did some splendid, useful things for the Republic.
That's the pesky paradox of it: While we could at times be as arrogant as our critics claimed, we were more ethical and adept than they would ever admit.
The room I'm leaving is full of colleagues who fight the good fight every day, with skill and integrity. I'll always be proud to have been one of their number.
Even if all print journalists were paragons, though, the newspaper business might not have avoided this perilous moment. Thanks to the digital revolution, front-page flags you thought would fly forever may soon become as defunct, and as swiftly, as did Lehman Bros.
The Web, it turns out, is mightier than the pen.
While the business in which I've spent my adult life is collapsing, the craft that holds my heart - the quest to find and tell useful stories as fairly, accurately and swiftly as possible - is needed now as much as ever. I hope in my new perch to help journalism thrive in the new digital media, which are changing and absorbing all the others.
But that intriguing prospect is not enough to blunt the poignancy of leaving good ol' crinkly, ink-on-your-hands, wrap-the-fish-in-it newspapers.
What I'll miss most are you, the readers - cantankerous, funny, fierce, and generous as you are. My inbox folders have long been jammed with e-mails you sent. As the first writer at The Inquirer to put my phone number and e-mail address at the end of what I wrote, I have had running dialogues with so many of you.
Through the rough recent years here, you kept me going. You offered daily reminders - whether profane or perfumed with praise - of the reason we journalists do what we do: People are counting on us.
I hope to preserve that sense of connection in the new job, to keep writing and hearing from all of you.
As a thankful farewell, let me offer a blessing which often ends services at my church:
"Life is short and we have not enough time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. And may God's love, peace, hope and justice be with you always."