A few years after taking this job, I realized that the more people I wrote about, the more I frustrated readers. Each column asks folks to invest time and feelings in the subject matter, but the nature of the news requires that I move on.
So in this column and on Sunday, allow me to indulge the curious and answer the question I hear so often - "Whatever happened to?" Conclusions are tough gifts to wrap, but consider these columns thanks for sticking with me for another year.
Let's begin with the incomparable Patrick Molloy. He's not only a terrific golfer, he's also the first blind student at Muhlenberg College since the Americans With Disabilities Act became law.
In August, I tagged along as Molloy and his mother road-tripped from Newtown Borough to map and memorize the 82-acre Allentown campus. As he measured the distance between dorms and academic buildings, Molloy inputted coordinates into a handheld GPS device.
The preparation paid off on the first day, when a transfer student in Molloy's Spanish class needed directions to the bookstore.
"I can take you there," Molloy told the stunned woman. After successfully delivering his charge to her destination, "she realized I was just another college student who happened to be blind, as opposed to a blind guy who happened to be a college student."
Academically, the studious freshman found his groove. Handouts are e-mailed to him as PDF files, then downloaded, converted to Microsoft Word documents, and saved on a memory stick plugged into a program called BrailleNote.
"When a professor assigns reading, I start it as soon as the class is over," he explains. Exams can't be e-mailed, "so I take them on a flash drive in the Disabilities Office."
Following his father's instructions to play as hard as he works, Molloy tells me he spends weekends with pals attending concerts or going to parties. He joined the pre-law society. He took up aikido.
Over winter break, once Molloy catches up on his sleep, the would-be lawyer will embark on his first job shadow: He'll spend a day with a lawyer in Doylestown - who also happens to be blind.
Catholic mothers speak out
In March, after the release of another unsparing grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, I had coffee with two suburban mothers whose Catholicism both devastates and defines them. Kathy Kane and Susan Matthews were meeting for the first time, but felt like old friends.
Matthews, of Huntingdon Valley, had recently launched a website, www.catholics4change.com, seeking a vehicle to connect with other furious, but faithful, members of her flock. Kane, of West Chester, had been inspired by the dialogue to hatch a campaign she called "A Photo, an Envelope and a Stamp," urging parents to send then-Cardinal Justin Rigali images of their children as a reminder of whom the archdiocese should be protecting.
Traffic to Matthews' website exploded to 1,000 visitors a day after the column's publication, with debates taking place among Catholics in the city, suburbs, Rome, and Ireland. The mothers who felt alone found strength in strangers when they needed it most.
"After your column," Matthews shares, "the priest who married me, baptized both my children, and employed me at the archdiocese was removed from ministry."
Her children still attend Catholic school, but Matthews says she's "done with the Catholic institution as it stands now." She's separated abiding faith from the formality of Mass she can no longer tolerate.
"The leadership," she says, "has failed everyone and God."
Frustrated and inspired, the accidental activists trudge on pushing for legislation that will expand civil-litigation options for abuse victims.
This work, Kane insists, "reflects the lessons I was taught in 16 years of Catholic education." Archdiocesan leaders may disagree, but "I think the man upstairs is OK with me. . . . That's all that matters."
Grieving dog owners find joy
Over the summer, I shared the grief and gripes of Nancy and Tom Stanley, a Springfield, Delaware County, couple aching from the loss of their cheeky chocolate Lab, Baxter.
The dog died while being treated at the VCA Old Marple Animal Hospital, which wins my award for worst bedside manner by hounding the mourning owners for $400 they didn't owe. The animal clinic even had the gall to mail the pooch posthumous marketing pitches.
Time flies when you're having fun, read one crass come-on decorated with paw prints. Baxter, it's time to schedule your next visit.
The Stanleys, both medical professionals, demanded answers and a partial refund, since Baxter expired hours after they spent more than $1,000 for tests and medicine he couldn't possibly have received. And no way would they pay the mysterious new bill for $400.
"After much consternation, Marple Vet wrote off the $400," reports Nancy Stanley. But no refund was issued. And no one ever explained Baxter's final hours.
After seething and grieving, the Stanleys adopted a mastiff/Lab mix from Main Line Animal Rescue.
"His name is Max. He's about 4 years old and very good with kids," she shares. "He's a lot like Baxter and we love him."
A working mother gets well
Finally, I'm pleased to report that Michell Basalik is still clocking in for work each day in Trenton.
Basalik was one of 120 employees at New Jersey Network slated to be laid off last summer when Gov. Christie handed the state-run TV station to New York's WNET. That she was producing the news while undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer made the imminent loss worthy of her own broadcast.
Fellow staffers rallied around Basalik, pitching her story and donating 260 sick days to get her through chemo, a double mastectomy, and radiation. But the paid time off could be used only if she found another job with the state.
"The day we were getting laid off, I got a call from the Governor's Office to see if I wanted to be transferred to a job in public affairs," Basalik reports. "I said I'd do anything. I'd work anywhere. I'd do whatever I had to do."
Basalik spent a few days at the new post before chemo knocked her out for the summer and early fall. She returned in October after her operation, working half-days while undergoing radiation.
"The most important thing was getting better, but working is a big part of my life," she explains. "I love the new job. It's not TV, but it's communications and social media. The people have been so sympathetic and understanding."
Basalik has been back full time since November, missing only for monthly Herceptin therapy. She remains overwhelmed by the kindness of colleagues who made her health their priority.
"I feel like one of the lucky ones," but her recovery is tempered by others' pain. Basalik's tumor is gone, but her friends from NJN have not found new jobs.
"They're still on unemployment," she says, regretfully, "and I have 100 of their sick days left."