Where were you on 9-11?

9.11front

(Column originally ran on Sept. 11, 2009)

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was working for the Blue Springs Examiner selling advertising. Heading into work, and running a few minutes behind, I left the house about 8:15 a.m. When I started the car, I almost knew instantly something was wrong. It was the same feeling I had back when we invaded Iraq when I was in high school. My regular music station, 101 The Fox, wasn’t playing music, and it was eerie listening to a disc jockey try and explain that we were now at war.

On this fateful day, again, there was no music on my music station, only silence and background noise.

I quickly turned to 980 AM and couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

As I pulled into the office, I slammed my Grand Am into park, raced inside and asked if anyone had heard what was going on. Being a newsroom, of course, they had.

I immediately turned on the TV in the small break room of what is now Rod’s Sports on R.D. Mize. I remember frantically trying to keep up with the ‘crawl’ at the bottom of the screen, a seemingly genius news idea that hasn’t gone away since we were attacked that day.

I called my parents. I called my editors in Independence. I called my friends.

Like many Americans that day, I felt chaotic and helpless at the same time. It was a surreal mix of anger and fear that only intensified as I watched the second tower hit fall down, then the first.

I remember screaming in the break room each time something happened – a plane hitting the Pentagon, another going down in a field in Pennsylvania.

Knowing I wasn’t going to get a lick of selling done that day, I eventually headed to Independence where the newsroom was bustling with energy. The front page had to be redone, the news and photo wires were going crazy and plans were being made to put together a special section on what was now being called a terrorist attack on our country.

I remember crying a few times that day, especially when I attended an impromptu church service that night at the parish I grew up in, St. Mark’s Catholic Church.

We felt pride as Americans and defeat for all the innocent lives lost all in the period of a day. It was more emotion than any of us were prepared for, especially with the intense and often close-up media coverage given to the events of the day.

I remember being proud to be a member of the media that day, too – something I have felt many times in my career despite what some may say about our profession.

The day took a lot out of us, and even more in the form of sacrifice from many that lived and worked in the cities that were hit and soon after with the enormous task we were about to ask of our military.

It was a day that culminated with many of us slowly walking in the front door of our homes that evening, slumping into a chair and trying desperately to find something else on TV.

And no matter how your night ended, you will never forget how it began that morning.

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From rough to rational to respect

When I was 22, I had a bit of a problem.

I thought I knew it all.

While that’s not uncommon for type-A folks, it sure didn’t bode well for my entry into the workforce.

At this point in my life, I was (I thought) an accomplished collegiate and semi-pro writer, professional student, waiter, bartender and known cynic.

On my first day at The Examiner newspaper, I met my match.

Dick Puhr didn’t care what I had written. Or who I knew. Or what I thought was interesting. He knew stats. He knew copy. He knew infinitely more than I did. Sadly, it took me years to realize that.

As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, any newspaper team worth its salt will start to work better as a unit. That happened at The Examiner, certainly.

As we transitioned away from longtime sports editor Huey Counts to the new boss on the block, Karl Zinke, we had to learn styles, quarks and strengths. A sports writing team that ranged from creative features to award-winning game coverage and compelling column writing became the norm around Eastern Jackson County. We did it better than anyone. And, without always acknowledging it, we did it that good because Dick Puhr was a walking encyclopedia of high school and prep sports knowledge.

As I learned to better pick my battles and do more listening than talking, I started to hear things from Dick that I hadn’t ever processed before.

Connections between coaches and schools. Records and historical data. And just the off-the-wall stories that rattled around in his head that he would, quite randomly, throw out. I caught myself more than once asking to hear a Dick story about a coach that got booted from a high school basketball game or an athlete’s inspiring performance in the face of adversity.

As my role at The Examiner changed over the years, I heard less and less stories and that familiar pecking of the typewriter at the desk right next to me. Still, when Dick was in the office, you knew it. He was a proud Rotarian. A staunch stat keeper. A fair journalist.

When I left for Iowa, Dick flat out asked me if I was ready for this new role as a newspaper publisher. That stopped me in my tracks. And I remember we ended up just sitting at our adjacent desks and talking about it for a while.

Years later, when I returned to run the Lee’s Summit Journal, Dick called to welcome me back. And to tell me about an error that was on my sports page. In fact, that turned into a routine. And really, I didn’t mind at all. It was good to hear from him and getting that still-stern “correction” from him all these years later just made me smile.

The last few conversations this year with Dick helped solidify the respect I have for him. First, he called to congratulate me on hiring a former colleague of his, Dave McQueen, to the sports editor position at my papers. Months later, he called to wish me well after he had heard I was laid off from the newspaper industry. That meant far more than I could have even communicated to him.

Dick is an example of why we should tell people they appreciate them in their living years.

I began this column around 8:30 on Nov. 22, a few hours after getting home from visiting Dick in hospice care. I was able to tell him about my new job, my 4-year old daughter Addy, read him some of his cards and just talk to him. I woke up around 3 a.m. Nov. 23 to the news that he had passed away around 11 p.m.

So, I finish this column after his passing. Thank you for a half-century of sports coverage Dick.

Some use the “there will never be another” adage here. In all honesty, there cannot be.

What Dick did in all those years and weeks of hours of journalism is, though, thankfully recorded for all to read for the next 50 years and beyond. He was as much a historian as a writer.

That contribution is timeless.