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New reporter brings old passion, top experience to paper

The newspaper this week welcomes the first of what we hope will be more than one addition to our staff and offers this column by her as a way of getting acquainted.

Staff writer

I knew in third grade that I wanted to be a reporter.

I hadn’t yet learned the real word for the profession that was my first love — storytelling. No one used that word on my favorite TV show, “Lou Grant.” (Depending on your age, you might now have a rough idea of mine.)

My parents indulged my obsession by letting me make little neighborhood newsletters that I delivered to my friends’ homes in — wait for it —Marion, Iowa, which is where I grew up.

Later, after we moved to Garden City for my dad’s job with the co-op, I was editor of my junior high and high school newspapers.

My first front-page story as editor of the Sugar Beet, my high school’s newspaper, was about a fellow student who used a wheelchair.

Our high school didn’t have elevators at the time, and a team of students would carry his wheelchair up two flights of stairs to get him to some of his classes.

That seemed wholly unsafe and unfair to me. Because it was.

After my story, school administrators found a way to accommodate him.

I became a journalist because I want to do my part to help make the world a better place. That’s as true for me at age 55 (Were you close in your guess about how old I am?) as it was when I was a teenager.

Reporters are public servants.

The William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas was ranked second in the country in 1985 when I started my first year of college.

Admission into the J-school, as we Jayhawk journalists call it, required two years of classes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences first. I tested out of 100-level classes because of my scores on AP tests, so I was able to concentrate on other interests, including political science and women’s studies.

The J-school was extraordinarily competitive; the classes, rigorous. Not everyone who applied to the school was accepted. The J-school at KU, sadly, is much different now.

My journalism professors had worked as editors at the Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Press, and The New York Times.

J-school being classified as a professional school, just like the law and medical schools at KU, meant that J-school students learned by doing. I met the people I consider siblings at J-school.

A core group of five of us still go on vacations together nearly 35 years later. We’re spread out across the country, but they’re the people I could call at 4 a.m. with an emergency and know that they’d get on the next flight.

So KU isn’t just where I learned my trade. It’s where this only child became a sister for the first time.

One of my brothers became a deputy business editor at The New York Times. Another brother is a senior writer focused on climate change at National Geographic. (He might not be able to jump on a plane to see me; he’s reported from every continent in the world and is regularly in far-flung places I’ve never heard of much less visited.)

I put myself through college, working three jobs at all times. I spent summers as a camp counselor outside Estes Park. That I got paid to hike, raft, climb, make art, and ride horses in the Rockies still amazes me.

From 1989 to 2015, I worked as a reporter and editor in Lawrence; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Terre Haute, Indiana; and Wichita.

I spent 16 years at the Eagle.

When I arrived in September 1999, about 120 journalists worked in that newsroom. You can simply remove the zero from that number today.

I chose to leave in 2015, having survived several rounds of layoffs. Corporate-owned, we were razor-focused on clicks, and quite frankly, it broke my heart that we spent so much time answering the question, “Are we ever going to get a Cheesecake Factory?”

Who cares. (I sure didn’t.)

During my time at the Eagle, I covered crime (including BTK and two horrific quadruple homicides in December 2000 that occurred one week apart), courts, consumer news, the Kansas Legislature, and Sedgwick County. I served on the “enterprise” team, an industry word for investigative reporting.

I wrote two weekly columns during my time there: one focused on open records and one in which I helped consumers resolve problems with companies and public agencies. I returned hundreds of thousands of dollars to people’s bank accounts.

I served on the boards of the Kansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.

Open records are one of my my specialties as a journalist.

Fun story: I helped organize the first statewide open records project in Kansas, modeled after one that an editor and I had worked on in Indiana.

Reporters from across Kansas sought open records in all 105 counties — records that belong to citizens.

During the project, the then-undersheriff of Harper County arrested me because I had been “goin’ round town asking questions.”

I’d already been to the school district’s office to learn the high school football’s coach’s salary, had stopped by the courthouse for the minutes of a government meeting, and was just getting out of my car at the sheriff’s office to ask for the most recent jail log when the undersheriff strolled up and asked to see my driver’s license.

“I’m sorry. Why do you need to see my driver’s license?” I asked him nicely. “I’m not driving.”

“You’ve been asking questions,” he answered.

“I don’t think that’s a crime,” I told him.

He hauled me into the sheriff’s office, interrogated me for a good while, and wouldn’t let me leave.

The protocol for the project was that we wouldn’t lie if asked directly whether we were reporters.

He grilled me about why I wanted the information I’d sought. Let me be clear here: No one has to explain why they want a record that’s available under the Kansas Open Records Act. It’s not a question that public officials should ask, and doing so violates the spirit of the law.

I know KORA as well as the Kansas Open Meetings Act almost word for word.

Anyway, the undersheriff clearly was about to put me in jail, and I was OK with that. I asked to make a phone call.

I slid him my editor’s business card.

“You’re a reporter?” he exclaimed. “Why didn’t you just tell me that?”

This is roughly how I answered: “I didn’t tell you I was a reporter because I’m part of a project investigating how public officials treat Kansans when they ask for information that belongs to them, and apparently in Harper County, they’re detained.”

This next little bit is my favorite part of the story. Mr. Undersheriff called my editor and said “Mr. Lewers, I’ve got your little gal here.”

My editor’s response: “OK. Could you tell me why?”

Mr. Undersheriff: “Well, she’s being going around asking questions.”

My editor: “Yes, I know.”

Mr. Undersheriff was sure that I was going to get into trouble. Instead, our little exchange landed in Columbia Journalism Review, a journalism trade publication, and Mr. Undersheriff found himself without a job a few weeks later.

(Not surprisingly, it turned out Mr. Undersheriff treated all women the way he treated me.)

I’m a lot of things, but I’m not anyone’s “little gal” — for so many reasons, including that there is nothing little about me.

Since leaving The Eagle, I’ve worked as communications director for a national nonprofit and as public affairs manager for a state agency. In 2019, I started my own business — Word Scout Communications Solutions — providing writing, editing, and public relations services to nonprofits and small businesses.

I haven’t missed working at the Eagle. I spent my last year there reviewing every child-in-need-of-care petition filed in the state’s largest court district while still covering my primary beats.

I’m the only person outside of the judicial system who’s ever had the “privilege” of reading child-in-need-of-care petitions.

I convinced Sedgwick County District Court’s chief administrative judge, the district attorney, the chief juvenile prosecutor, and the chief juvenile judge to open these records to me because I wanted our community to understand the level of abuse and neglect that children endure.

Quite frankly, what I saw, read, and wrote about during that year about broke me, and I’d already covered two serial killers by that time — Dennis Rader and Orville Lynn Majors — and hundreds of other terrible crimes.

However, my stories helped send two people convicted of child torture to prison. It’s a long, sad story that I don’t want to focus on here, but at 14 years old, she weighed 66 pounds. The state had finally removed her from her home after dozens of reports of child abuse and neglect — including by mandatory reporters. But investigators had not arrested the “parents” until my first Sunday front-page story about the case came out.

I had resigned from the Eagle by the time a judge sentenced those monsters, and so I got to sit next to the girl in court, which was the first time I saw her in person.

I gave her a nice Kate Spade journal to write in that said “She is quick and curious and confident and strong” on its cover.

Choking up, I told her “You can record all the good things that happen to you from this moment forward.”

“You saved my life,” she said, holding my hand.

I didn’t save her life.

I shined a light on it.

It was excruciatingly difficult work, that series of stories, but it embodied the reason I got into journalism: to make a difference.

A few other things I want to share about myself:

— I’m married to a walking encyclopedia. We just celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary.

— Animals are my people. We have two rescue dogs. Our border collie is named Harper Lee, and our terrier mix is named Boo Radley. (Yes, my favorite book and movie is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” )

— My mother is my sun, my moon, and all my stars. She’s 85 and despises Wichita, the biggest place she’s ever lived. She’s a firecracker, just like me.

— I don’t cotton to sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Racism and other -isms aren’t “political issues” to me. I want a world where people spread love and kindness — for everyone.

— I don’t start things. But trust me, I will finish them.

— I love to travel and am salty about missing our annual two-week summer trip to Maine, where my husband’s family has had a summer cottage on the coast since the 1950s. My husband — who spent every summer from birth to age 18 in Boothbay Harbor — proposed to me on our dock on the Atlantic Ocean, and that’s where we married.

— New York is my favorite city in the states, and so far, Iceland is my favorite overseas country, though Grand Bahama isn’t bad, either. I still need to check off Alaska and Hawaii but have been everywhere else in our country.

— I prefer dive bars and greasy spoons to fancy places (though I’ve dined at many), and while I’ve interviewed presidential candidates and had one-on-one time with a lot of “important” people, I’d rather spend time with blue-collar folks any day of the week.

— Why, yes, I do have personal opinions about just about everything. I’m a human being, after all. My personal opinions don’t impact my reporting because I abide by an oath to be impartial and faith just as a doctor takes an oath to do no harm.

Most important, I want you to know that I consider it a privilege to tell people’s stories. If you have ideas for me, please reach out.

— I’m thrilled to be working in Marion, and I’d appreciate story tips but also advice about the best burger and hand-cut fries in town, the best place to get an ice-cold Miller High Life, and an early heads up about homes at Marion County Lake that might be coming up for sale.

I’ll be getting out and about to meet folks, and if you’d like to meet me, please give me a call.

I’d like to meet you, too.

Last modified Aug. 11, 2022

 

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