I met Mike Dunham in 2005. We were in New York City attending the Arts Journalism Institute for Classical Music at Columbia University. Mike had traveled a long way to get there. He’s the award-winning arts editor of the Anchorage Daily News in Anchorage, Alaska. There were 25 journalists in New York that year. Since then, we’ve kept in touch using an email listserv, though I haven’t been as good as others in maintaining contact. Most times, the emails are informative or supportive or friendly. This time, however, it was touching. It must be the depth of Alaskan winters that makes men and women learn to care so deeply for each other. Whatever the cause, I’m grateful for this story. I hope you’ll agree that this is a great reason to be a writer. —J.S.

. . . . .

Sometimes writing for a living seems like a preposterous and useless chore. It can get discouraging, especially in midwinter. So I thought I’d share this.

On the way home tonight I swung by a pizzeria where a party was underway celebrating Joe Booi’s 50th year in the same house. His neighbors were throwing it, the older lady on the west side of him and a much younger woman on the east, and maybe 20 others. Joe’s in his 80s, a Pearl Harbor survivor who had several adventures in the Navy during the great World War II, including having one aircraft carrier torpedoed out from under him.

I only had a moment, but I felt the need to stop and say hi. Not many people live in one house around here for 50 years. Anchorage wasn’t 30 years old when he moved to it. And I’d forgotten to call him on Veterans Day and on Pearl Harbor Day, two important days for him. A sweet, sweet guy who knows how to fix anything and is good to keep on your friendly side. I originally met him when he popped up and volunteered to make a turntable that would play slow-speed radio transcription discs for a story I was working on. He charmed me enough that I wrote a profile of him. That must have been 10 years ago.

After some politenesses, I pushed back my chair to leave and as I stood up he shouted, “You changed my life, Mike Dunham. You changed my life.” The whole table was staring at me now. I looked at him questioningly. “No I didn’t,” I said. But he persisted. “My kids knew I was in the war, but they never asked any questions until you wrote that article about me,” he said.

Those kids would be adult children from his first marriage. I’ve never met them, but always had the feeling they wrote him off after he married that chain-smoking floosie, Pat, and took off for Alaska. (I never knew Pat in her floosie days, but could imagine; she was quite vapid and must have got by on looks and personality. She died five years ago from Alzheimer’s.)

He’d never told me that the article got his kids in communication with him again. But it was terribly important for him. Those few years in the Navy when the fate of the world rocked on his young shoulders remain the defining time of his life. Nothing mattered more to him than having his children know about it. Maybe he was just trying to buck me up. But I’d never heard him actually holler before. I think he was trying to tell me that I’d validated his existence.

So this is why I write for a newspaper. I’ll say it again, it was humbling. I’m still kinda trembling about it.

May this Christmas let us all recognize the Joe Boois in our lives and careers. It’s not the stories we think are critical that matter. We may never know the ones that matter until an old guy at a pizza joint blurts out something.

Good night – MD