Monday, November 3, 2014

John Avlon’s Picks for 12 Best Opinion Columns of 2012

Example: Mitch Albom - From bank job to trimming bushes, man keeps his faith

By Mitch Albom
Detroit Free Press Columnist
August 12, 2012

He kneels in garden beds. He trims branches and lays mulch. Once upon a time, five months ago, he had an important position as a security official for Fidelity Bank, a place he'd worked for 38 years. He wore a suit and tie to work.

Today, he wears shorts and a tank top and prunes hedges or clears flowerbeds for neighbors or older folks. It is, to date, the only work he can find.

"I have to make ends meet," he says.

His name is Rick Vallee, he is 59 years old, and he is one of so many Americans who thought life was going to be different. He thought by this age, he'd be winding down, looking forward to retirement.

Instead, he is unemployed, he cannot afford health insurance, and he can barely cover his bills, supporting a wife and family, including a disabled son. The bank he worked for was purchased by another. The new bank used him for transition, then told him he was done. He handed his key to a woman he barely knew, and walked out the door of his once-familiar working life into a new corner of America, a vast and depressing landscape known as "What Now?"
When companies buy companies

As a devoted Christian, Rick says, "This is where the rubber meets the road. But just because I'm a believer doesn't mean I don't have concerns."

Rick's story will sound sadly familiar. He started as a bank teller in 1974 and worked his way up through the company. Branch management. Security officer. Eventually he was named a vice president charged with enforcing the Bank Secrecy Act, a government initiative aimed at identifying security concerns such as identity theft and terrorism funding.

At its peak, he says, Fidelity had a portfolio of more than a billion dollars. Rick handled security for all 15 branches.

Then the economic downturn happened. Things began to darken. The bank was failing. There were rumors of a sale. Rick hoped the buyer would be a growing company, which might have use for his expertise.

Instead, Fidelity was purchased by a much larger firm. Rick came home and told his wife, "This is it." He sensed he would not be needed in a place that already had so many people.

He was right.

He endured the painful, antiseptic end, a Friday afternoon visit by government officials and new ownership, who waited until 5 o'clock, then began dismantling his office, taking his computer, stripping the Fidelity name, losing all shreds of the old regime.

A few months later, they lost him, too. After 38 years. No severance. No pension. No company. Just an offer of COBRA insurance, which can be laughingly unaffordable once you're fired.
So many are underemployed

I know Rick. It was my idea to write about him, not his. He is not a complainer. Quite the opposite. He is humble, soft-spoken, embarrassed to even mention that he continues his weekly charity work with a local food pantry. He lives modestly, in a small ranch house in Shelby Township. He has never adopted a "Why should I care anymore?" approach.

He tried all his banking contacts. There were simply no jobs. He looked at his prospects, looked at his bills and picked up some landscaping tools, hoping to earn a few dollars. He was not ashamed to do physical labor, despite all the work suits in his closet.

"There are some times out there when I can't believe it," he admits. "But I know God has a plan for me. I just wonder what it is."

You don't know anymore in this country. That white-haired guy in Starbucks might have been a district manager somewhere last year. That woman taking your order at Denny's might have been an executive assistant. And that man cutting your hedge might have once made sure your money was safe.

Rick still prays a company could use his skills. He remains upbeat, and there is something inspiring in that, people who take the bitter yet hope for the sweet. But it is no longer a great distance from the office to the flowerbed, and while the promise of this country always will glow, we are all learning this: You cannot count on the strength of your workplace, only your own.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or His new novel, "The Time Keeper" (Hyperion, $24.99, 224 pages), will be released Sept. 4. He will sign copies: Sept. 4, Barnes & Noble, 14165 Hall, Shelby Township, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 6, Barnes & Noble, 3235 Washtenaw, Ann Arbor, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 7, Barnes & Noble, 6800 Orchard Lake, West Bloomfield, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 8, Sam's Club, 15700 Northline, Southgate, noon; Sept. 8, Costco, 20000 Haggerty, Livonia, 2:30 p.m.

John Strauss: Fun, foul-ups part of pledge drives

By John Strauss 
November 1, 2014
This is pledge season for public radio stations across the country. And the pleas for support, tiresome for some listeners, can be exhausting for the people pitching behind the microphones.

Angie Rapp, marketing manager for Indiana Public Radio and WIPB-TV at Ball State University, has worked behind the scenes and on-air — pitching, or asking for contributions, producing the show, organizing volunteers, serving food, washing dishes and even taking out the trash.

Sitting in front of the mic was the hardest job when she started.

“It’s incredibly hard the first time,” she said. “It’s intimidating and a little scary because you’re afraid you’ll mess up.”

But the fear passes when you remember the basics: Be yourself. Just try to have a conversation with the other person in the studio — and with the listeners.

“At the end of the day you’re just talking about something you’re really passionate about, and that part is easy.”

Behind the scenes and on the air

Plenty goes on behind the scenes at Indiana Public Radio, a group of five stations between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, based at WBST in Muncie. Volunteers in a converted conference room answer the phones and take pledges. A manager tallies the contributions. Some givers offer a matching challenge: Raise a certain amount in an hour, say $300, and they’ll contribute the same amount to double the contributions.

Through a soundproof window, the phone volunteers can see into a studio next door where the on-air crew is pleading for pledges. They’re with a producer who keeps track of the clock and makes sure they finish up in time to rejoin the network. Talk too long and you risk “upcutting,” the NPR feed by talking over it.

In a second adjoining studio, a board operator switches between the network feed and the studio where the volunteers are pitching. That person makes sure the right elements are being played, including weather breaks, news and underwriting announcements.

Mistakes happen all the time, glitches in the show that add their own spontaneous charm.

During “All Things Considered,” for example, the producer will have a list of times, down to the second, when the period to ask for contributions can begin and end.

People making the pitch have been known to completely lose their train of thought or misread the clock.

“I did that,” Rapp said. “I thought we were out of time, when really we had three minutes to go.”

She started waving frantically at IPR staffer Matt Bloom, her partner in the broadcast, right in the middle of his careful explanation about how to give.

“He didn’t know what to think,” she said.

“But that happens: At least one time in every pledge, you lose your train of thought and hit a brick wall.”

Watching the clock

Emily Kowalski, member services coordinator, started working pledge drives in 2009.

“I got to be on the air the first time that year,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

Her partner reminded her to pretend they were just having a conversation.

She had been briefed on hand signals the producer would use when their time was up. A raised index finger signifies one minute to go. A cupped hand like the letter “C” means 30 seconds. A fist means 15 seconds.

Kowalski paid attention but promptly forgot all the signals in the excitement. Not even the large digital clocks on the walls help every time.

“I had a hard time talking and watching the clock,” she said.

“You start talking and you get on a roll. Then the producer will start waving their hands because they’ve been trying to tell you that you only have a few seconds left.”

Ahead: More voices, more smiles

When not on the air she helps organize the pledge drives. There are two a year, and about a month after one drive has ended, she starts planning the next, calling volunteers, getting people scheduled in the jobs.

She’s already started thinking about what to do in the spring.

“We’ll have a few more voices on the air, some that we haven’t heard before. We’ll have people from the community who our listeners will know. We’ll make the listeners smile.”

Kowalski knows pledge drives aren’t always popular.

“But they’re necessary. And if we could just get those other nine people you know, who aren’t members but who listen, to pledge just $40 per year we wouldn’t have to be on the air so long.”

Like everybody else who’s worked on-air for the drive, she’s had her moments.

“The worst thing is when you’re on the air and in the middle of a sentence, and you forget what you’re saying. I’ve done that. I was being really dramatic. I was gesturing and I was saying, ‘You just need to pick up the phone, and….’

Her mind went blank. She couldn’t think of what to say next.

But her partner knew what to do. Stephanie Wiechmann jumped in and said:

“Yes! Pick up the phone now - and dial 1-800-646-1812.”

John Strauss, a Ball State University journalism instructor, is interim general manager of Indiana Public Radio and WIPB-TV, the public broadcasting stations owned by the university.

Looking back: the bus passenger column

(This is a look back at a column I did for The Indianapolis Star, posted here as part of a class discussion on opinion writing - jcs)

Bus drivers to remember a favorite passenger -- and friend

By John Strauss
The Indianapolis Star
May 2, 2003
Maude Bryant stood at a bus stop on East Washington Street, about to die.

Amid all the other traffic on that busy street, a speeding Chevy Blazer was headed her way.

She held a box of chicken from the restaurant across the street. She had a monthly bus pass. She probably had a pack of gum to give her bus driver, because that's what she liked to do.

It was just before 2 p.m. on Saturday.

What happened next, you may have seen in the news -- the 76-year-old woman run down on the sidewalk, and the SUV driver charged with reckless homicide and causing a traffic death while intoxicated.

This is about what happened before Saturday.

Maude was her name, but everybody called her Sam. She had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old. You could call that a deficiency, but friends saw instead the smile and enthusiasm of a happy child.

Some of her best friends were city bus drivers. She rode the bus just to have something to do sometimes, and they looked after her.

When Sam had trouble handling her money, driver Jeannie Kemerly stepped in. She organized things and put Sam on a budget, so she could live on her own and not have to go to an institution.

Sam became an honorary member of the family. Because Kemerly's three daughters had boys' nicknames -- Charlie, Oscar and George -- she wanted one, too. And that's how she became Sam.

When Kemerly died last year, one of her daughters, Cheryl Yarnell, took over as unofficial guardian, helping Sam remain independent.

On Thanksgiving and Easter, Sam could usually be found at the home of another IndyGo driver, Rhuperdia Chandler.

"I try to help everybody, but I loved Sam. She was family," Chandler said. "She loved everybody. I've never known anybody like her before."

Chandler heard about the crash while getting ready for church Sunday morning. IndyGo called her at home because police were contacting Sam's family of bus drivers trying to find the woman's real relatives.

She does have a brother and a sister. But both are in other cities and in poor health. So bus drivers were pitching in for a memorial service today.

It's at Shirley Brothers Irving Hill Chapel, 5377 E. Washington St. Visitation is from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., with a memorial service at 7.

That's only a block from the spot where Sam died. Friends have put up some red and pink artificial flowers and a toy mouse on a utility pole.

Sam had been standing next to the pole, waiting for her bus. The impact from the Blazer knocked her 60 feet. The thought of that made it hard for Chandler to sleep this week. More than anything, she hoped that Sam didn't suffer. Maybe, she hoped, her friend never even saw the truck.

Police said the Blazer was traveling at least 51 mph -- 75 feet per second.

It went onto the sidewalk just a few feet before the pole. In other words, everything happened in a split second.

In a cloud with no silver lining, the friends of Sam had to settle for this:

She lived a good life. Then, thank God, it ended before she knew it.