Near the final few years of my working career, a new supervisor gave me an assignment that surprised and pleased me, but made me very nervous: to put together a monthly newsletter for the staff. He envisioned something simple; an information sheet that would introduce new staff or say farewell to those leaving, note staff member birthdays, or provide timely warning to our employees on the constant changes coming our way (which, in our little corner of State service, might mean almost anything–from new programs or phone service to picking up “lock, stock and barrel” and moving the whole division right across the building).
Over time though—and I wrote the newsletter for several years—that simple paper grew in complexity, and, I hoped, usefulness to the employees who read it. Certainly, my supervisor thought so, for when I retired, he wrote me what I found to be one of the finer compliments I’ve ever received, saying that I had taken a simple assignment and turned it into something quite remarkable. It was true that regular features and columns in the newsletter sprouted: Pete the Pet Peeve and The Staff Photo Gallery; the Welcome Mat, The Q&A and the ever-popular Secret Code—a quiz or puzzle with tiny prizes awarded to the staff members who solved it.
But of everything I worked on during those years of creating the monthly newsletter, the column that gave me the greatest enjoyment—and trepidation—each month was The Staff Spotlight.
At the suggestion of another employee, I began to do a monthly interview with one person and write a feature article about him or her. In point of fact, I corralled the woman who suggested the column and told her, à la Aesop’s famous fable, to bell the cat: I made her agree to be interviewed and featured first. In doing so, I learned much about the young woman that I’d never even suspected. Someone who had been to me just another employee became vivid, real, three-dimensional—so much so that when, a few years later, she lost a family member, I was able to go to her and, when offering my condolences, say, “This was the grandfather who taught you to ride and gave you a pony, wasn’t it?”
Occasionally, I nearly tore my hair out while trying to coax a reticent and introverted staff member to share something that would make for good reading without intruding on her or his personal reserve. But always the column aligned with one of my truest and deepest beliefs: that everyone—every single person—is interesting, remarkable, noteworthy; has depths and abilities quite unsuspected.
I learned that one woman made balloon animals at street fairs and events; that a man I rarely spoke with led expeditions for Eagle scouts and travelled extensively. Two women, both immigrants from India, shared their vivid memories of the wonder of seeing snow for the first time. Another employee had done missionary work in extremely poor countries and had a lively recollection of the joy of some young children on being given a soccer ball. A woman who fed feral cats laughed about being known to the neighborhood’s strays as “a sucker with a buffet on the porch”. In the most macabre and unsettling of all the columns, a young man mentioned having witnessed death and injuries during the collapse of the bleachers at a concert on the Indiana state fairgrounds, and then spoke of several favorite Indie bands, laughing and saying, “They all have ‘death’ in the band names; I don’t know why!” Just a few weeks after his Staff Spotlight column appeared, this young man died suddenly, choking to death in a dreadful accident.
The Staff Spotlight provided me—and every staff member who read the columns–a window on the world of dozens of people whom we otherwise would just have known as nothing more than coworkers: liked, disliked, friendly, interesting, boring, difficult, or simply there.
I remember with pleasure that, almost inevitably, the featured staff member would ask me to print a hard copy of their column for them, or to e-mail them a file of the newsletter, so they could share their feature with family and friends. When that young man died just after his Staff Spotlight feature ran, I printed a copy of the newsletter for his widow, so that she would be able to share it some day with the toddler and infant sons who would not remember their father.
Working as a State employee, much of what I did in my job for many years was mundane, rote, routine and even soulless…but not the writing each month of that little column in a newsletter that reached fewer than a hundred people. I still look back fondly on the years of drawing careful word sketches of disparate and varied individuals, coming to know them as the special souls they were.