A couple weeks ago, I was doing final clean-up in my old office, the one I occupied three jobs ago, when I was The Oregonian's recruitment director. A metal filing cabinet held dozens of files I'd left behind for my successors as sources of institutional knowledge.
With each manila folder I emptied into a recycling bag, I was reminded of so many pleasant memories:
-- Minority journalist conventions and job fairs in South Dakota and Wisconsin; Chicago, L.A. and D.C.; Austin, Tallahassee and tiny, little Ruston (home of Louisiana Tech University). Campus visits to Evanston, Chapel Hill, Muncie, Bowling Green and Berkeley.
-- Meetings of newsroom administrators and recruiters -- first at the venerable New York Times, then here in Portland, where I assembled the program, lined up speakers and made arrangements for meals and hotels for out-of-town guests.
-- Brochures touting nonprofit and graduate school training programs aiming to boost the number of minority journalists in American newsrooms.
-- A thick file of class materials from a management training program I attended one summer at Northwestern University. For six weeks, I shared a dorm room with another editor, attended classes taught by business faculty and visiting executives, and developed public speaking, negotiating, networking skills that have served me well in the 15 years since.
I tossed almost all of it with the realization that these were artifacts from another era, when newspapers were flush with cash, the internet was in its infancy, and The Oregonian's star was rising on the national scene. Back then, I took great pride in being able to spot great prospects (especially those who were first in their family to attend college) who I would later recruit to our newsroom or just help get launched somewhere else.
I even discarded the many thank-you notes that had accumulated over the years. All except one. It was from Margarita Contin, a UC-Santa Cruz student I met in the mid-'90s at a job fair in San Francisco. I took note of her because of our shared Mexican heritage and the fact she hailed from Gilroy, about 80 miles south, where one of my favorite uncles and his family lived.
In a typewritten letter dated June 21, 1995, Margarita thanked me for talking with her and reminded me of her plans to attend Syracuse University in the fall to pursue a masters in journalism.
"I hope we can keep in contact while I'm in school," she wrote. "I'll be graduating in December 1996 and will be interested in a full-time reporting position on a daily, preferably closer to the West Coast."
Reading her note and seeing her stylish signature made me feel ... wistful. For, you see, Margarita never had the chance to fulfill the potential that I and so many others saw in her.
Eight months later, she died by suicide. Margarita had worked as an intern for the San Jose Mercury News and had just begun a new job as a reporter for the Long Beach Press-Telegram when she died February 4, 1997. Her death, at age 24, shocked her teachers and prospective employers, who saw so much promise in her.
From my volunteer work and service on the board of The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families, I've come to understand that people turn to suicide because their mind just isn't working right. Ending their life is the only way they see to stop their pain. Who knows what demons drove Margarita to take her life?
Oh, how I wish things had turned out differently. I'm certain Margarita would have been a fine journalist and a wonderful colleague -- if not at The Oregonian, then surely somewhere else.
I've kept relatively few of the cards and letters I've received from various students and new hires. It is with profound sadness for what might have been that I will keep this one, too.
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