Atlanta, City of a Hundred Hills

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The skyline view of Atlanta taken from the Jackson Street Bridge, made famous by the TV show The Walking Dead, and captured by me in September, 2017.

In August, I took a big leap and left the familiar landscapes of the Midwest for the wooded neighborhoods and often gridlocked streets of Atlanta, Georgia.

I accepted a job to cover Atlanta Public Schools and join the education team at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I packed the contents of my 1,200-square-foot Toledo loft into a suburban Atlanta apartment half that size. I signed a short-term lease and in addition to learning my new beat, am trying to figure out where to live in this sprawling city — threaded with unique neighborhoods but choked with traffic.

I’m getting to know a new place, culture, and people. I’m learning southern words (hants as a synonym for ghosts), exploring the international cuisine of Buford Highway, leaving an hour early to drive ten miles, and adjusting to being called ma’am (and facing rebukes from some southerners when I confess I find the courtesy title slightly off-putting).

I had no idea Atlanta was so hilly (it is just a couple hours from the Appalachian Mountains and on the piedmont after all, from whence our best park is named.)

I had no idea it was so forested.

I had no idea that one needed a Target, Home Depot, and a Publix every couple of miles.

Soon after moving here, I came across this description of the city by W. E. B. Du Bois. It’s lovely and fitting and makes me eager to get to know this new place.

SOUTH of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to curl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land.

W. E. B. Du Bois

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From shoe string to heart string

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Jamie Smith’s story is one of those rare tales that made me catch my breath and say “Someone has to write this story, and it has to be me.”

JERRY CITY, Ohio — A snippet of shoestring is one of the only clues to Jamie Smith’s mysterious birth 26 years ago.

On March 24, 1991, she was found in the back seat of an unlocked sedan in Fostoria. She appeared on the plush upholstery as if dropped by a stork one Sunday afternoon.

The unexpected bundle contained a pastel blanket, a blue towel, a boyish striped shirt sized for a kindergartner, and a quiet, 6-plus pound baby girl.

She was a couple days old and likely recently fed. A bit of string tied off her umbilical cord.

Those few threaded inches link Miss Smith to her secret past, which she’s trying to unravel as she searches for her birth mother.

(Full story and wonderful photos and video by Katie Rausch here).

Jamie Smith birth record

Her birth parents have never been located.

She grew up just 15 miles from the spot where she was abandoned, raised by a loving adoptive family who kept every shred of her secretive past: The first snapshots of the mystery  baby, the blanket she was wrapped in, the bit of shoe string.

But Jamie doesn’t know her birthday, or where she was born, much less why she was left. Her name has changed from Baby Jane Doe to Lisa to Jamie as she moved from backseat to foster care to her adoptive parents’ home in rural Wood County, Ohio.

That’s where  I met Jamie, her parents, and grandparents. We poured over the old newspaper clippings they saved, marveled at the bit of shoe lace, and talked about she wants to find her birth mother after all these years. She wants everyone to know how much she loves her parents, how happy her life has been, how she feels no resentment towards her biological mother.

“I know the possibility that they could want nothing to do with me. They could say … ‘We left you for a reason,’ ” she told me. “I feel prepared for that because I still have my family. I’m just curious about the second one.”

I’m so happy to see newspapers  across  the  country pick up this story. I hope it brings Jamie a few of the answers she’s looking for.

Sounding it out

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My Southern Revival series about the return of African-Americans to the South wrapped up last week. This is the culmination of about five weeks of work — from researching the reversal of the Great Migration to finding sources and pre-interviews and then driving to Georgia and Mississippi to spend time with each source in their homes. Once back in Ohio, I planned the graphics, obtained the demographic and academic background, pitched the project to editors as a series of stories, tracked down historic photographs, and developed a newsy second Sunday story about how younger, educated African-Americans are leading the exit out of Ohio to the detriment of Rust Belt cities such as Toledo.

The Blade has a page devoted to the project here, with links to all seven stories that ran over the course of six days in early February, plus video, portraits and historic photographs and — TA-DA — my first foray into  audio storytelling.

The audio was put together by The Blade’s new audio department, an effort spearheaded by a colleague who did all the heavy lifting on this. I’m really excited about the possibilities that come with telling stories through this medium. If you have about 4 minutes, listen to this excerpt of an interview with one of the primary sources as she talks about the adjustment of moving from  Ohio to Mississippi, where she played tuba in a marching band at an historically black college.

Southern Revival: Day 1

Today brings the first of six stories in the most extenstive project I’ve done while at The Blade. I’ve spent the last month researching, reporting, and writing about African Americans who are returning to the south in record numbers. The result is Southern Revival, a six-part series that began in today’s Sunday paper and concludes a week from today.

More than five million blacks left the South from 1910 to 1970 in search of better jobs and to escape brutal racism. But then, something strange happened: Some began to return home. By 2015, 58 percent of the nation’s African American population lived in the south — up from barely half in 1970.

My editors wanted a trend story for Black History Month, but nobody knew anyone who had actually left Toledo to return to the south. I spent a solid week checking with black fraternitites and sororities, University of Toledo alumni chapters in southern cities, and black churches. I spoke to local pastors, activists, school officials, coworkers, and even random people at a coffee shop.

The hustle paid off when I identified a half-dozen people with Toledo ties who were willing to tell me their stories. A photographer and I drove  13 hours to Valdosta, Ga., where we met the first of many fascinating people.

We ended our week-long trip in Tchula, Miss. There, at the edge of the Delta, we chatted for hours in the home of the family whose story kicks off the series.

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Today: Hilda Rayford, the marching band majorette who moved to Toledo in 1957, and her Toledo-born daughter who followed her parents back to their rural Mississippi farmland.

Check out the story and the photo gallery, which includes historic and current photos of The Rayfords’ life up north and down south.

Breaking news holiday garland

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Here’s a way to decorate, recycle, and remember.

Like every reporter, I have stacks of ink-filled notebooks — those long, skinny pads designed for stashing in a pocket or purse while out on assignment. I try to make a habit of regularly tearing out and recycling/ destroying the pages of notebooks I won’t need to reference again. It’s good for journalistic, legal, and privacy reasons (and to avoid being overtaken by piles of paper).

But this time, I tossed the pages and kept the cardboard covers. I created this festive holiday garland by gluing old Christmas wrapping paper to the back of each cover. (It’s a great way to reuse nearly pristine wrapping-paper instead of trashing it after opening up gifts). I punched a couple holes at the top of each pennant and strung craft twine through each small flag. Then, I hung up the three strands on the living room wall behind my Christmas tree.

It was fun to look back at my hastily jotted down description of what the notebook had contained. Each cover represents a deadline and a byline and a dateline from somewhere and some point in my career. As another year draws to a close, it’s a good reminder of the stories I’ve gotten to tell and the people I’ve met.

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On baking and newspapering

My Ohio-born and raised grandmother loved the Akron Beacon-Journal, her hometown paper. She lived in the same house on a tidy corner lot in Akron for more than 60 years. The daily delivery of the Beacon-Journal outlasted the milkman, the trolleys, the rubber factory.

But she complained when the Beacon-Journal began to shrink, when its once-robust business section nearly disappeared, and when the bundle landed with a soft pat instead of a thud on her porch steps.

Still, she read the paper cover-to-cover every day, even if that habit took a little less time.

In the last 15 years, I’ve worked in a couple of newsrooms where the features department or food editor asked fellow staff members to submit a favorite cookie recipe for a holiday-themed story or festive food page. I always thought about submitting my grandma’s anise cookie recipe. I knew she would get a huge kick out of seeing her recipe in print, getting a little credit, a tad-bit of newspaper fame. But whenever the opportunity presented itself, I never got around to sending in the recipe.

Our baking roles reversed as she got older. She couldn’t drive as easily to the grocery store to pick up the sugar, flour, and anise extract. She lived alone. She couldn’t bake, frost, and eat a six-dozen batch of cookies. More recently, I baked her anise cookies. I frosted them, and I carefully shipped a few of the most beautifully decorated ones to her each year.

My grandma died last October. This year, The Blade’s features department asked staffers to submit their favorite cookie recipes. The full page recipe collection ran in Sunday’s very-thick Toledo Blade.

Grandma, this one’s for you.

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Touchstone Awards

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Photo by Jeremy Wadsworth

The Press Club of Toledo recently gave out its 2016 Excellence in Journalism awards, and I’m proud to have received the honor in the print daily category. The award is for this January story, in which Toledo Public Schools grapples with its dismal 63.9 percent four-year high school graduation rate. That rate for the class of 2014 dropped Toledo to the bottom of the eight-urban-district heap in Ohio and made Toledo the second-worst performer in the entire state.

The story came out of the annual Ohio Department of Education school report card data dump, which includes tons of interesting but difficult-to-digest information. This nugget seems to be an especially important detail that local school leaders will be keeping a close eye on.

Just before I won an award for the story, the Toledo school system was able to claim a victory of its own. New department of education data shows Toledo’s class of 2015 four-year graduation rate bumped up to 70.3 percent. Here’s my update from September about that improvement.

Four more years

Saturday marked my fourth work anniversary at The Blade.

My first day in the Toledo newsroom was Oct. 8, 2012. I wrote an eight-inch story about a just-hired YMCA director and talked a lot about northern Michigan with incredulous new colleagues who wondered if I was crazy for leaving behind its beauty and beaches for the surface parking lots and empty storefronts of downtown Toledo.

It was then, as it is now, the height of the presidential election campaign. Ohio — this big, magnificent prize of a swing state– was and is again madness. The political atmosphere is nothing like Michigan, where candidates have long since fled after securing the primary nominations and barely looked back.

For proof of the zaniness that happens during presidential races, look no further than this scene in front of a strip mall in Toledo on a recent Saturday afternoon:

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Who is in the center of that throng? It’s not a Clinton, or a Trump, or even a Kaine or a Pence. It’s CJ, Toby, Charlie, Kate, Will, and Josh. As in the cast of the very bygone but much beloved political television drama.

The actors Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, Dule Hill, Mary McCormack, Joshua Malina, and Bradley Whitford reunited to take a bus tour around Ohio to stump for Hillary Clinton.

Like: the cast of The West Wing, clambering into the bed of a white pick-up truck to address a couple hundred Toledoans in a parking lot shared with a Little Caesar’s.

Without Aaron Sorkin writing the scripts, their speeches were more stilted than soaring. The crowd cared naught. They roared when Janney took the microphone and promised to come back to Toledo and repeat her lip-synced rendition of “The Jackal” if Clinton wins. It was a nice moment, even if the truck-bed rhetoric that preceded her promise was nowhere near as witty and winning as what C.J. Cregg would have delivered in front of a presidential podium in the White House press room.

It made for a nice moment as part of my story and the closest thing that I’ve ever had to a viral Tweet:

Four years in Ohio, and even the crazy parts are starting to look sorta normal.Let’s see what the next four weeks bring.

Newsroom Pokemon

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Picture the person you know least likely to be swept up in this Pokemon Go game craze. Now add red lipstick, vintage clothes, a penchant for hats and late 1990s hip-hop and you’ve got me.

And yet, here I am sweeping the streets of Toledo and waving my iPhone around every nook and cranny of the newsroom as I try to catch these insidious little pocket monsters. I downloaded the augmented reality game on Sunday after reading about the Wyoming girl who discovered a dead body in a river while playing. (Because I’m a reporter that intersection of virtual world meeting very real world appealed to me even though I didn’t know a Pikachu from a pineapple.) I’ve now spent the last five days building up my Pokedex and hitting up Pokestops. I really don’t even know who I am anymore.

But the fun side-effect of all this Poke-nonsense is the instant camaraderie I’ve felt with other players. Downtown Toledo, typically a dead zone on nights when the baseball team isn’t playing at home, is swarming with Pokemon fans. I’ve gotten to know several, including DeAngelo, a particularly diligent player who works at Goodwill Industries and who was gracious enough to place a lure module (I know, ridiculous, right? How is it that I just used those words) at the Pokestop outside The Blade. We spent my 15-minute break catching Pidgeys and Drowzees on the sidewalk. He asked me to take his photo with a purple Rattata, and we’ve been buddies ever since. (He texted me this morning to ask if I’d be playing and since we’re both on the blue team we’re plotting how to take over a nearby gym.)

Rattata and friend in Toledo

I firmly believe that if you’re going to do something — even something silly– then you should do it with zest. I enlisted the help of a Blade colleague, Will Harrison, who writes a video game column for the newspaper but whom I had rarely spoken to in our nearly four years of mutual employment (Sorry, Will!).  He graciously agreed to shepherd this sad-sack novice around downtown during our Monday lunch break, and I don’t think we would have gotten to know each other were it not for this maddeningly addictive game.

But maybe my favorite part of this Pokemon fever is seeing the pictures that players are capturing from newsrooms near and far. Reporting life is stressful and serious, but taking a few minutes to track down a virtual mythical creature provides a little levity. I mean, look at all the new Blade subscribers I’ve found lurking around our newsroom:

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Pokemon are popping up in newsrooms around the world. Here they are in Newfoundland, Canada:

And the interest prompted this top-notch response from the Wichita Eagle after the newspaper discovered it was a Pokestop:

And the Los Angeles Times’ excellent video showing it is filthy with Pokemon:

Is Pokemon ridiculous? Absolutely. But it’s also a monster-big business and social phenomenon. Cultural relevancy requires newspapers — those stodgy repositories of grandfatherly readers and too-cool reporters –to pay attention and, even, play.

18 months of higher ed coverage*

*Award-winning higher ed coverage

I started covering higher education for The Blade in February of 2015. Good timing, given that the University of Toledo was in the midst of a national search for a new president to lead northwest Ohio’s largest university.

It was and still is a critical juncture for UT, as I explained in a story this week about the president’s first year on the job:

During one of last fall’s pep rallies, a crush of University of Toledo students cheered for the Rockets along with the school’s new president.

The football team was enjoying a winning season — it would go on to win a bowl game — and the campus was buzzing.

President Sharon Gaber, now 52, had left her provost post at the University of Arkansas a few months before to lead a school battling dwindling enrollment, battered finances, and, in some cases, broken trust. The board of trustees picked her from a field of 29 candidates, gave her a five-year contract, and told her they wanted to transform the university.

On this particular day, she stood in Centennial Mall, the grassy gathering place in the center of campus and one of her favorite spots. Months later, she still recalls someone telling her how, in 20 years at UT, they had never seen so many students on the mall.

“How fun is that?” Ms. Gaber said, during a recent interview in her University Hall office. “The students were excited, and the faculty were excited, and … it was a great moment.”

She counts it as one of the best of her first year, an inaugural lap she finished Thursday amid applause from campus leaders who have cheered her fresh approach.

It came full circle this week, with the publication of the above story and a personal exclamation mark from the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists in the form of a first place award for best higher education issues reporting among the state’s largest circulation newspapers. I share the honor, announced this week, with my pal and coworker, reporter Lauren Lindstrom.

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A lot of ink (digital and liquid) was spilled over the presidential search, the presidential pick, and her first 12 months at the helm: from this piece introducing the three finalists for the position and explaining what was at stake with the choice, to the various campus constituent groups lining up behind various candidates, to the surprising decision by one of the finalists to pull his name from contention,  to this piece on the board’s decision to hire Sharon Gaber, to a break down of her $450,000 contract compared to other Ohio public university presidents,  to this story on her first full day on campus, and then inauguration day coverage when she was formally sworn in as UT’s 17th and first female president.

Along the way, of course, lots of other stuff happened at UT:

Four people, including a former dean and associate dean, no longer work in YouCollege (and the college itself no longer exists), after an internal review uncovered a culture of bad management (Think: doors slamming, racially insensitive remarks).

A fraternity was placed on probation and six students sanctioned after a black student was allegedly punched, kicked, and called by a racial slur at an off-campus party.

A UT graduate student found a link between depression and binge-watching TV shows, bad news for this reporter and many other House of Cards/Gilmore Girls/Parenthood fans.

And, UT’s new president began thinking about how to bolster the university’s lagging national reputation, perhaps by hiring big-name researchers and professors.

In other words (lots and lots and lots of words), it’s been a very busy 18 months on the education beat in Toledo. Thanks for following along.