Walking a fine line

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

Allegheny College is losing a treasure this week.

Director of Campus Communications Kathy Roos retires on April 29, 2016, after 19 years of service.

When I first met Kathy four years ago, I joked with her. You work for the dark side, I said. Public relations and journalism use the same skills for distinctly different objectives. Both tell stories. Sometimes we’re on the same page. Sometimes we’re not.

In my career as a professional journalist, I’ve encountered many public relations professionals who assume an adversarial or hostile approach to members of the media with whom they need to work. I can think of software giants who hire entire firms to craft their image and message, complete with stylists and wordsmiths who want to manage press conferences and photo opportunities. Politicians, the United States military, sports teams and colleges and universities all have public relations professionals on the payroll to help members of the media see things their way.

Kathy and I have both been around long enough that we realize that a working relationship can be built on respect and professionalism without thwarting our separate—and often disparate­—objectives.

In the four years I’ve had the privilege to work with Kathy at Allegheny, she’s been nothing but a pro—and unceasingly kind.

I often gauge people by the way they treat students, particularly student journalists at The Campus newspaper.

Kathy reads the student newspaper and has sent email messages complimenting the students on stories. I pass these messages to the students, where they serve as a kind of salve on the sting of remarks and rebukes they also receive.

This is an indication of a consummate communications pro. She can do her job while working with and respecting members of the media.

Last year, Sam Stephenson and Meghan Hayman won first place in the Society of Professional Journalists Region 1 Mark of Excellence Awards. This was a first for The Campus and a high achievement. The students earned the award for their coverage of the Kirk Nesset arrest.

Kathy wrote the press release and didn’t go into the details of the story that won the award. She highlighted the students’ accomplishment without citing the title of the news story, which would have brought renewed, potentially negative attention to the college.

In August 2013, Kathy responded to a request from community members and The Campus. A number of Meadville residents asked if the paper could include notices of campus events so they could attend. Kathy began compiling a weekly calendar of events at Allegheny College, which now fills a third of a news page in The Campus each week.

Two weeks ago, the student journalists hosted a surprise farewell party for Kathy in the newsroom, complete with balloons, cards and pizza. Christina Bryson, the editor-in-chief, offered her a prized Campus coffee mug, a gift of gratitude and respect.

Kathy, in turn, offered her congratulations to the students on their 2016 awards and commended them on their improved coverage.

I wrote part of this column Monday morning in the Market House Grille. I looked up to see a man tucked under a ball cap at a table next to the big frig. He was reading The Campus and I watched him study the page with the calendar of events.

Thank you, Kathy.

Since I arrived at Allegheny College, my goal has been to raise an awareness and understanding of journalism and its role on campus and in our community and democracy. I believe Kathy and I have been partners in this endeavor. We know and respect the limits of the partnership and honor the instances when we can collaborate.

Kathy attended every Ida Tarbell birthday party The Campus staff hosted. She wrote excellent releases for all the journalism in the public interest and Campus events, particularly our annual journalism conference and multimedia workshop. She wrote press releases that served faculty, staff and students from all parts of the Allegheny community.

Her good work brought local, regional and national media attention to the college.

Most mornings I look out my kitchen window and see Kathy and her husband of 42 years, Bob, walking to campus, often hand-in-hand. Bob, a professor of computer science, will retire, too.

On Monday morning, the smell of fresh-cut grass hung in the air as I backed my car out of the driveway. I saw Kathy and Bob walking down the brick road.

I stopped the car and jumped out. Not many more days, I called to Kathy.

She held up her right hand, showing five fingers.

I crashed their morning walk for a short distance, savoring a few moments of conversation.

I will miss Kathy Roos. The Campus journalists will miss her.

She walked the fine line between our two worlds with professionalism, dedication and respect. And she always walked that line with a gentle reverence for the integrity of words and importance of impeccable communication.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Grief is a sneaker wave

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016

Grief is a sneaker wave.

As a college student, a sign greeted me at the Oregon coast: Beware of sneaker waves. It had a design of stick person being knocked over by a curling blue wave. I immediately had an image in my mind of a wave running to shore in Converse sneakers.

Turns out, sneaker waves are no joke. I was photographing at the coast—it’s called the coast, not the shore or the beach, for a good reason. It’s still a wild and untamed juncture where the ocean crashes into the land. I had scoffed at the warning and walked out to get closer to the surf. One minute I’m photographing on dry land, the next I’m up to my rib cage in cold Pacific water, dangling my cameras held high above my head. I turned and chugged toward land as quickly as I could. I was lucky another wave didn’t take me down. Or a random log didn’t knock me unconscious. Or the rush of water didn’t sweep me off my feet and under.

Grief has been sneaking up on me recently.

My Humpty-Dumpty heart has been shattered and cobbled together over the years. Wounded and healed again and again. Grief washes over and through me at unsuspected moments.

In my own life, I feel the loss of the children I wanted and never had. I have an abiding sorrow for the loss of the man I believed I’d spend the rest of my life with until he abandoned me. I still feel the loss of the people I’ve witnessed suffer and die in my long career as a journalist.

There’s been so much loss in my life in recent years. My friends felled by bullets and shrapnel in foreign lands. My friend who regularly questions why she should get out of bed in the morning after police assassinated her husband outside their home. I think of my friend whose mother beat back cancer several times and then decided enough was enough and crossed over surrounded by family in her daughter’s home. My friend mentioned how the deep pain of missing her mom show ups in all the “firsts” without her—Thanksgiving, Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays.

In February, I received a message from Brian Castner. We worked together covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in December 2014 and January 2015.

Prince Collins died.

Prince was a radio journalist. He’d been our fixer during our reporting and travels in Liberia. He’d arranged our press credentials and driver, Carton. He’d made introductions and connections for our sources and stories. He talked us through a checkpoint and dicey moment on New Year’s Eve returning to Monrovia. He always introduced us as his colleagues. He became our friend.

I sent Brian a text. “How are you feeling?”

“Surprisingly bad,” he responded. I felt the same.

Brian contacted the pastor at Prince’s church. He doesn’t know how Prince died. A sudden illness.

I hadn’t known Prince long; yet after a month covering the Ebola outbreak, we had shared meals and car rides, visited Ebola Treatment Units and attended funerals, watched rows of grave diggers carve deep rectangular holes in the red earth with pickaxes. Now I was viewing images of his casket and funeral on Facebook and reading the posted laments and remembrances of his friends, radio listeners and colleagues.

He left a young wife and family, who had welcomed us into their home at Firestone in Harbel. I liked Prince. I fully expected to see him and work with him again in Liberia.

On one of our last days in Liberia, Prince accompanied me as I shopped for gifts that Brian and I could bring home to our family and friends. We walked through tailor shops as I sought traditional handmade shirts. Prince offered advice on styles, patterns and colors. I wanted a saa saa, a hollow gourd with beads wrapped on its exterior with cotton thread, for my percussionist brother. We walked for a couple hours through the narrow, meandering alleys of the local markets. Prince made repeated inquiries until we found a vendor.

We shared our last meal at The Cape Hotel, looking out at the Atlantic. We celebrated the good work we’d done together and raised a glass to better days for Liberia.

And now Prince is gone.

Sneaker wave.

During spring break, I was in Rhode Island. My mom sent me a text. It’s seven years ago today that Sis died, Mom wrote. I miss her.

Ruth was my mom’s twin sister and my godmother. My aunt once told me the story of how she’d been sunbathing on the roof of her dormitory at nursing school when she felt a sharp pain in her stomach. She said she knew immediately that my mother was giving birth to me.

My mom and aunt spoke of the powerful bond between twins and the deep knowing and communication that passes between them and transcends spoken words. And now my mom is the lone living twin these past seven years.

Whenever I’m in Rhode Island, I visit the graves of my ancestors. Sometimes I stop to say hello. Sometimes I stop to say thank you. I stop to honor and remember them.

When I visited the graves over spring break, winter had taken its toll. The fabric of the American flags staked in the earth was shredded. Only brittle twigs remained where plants had once blossomed.

The next day I went to the local nursery to purchase spring flowers. A pink hyacinth and violas for one grandmother. A blue hyacinth and pansies for another.

I fixed the wind chimes on Ruth’s grave and placed one half of a charcoal blue scallop shell on her headstone. I planted violas and a pink hyacinth on her grave. Ruth loved to garden. Her back and front porches were lined with chimes that tinkled and clinked when the wind blew through.

That day broke open bright, blue-sky sunny. I could feel the warmth of the sun and breath of the wind on my face.

Joy is a sneaker wave, too.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/column-grief-has-been-a-sneaker-wave-for-me-recently/article_1e70eb3f-7505-501f-b192-e51b356b5526.html

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I had to be here, Coach

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor learned the news on Facebook on Tuesday, Oct. 27. His former teammate, Brian O’Malley, posted a link to the story of the sudden impending retirement after 14 years at Allegheny College of Head Football Coach Mark Matlak.

A 2005 graduate in economics, Rob had played football for Coach Matlak for three years, including on the 2003 championship team. The soldier, veteran, husband and father of two made up his mind. He wanted to make it to coach’s last home game on Saturday, Oct. 31.

When Rob was a sophomore, his father and mother flew up to see his first two home games in September 2002. It was Coach Matlak’s first season at Allegheny. Rob knew his father was ill. His dad was waiting outside the locker room to see him after the game. Rob turned back before his father saw him, walked into the locker room and broke into tears. Coach was there.

Rob’s father died in Florida a month later on Oct. 12, 2002. Coach was there again to comfort Rob in his deep grief and in the days and years that followed. He filled a void, Rob said.

I met then Sgt. Robert Taylor in Afghanistan in December 2011, when he served with the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 1st Battalion 5th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. On patrol, Rob was the infantryman at the front with a Vallon, a hand-held metal detector used to sweep for mines and improvised explosive devices. It was his job to clear the path, his responsibility to bring the men and women in his unit back safely. When he wasn’t out front with the Vallon, he was often the soldier assigned to walk in front of me, the journalist joining the patrol, in my two months in Afghanistan.

On Halloween morning, Rob left Fort Carson, Colorado, before dawn at 4:30 a.m. At noon my time, I received a text. My connection in Houston was canceled. My new flight has me landing at kickoff. I should make it by the third quarter at best.

I immediately got on the phone with a Holly, an agent in Nashville, with United Premier Service—a perk of frequent flying. I asked about the flights from Houston, which had been delayed by big storms. What about Cleveland? She asked for Rob’s confirmation number. I didn’t have it. There was a flight 6066 to Cleveland, but it was delayed, too.

Rob texted again. The Pittsburgh flight had been delayed once more. He’d be lucky to make it before the end of the game. I called Rob, explained the possibility of the Cleveland flight, which might arrive at 6 p.m.

Watching the game would be nice, but as long as I can be there to shake his hand on the field, all will be worth it, Rob texted.

Later he sent another message. The Pittsburgh flight was delayed until 3 p.m.

It’s all falling apart, he wrote. The customer service line for United is 100 people deep. There is no way I could change to Cleveland now.

I got his confirmation number and dialed Premier Service again. Kelly in Detroit answered. I explained the situation. Active military. Veteran. Trying to make it to his beloved college coach’s last home game. She said she had room on the flight, leaving at 2 p.m. The agents might have closed the doors. I borrowed my roommate’s cell phone and dialed Rob.

Where are you? What terminal? Bravo, he responded. I had Kelly at United on my left ear and Rob on my right. Get to B20, Bravo20 now. Go. Run. You’re on the flight.

Kelly put me on hold and tried to call ahead to make sure the agents hadn’t closed the doors. Several tense minutes followed. Rob said he had a boarding pass. Kelly confirmed he’d made the flight. I was standing in my kitchen, hands in the air, smiling, surprised by the tears wetting my face.

Kickoff at 5 p.m. I monitored my phone as I watched the game from the sidelines. Rob landed at 5:33 p.m. and we began our play-by-play message exchange.

End of first quarter. Later Rob wrote: On 90.

I replied: Where on 90? We’re 10 minutes into the third quarter.

Rob: I’m trying. I might make the end.

Me: There’s a timeout for an injury. Bought some time.

Then: Start of the fourth quarter. Later: 10 minutes on the clock.

30 miles. Maybe I can catch him in the locker room.

Bypass downtown. It’s blocked for the Halloween parade.

8 miles.

Game over. He’s doing interviews.

Coach is in the room by the concession stand now.

I saw Rob’s face appear in the window. He opened the door and coach turned. As Rob would later remark, he could tell by Coach’s face that it took a minute for it to register.

Robbie T., Coach said. He clutched him in tight hug.

I had to be here, Coach.

Coach pulled away, held Rob at arm’s length, looked at his tear-stained face and then hugged him again in a long, long embrace. When they let go, both men wiped away tears.

Allegheny alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak's last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny College on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and active military, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Allegheny College alumnus Staff Sgt. Robert Taylor hugs head football coach Mark Matlak after Matlak’s last home game of his 14-year career at Allegheny on Saturday night, Oct. 31, 2015. Taylor played three years for Matlak, including on the 2003 championship team. A veteran and soldier, Taylor traveled from Fort Carson, Colorado to surprise his beloved coach. He wears a Killed in Action bracelet on his wrist for his buddy who died in Afghanistan and his 2003 championship ring on his finger.Copyright 2015 Cheryl Hatch ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

They went to the locker room and talked.

“This is the last place my dad was alive,” Rob said. “The same area. The same place.”

Rob found his name in his locker and took a few photos. They spent barely an hour together before Rob got in his rental car and drove to Pittsburgh. The next day he flew back to Colorado.

Rob said the last three seasons don’t reflect the kind of coach Matlak is.

“The last three seasons have been horrible for Allegheny,” Rob said. “I didn’t want him going out feeling negative. I wanted him to know he had an impact.”

He spent 15 hours traveling to reach the game. Nearly 11 more hours to get home. Twenty-six hours of travel for one hour with his college coach.

So he could shake Coach Matlak’s hand after his last home game.

“It was absolutely worth it,” Rob said. “He gave a lot to me and it felt good to go back and give back.”

Matlak remembered his 36 seasons as a football coach, including the last 14 with Allegheny.

“It was absolutely worth it,” he said to Rob. “You coming here, it reminds me of just how worth it it was.”

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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I am strong

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Allegheny has a new peak performance coach, Randy Moore. As soon as I heard the news, I wrote him an email.

Coach Moore. Welcome to Allegheny. I feel like your new position and presence at Allegheny is an answer to a prayer—or at least to a fervent hope. I want to return to conditioning to improve my strength and endurance and I’m thrilled to learn you have classes available.

A bit about me by way of introduction: I am a career journalist and I teach journalism classes at Allegheny College. I’m also the adviser to the award-winning student newspaper, The Campus.

I came to Allegheny by way of Afghanistan and a life-threatening illness that had me hospitalized in Kuwait. The doctors advised me to do nothing but walk for a year to allow my lungs to recover. That was 2012-2013.

I am now carrying 40 pounds I don’t need and I’ve lost strength and endurance. I was a college athlete. I rowed crew at Oregon State and I’m a Pac-10 champion rower. I’ve run marathons. I haven’t been running with the extra weight.

I know my body remembers how to be fit and strong. My concern is that I don’t want to push too hard too soon. May I meet with you to discuss my options?

We exchanged emails and decided the intermediate conditioning class would be a good place for me to start. If it proved too much too soon, I could bump down to the beginning class. Coach advised me to start with light weights.

I rowed in a lightweight eight in college. That meant I was wicked lean and strong. Nine percent body fat. I could walk out my front door and run 12 miles for the fun of it. I could bench press well past my body weight. I remember my friend, an offensive lineman, standing behind me in the weight room and willing me to my record 13 pull ups.

That’s the Cheryl of Fitness Past.

Cheryl of Fitness Present can’t even do a push up, let alone a pull up. I learned this the hard way. I took a class at the local Y. The instructor told us to drop and do push ups. Modified, if we needed it. I could barely do one modified push up.

I knew I was out of shape. I had no idea I’d lost my strength.

It takes a whole different kind of strength to walk into the weight room at the Wise Center. I’m surrounded by wall-to-wall mirrors and young, fit athletes. When I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize myself. I expect to see the lean me that once frequented weight rooms.

Instead, I see me: out of shape and overweight. And I have a relentless voice in my head, reminding me of how far I’ve let myself go. Who are you kidding? You’re never going to get fit. You’ll never lose the weight. You look ridiculous.

While I do sets of repetitions with the weights, the unkind voice keeps repeating its debilitating messages.

The trainers are excellent. Several young women are on the lacrosse team. Another ran track. They offer me encouragement. High-fives. Compliments on my form. Their positive voices and support make me smile.

My competitiveness is still intact. Once I got over my initial internal laments about my shape, I got into the routine and my competitiveness kicked in. Three weeks into the workouts, I took a week off. My knee and once-shattered wrist were not happy. Too much too soon.

I ran into my trainer, Maria, the one who’d run track, on campus. I told her I would skip a few workouts. She smiled and told me that I was wise to rest. She complimented me on my commitment, offered a high-five with a smile and headed to the Wise Center. When I returned the following week, she watched me carefully and inquired about my knee.

The trainers and coach are teaching me more than just form. They’ve offered me an alternative to the nasty voice in my head. I’ve decided I need to balance my competitiveness with compassion.

My body has served me well for many years, even when I have sorely neglected her. She has weathered brutal diseases—typhoid, amoebic dysentery, diseases that don’t have names. She’s endured extended periods of sleep deprivation, bad food or no food, and relentless bursts of adrenaline. It’s a miracle and an act of sustained grace that I am still alive, let alone spiritually, emotionally and physically intact.

I am an athlete. I am strong.

Meet the Cheryl of Fitness Future.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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If it were me

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Returning from vacation this summer, I pulled off I-80 in Pennsylvania at a truck stop to get gas. I filled up the tank, paid in cash, then I went to the restroom before heading home.

Back in Meadville, I stopped to get groceries. No wallet. Hm. I realized I must have left it in the restroom. I had about $100 cash in it. My first thought: it’s a truck stop; a lot of people pass through. If someone did find it and didn’t return it, I figured he or she needed the money more than I did. My mom felt certain someone would return it.

One problem: I had no idea where I’d stopped.

I knew it was a Travel Center of America. I checked my odometer: 183 miles. I called the corporate headquarters. A kind woman suggested I could have stopped at Milesburg or Lamar. She called Milesburg with me on the line. Nope. I told the woman that I remembered that the restroom was by the ATM machine and the sodas.

“That’s Lamar.”

I called Lamar. Loretta answered the phone. “Yes, we have it in the safe. Josie, a waitress, found it and turned it in.”

A few days later, I drove back to Lamar. I wanted to meet Loretta and Josie in person and thank them. I had a hand-written note for Josie. I tucked some money inside. I’ve worked as a waitress.

Josie tried to wave off my envelope. It’s a thank-you note, I said.

She accepted it. I shook her hand. I thanked her again.

“If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me,” she said.

I spent a chunk of my summer swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, spending hours reading books for fun at the beach and listening to programs by the British Broadcasting Corporation on my shortwave radio. The story of the summer was one of waves of refugees arriving on the shores of Turkey and Greece, fleeing the ravages of war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last Thursday in our journalism classes, we discussed the photo of the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan, a refugee who drowned and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey. We discussed the ethical considerations of running an image of a dead child. The students agreed it was a harsh photograph that reflected a harsh situation. The world needed to see it, they concluded.

It can be too easy to turn away from devastation and horror if it’s not impacting your life, your family. You may feel there’s nothing you can do. By the end of the summer, I didn’t want to hear the stories. My heart hurt. And the stories stirred images of my own work when I had documented refugees fleeing conflict.

One BBC report told of women arriving hungry and exhausted from their odyssey across the desert and the sea. The reporter described how the women used their last shreds of strength and will to push their children onto the trucks, to hurl them to strangers if necessary.

My mind instantly projected a memory, an image of a time when I stood at the Kenyan border watching Somali refugees appear in the shimmering heat, near skeletons in ragged clothes heading for the hoped safety of a refugee camp in Liboi. When the women arrived, they would heave their children into the back of the United Nations trucks. They wouldn’t have any remaining strength to pull themselves onto the vehicle.

In August, before classes began, I listened to a report on National Public Radio.

Ari Shapiro was in Izmir in southwest Turkey where Syrian refugees board boats at night to cross to Greece. He shared the story of a man who joined 40 others who piled into a raft made for 10. The boat sank. Many died.

Smugglers and local merchants take advantage of the refugees’ plight. Shapiro reported that going rate for the short boat crossing to Greece is $1,200 per person.

He then told the story of another man, a Turkish merchant, who lets refugees charge their cell phones at his restaurant. He offers them water and food, free of charge. He lets women and children sleep in his upstairs offices, even though it’s illegal.

“These are people who are running away from war, and if I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me,” said Ali Demir, the restaurant owner in Shapiro’s story.

When I was a young photojournalist, I wanted to save the world with my photographs. In my years in Africa and the Middle East, I realized that it’s my actions as a human being while I do my work as a journalist that make the difference. And we’ve talked about this in our classes, too.

No matter where we live, each day we are given opportunities to show kindness, to offer assistance.

As Josie the waitress in Lamar, Pennsylvania said, “If it were me, I’d want someone to do the same for me.”

As Ali the restaurant owner in Izmir, Turkey said, “If I put myself in their shoes, I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me.”

If it were me. A thought that inspires action.

From one person to another, a simple, tender gesture of kindness can make a world of difference.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Happy to be embraced in return home from Ebola-stricken Liberia

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Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

When we arrive at the entrance gate to Barclay Training Center, I reach out my hand to the soldier who greets us.

Oh no. Don’t give me no Ebola, he says.

I’m in Monrovia, Liberia, and touching of any kind is not allowed. The usual friendly gestures of hugs and handshakes are strictly forbidden in this West African nation that has been in the grip of an Ebola outbreak for months.

I chose to spend my winter break working rather than resting. I turned in grades then flew to Texas to break the news to my parents that I’d be leaving for Liberia on December 29.

I traveled with writer Brian Castner. We’d met at the Combat Paper: Words Made Flesh conference at Allegheny, where he’d spoken last September. I’d been raised in the Army and Brian had served in the Air Force as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer in Iraq. Brian proposed that we cover the actions of the 101st Airborne, whose soldiers had fought insurgents in Iraq. The president had now tasked them with fighting a virus.

The virus is transmitted between humans by direct contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “When an infection occurs in humans, the virus can be spread to others through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola.”

The Army’s mission was to build Ebola Treatment Units and train healthcare workers. They would have no contact with Ebola patients. In Monrovia, they were confined to a walled compound where they would wander to one gate, called Redemption Gate, and look at the ocean. Redemption references the beach slightly north of the soldiers’ view. In 1980, Samuel Doe claimed power in a coup and had the previous government’s ministers executed on the beach.

As one soldier gazed west to the horizon and a faraway home, he called the ocean view a slice of heaven.

It was a look-but-don’t-touch lifestyle.

Earlier that day, Brian and I had gone to West Point, which Brian described as a shantytown. It sits on a .15-square-mile peninsula with 80,000 residents, the majority children. In August, when Ebola was rampant, the government placed West Point under quarantine and enforced it with police and barbed wire.

As we walked the beach, our host kept reminding us to watch our step. Feces. Feces.

The U.S. soldiers haven’t been to West Point.

As I photographed, children swarmed around me. They pressed in close for a view of me and pressed into my camera’s viewfinder.

I’ve been in such situations many times. In the past, I would have worried about theft or assault or an ambush. This time I worried about sweat: the children who grabbed my sweaty arms with their sweaty hands. I became acutely aware of unconscious habits, such as rubbing my eyes as I wiped sweat from my brow.

Brian noted that Ebola was a new type of threat for him, too. With a bomb, he’d know his fate instantly: the bomb blew or it didn’t. With Ebola, it can take up to 21 days to manifest symptoms of the disease after exposure to the virus. It’s a silent bomb.

I’d notified the Student Health Center of my travel plans before I left and again when I returned. A fellow photojournalist warned me to be prepared for a frosty reception. Even close friends steer clear when you return, he told me.

Upon arrival in the U.S., I began my 21-day self-monitoring protocol. The women at the Pennsylvania Department of Health are on the ball. Someone calls me each morning to get my twice-daily temperature readings. She inquires if I have any symptoms. No fever. No symptoms.

I had decided I would continue the precautions and practices Brian and I had exercised in Liberia. No contact. Smiles and waves only. Or tapping elbows instead of hugs and high-fives.

My friend, a fellow journalist, who’d lived and worked in West Africa, met me at the airport. He is tall with a deep voice made for radio. Welcome home, he said, and wrapped his arm around my shoulder, tucking me in close. I chafed, briefly. It was a shock to be embraced. It was also the best welcome home. I spent the weekend with my friends. We shared meals and they listened to my stories. I realized how blessed I am to have friends who will always embrace me.

When I returned to Allegheny, a student spotted me and came running across the Campus Center lobby. Professor Hatch. I didn’t have time to put up my arms. She ran right into me and wrapped me an exuberant hug.

When I heard you were in Africa, I was afraid you weren’t coming back. If you weren’t coming back, I wasn’t coming back.

She smiled and questions poured out of her. I smiled. Happy for the hug and the stream of questions.

She’s a journalist, all right.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Giving hearts and lives to bear witness

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

When students arrive for their news writing final, they learn the name of the person they’ll write about. They have a few minutes for research before they interview the subject of their profile. They write their stories and file them on deadline. The three-hour exam is a legitimate, real-time test of their journalism skills.

This year David Gilkey joined the class via Skype from Florida, where he was on assignment. Gilkey is photojournalist and video editor at National Public Radio, who has covered a broad range of stories, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The students peppered Gilkey with questions about his background, career and his personal life. They focused on his recent coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Wait a minute. Hold on, Gilkey said, at one point in the interview. The students watched as he removed his earphones. He paused, looked up toward the ceiling for a moment, then put the earphones back and returned to the interview.

Was that breaking news or a phone call? I asked. A phone call with news, Gilkey replied.

Gilkey completed the interview and gave the students his email address and responded to questions they had during their final. He stayed in contact with the students for the full three hours.

After 45 minutes, most of the students broke away to begin writing their stories. I opened my computer and read that Michel du Cille, a Washington Post photojournalist, had died of an apparent heart attack in Liberia at the age of 58.

I must have gasped or blurted something. A student looked up. Are you OK, Professor Hatch?

Yes, thanks. Focus on your work. I’ll explain after the exam.

I sent Gilkey a text.

He told me that the call he’d taken during the students’ interview was from Nikki Kahn, du Cille’s wife, also a Washington Post photojournalist, telling him that his friend and colleague had died.

All the students hit their 10 p.m. deadline. A number stayed late and read du Cille’s obituary posted online. We discussed his work and commitment to it.

Du Cille had received three Pulitzer Prizes for his photography, two while at The Miami Herald and one at The Washington Post. He was known for his compassion and his big heart.

“He was renowned among journalists for his ability to look inside a crisis and find enduring portraits of sorrow, dignity and perseverance” wrote Post reporter Matt Schudel.

Most recently, du Cille had focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where he had covered the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

In an article in the Post in October, du Cille wrote about his experiences.

“Sometimes, the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized…But I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola. The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.”

On Sunday night, my phone dinged with a message from JR Ancheta, a friend and former student. We’d worked together in Afghanistan.

Happy Solstice.

He sent a message with a photo of a surfer silhouetted against a lavender sky tinged with flamingo pink clouds. Returning to shore, the surfer had his board tucked under his arm, the water a band of brightness and sparkles around him.

JR was at his family home in Sitka, Alaska, when he noticed the light. He grabbed his camera and dashed to the water’s edge.

JR had been through some tough times lately. Making the dash for sunset light, photographing the twilight moment reminded him of the joy and reverence he has for photography—and the beauty that surrounds us.

It’s really easy to get stuck, JR said. The world is full of nastiness, muckiness, ugliness. We forget to see. Forget to look. Forget to find beauty.

Looking. Seeing. Finding those little snippets of beauty everywhere. Photographers find beauty in the nastiness and muckiness.

It’s a gift, JR said.

Then he surprised me with a gift.

“Thank you for teaching me to watch the sunsets—and the sunrises,” JR said.

My first column this year was about Dave Martin, an Associated Press photographer, who died on the job, at 59, of an apparent heart attack. In April, I wrote about another AP photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, assassinated in Afghanistan. She was 48. And, in my last column of 2014, I remember Michel du Cille, who died covering a story and people he cared deeply about.

Photojournalists and journalists know the risks and accept the dangers of covering a some stories. We open our eyes and our hearts to the suffering and the beauty in our world. We witness and return to bear witness.

To quote Michel du Cille: “This is what we do.”

We give our hearts—and sometimes our lives.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/giving-hearts-and-lives-to-bear-witness/article_180de8f2-8d59-11e4-b1f4-0f9521438772.html

 

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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