When I first started writing human-interest columns for The Gazette in the early 1990s, I wondered if it was possible to run out of ideas.
Some 30 years and 2,900 columns later, I know the possibilities are endless.
Today, I am resigning from the newspaper to pursue an independent writing project.
I have folders full of clippings and ideas. Tons of notebooks to keep or discard. And piles of newspapers in plastic bins. They are all remnants of interviews with people, mostly in Rock and Walworth counties, who reflected a diversity of dreams and endeavors.
Before leaving, I want to sincerely thank all of you who shared your insightful and often compelling experiences with me. To speak your stories aloud to a stranger takes courage. I have always considered your stories to be gifts and have tried to handle them with care.
Since my final column comes on Arbor Day, I want to share a memory about a farmer and a tree.
Early in my career at The Gazette, I wrote about a storm toppling a 250-year-old bur oak. The majestic creature had earned a reputation as one of the biggest trees of its kind in the state, and many people were upset by its loss.
Fortunately, a farmer had scooped up acorns from the old giant before wind and lightning took their toll.
He buried the acorns in a flower pot and checked on them often.
Eventually, one of the acorns sprouted, and the 87-year-old planted the fragile seedling where he could watch and water it regularly.
I asked him why he planted the tree, knowing full well he would never stand in its shade.
He was practical at first:
“I didn’t want to just pitch the acorns out to the hogs,” he said.
Then he grew serious.
“I am planting hope,” he replied.
My favorite columns over the years reflected the same desire to make the world better, either in big or small ways. They were stories from the heart meant to inform, inspire or nurture new understanding.
Some stories featured people who love the natural world and who spent lifetimes working to preserve it, including a renowned field biologist, a rehabilitator of birds of prey and a couple who turned their home into a sanctuary for birds and pollinators.
Some stories featured people with amazing resiliency, who lived through horrific darkness but never stopped believing in human goodness. Among them was the survivor of eight Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. His wife fell in love with the gentle laugh lines above his lips, and together they received a presidential citation for their compassionate work with the poor.
Some stories featured people who fought for racial justice, including a Native American drummer who founded a residential home for mostly homeless adults, a man whose life’s work was combating racism and a woman who helped young teens of color navigate the criminal justice system.
Some stories featured individuals grappling with illness or death, who never lost sight of what it means to be truly alive. They included a young woman in the final stages of cancer who traveled to Antarctica to fulfill a longtime dream. They also included a melanoma survivor who biked across the United States and a teen who talked compassionately about the painful topic of suicide and depression.
Some stories featured veterans who struggled with the loss of comrades and the meaning of life. One healed his war wounds by becoming a teacher extraordinaire. Another returned to Vietnam to build a school. Others made sure the community did not forget the sacrifices of those who never came home.
As a young journalist, I thought I needed to go someplace big and important or travel to trouble spots around the world to write meaningful stories.
As time went on, I realized over and over again that my home in southern Wisconsin was brimming with people who elevated everyday life into extraordinary experiences.
The best were those who chose compassion over indifference and who never stopped believing in the power of one or a small committed group to make positive change.
Like the farmer with his acorn, they believed in planting hope.
Anna Marie Lux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.