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When I decided to pursue a career in journalism, I came to the profession relatively later than most. I was 27 and had tried my hand at a variety of jobs, most of which offered the promise of higher pay in the long run. Despite the less lucrative prospects, I decided to try to become a reporter anyway. I was particularly inspired by Bill Moyers and a series of interviews he conducted in the 1980s, detailed in his books, “A World of Ideas” and the sequel. In those interviews, Moyers talked to experts in a wide range of fields, from the arts and humanities to the sciences and technology.

After getting a few clips writing for free for several Baltimore area newspapers, I was lucky enough to get hired as an editorial assistant for Patuxent Publishing Co. Since I hadn’t majored in journalism — I had gone to school at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland where I studied history to become a teacher at the secondary school level — I was elated to get in on the ground floor at Patuxent, which publishes a chain of community papers in the Baltimore-metropolitan area.

Within a year I was promoted to the position of full-fledged reporter and transferred to Patuxent’s Catonsville office to work for The Catonsville Times, where I covered the readership area’s community associations, local government and politics and general assignments.

Over the next decade, I did get the chance to interview many prominent figures, from scholars at Johns Hopkins University and respected authors to leaders in the Maryland General Assembly and U.S. Congressmen. Equally motivating to me was the opportunity to talk to the so-called average person who under normal circumstances did not get much attention, but for some reason attracted the media’s interest.

People such as the mother I interviewed who defied the odds by going into remission after developing late stage ovarian cancer or the mentally challenged new parents I met who were learning with the help of a social assistance program to better care for their children.

I believed when I first started out in journalism in 1993 that the so-called average person has an equally fascinating story to tell, a conviction that has been reinforced over the years.

As a copy editor these days (I transferred to The Aegis full-time a year and a half ago after going part-time at Patuxent in 2001 following the birth of my son), I spend most of my time reading and refining the stories that other reporters have written; however, I do on occasion have the opportunity to do some writing myself.

A few weeks ago the son of Melvin Turner came into The Aegis to ask that we do an article on his father, who is a longtime resident of Bel Air and would be turning 100 on Aug. 1 – the type of story our newspaper is dedicated to covering.

At a colleague’s suggestion, I decided to take the assignment myself, and so I had the privilege of spending some time with Turner.

My interviews with Turner revealed once more that often the most powerful stories come from the “average” person, who upon closer examination turns out to be quite extraordinary.

Turner was given up for adoption as an infant and had a poor childhood where food and clothing were scarce and educational opportunities were limited.

As a black youth who attended school to the eighth grade in segregated Harford County, Turner early on took any work he could find to make ends meet. Over the years, he had many jobs, including working as a butler and chauffeur making just $8 a week and later as a boiler operator at a bone mill and rendering plant where the stench was “awful.”

Turner worked as a boiler plant operator at the Edgewood Arsenal for 30 years before taking a mandatory retirement in 1985. He then went to work as a parking lot attendant for First National Bank in Bel Air, where he worked for 10 more years before retiring for good.

Despite the challenges of poverty and racism, Turner built a life for himself of dignity and perseverance, according to those who know him.

He was a husband and father who never gave up and faced each day ready to do his part, whatever that might be.

Words can never adequately express the fullness of a person’s life, which is exactly what a good journalist strives to do in a feature story. Still, words are the primary tools you have to fulfill that task. In the end, all you can do is hope you have done justice to the hero of the story.

Happy 100th birthday, Mr. Turner. And thank you for welcoming this journalist into your remarkable life.


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