JUST THINKING: Stories that change us

Just Thinking | Julie Stafford

I asked my youngest daughter what I should write about this week and with a laugh she said, “A tree.” The funny thing is, I did write about a tree once.

It was the largest cottonwood tree in North America and happened to be thriving on a dried-up creek bed just outside of Boulder, Colo. That story took quite a bit of creative wording.

This got me thinking about all the different things I’ve covered during my career — many of which changed how I look at the world.

For example, when I was an intern at The Daily Camera in Boulder, I got lucky and had a mentor who not only was a great writer, but also scrappy and always on the lookout for a headline story.

Take, for example, Thomas Sutherland. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember that he was released in December 1991 after being held hostage in Lebanon for six years. It just so happened that Sutherland lived in Fort Collins, which was about 45 minutes north of Boulder. On a whim, my mentor called his house to see if he would be willing to sit face-to-face and tell his story. Amazingly enough, he answered his phone and agreed to talk. I got to tag along. As I listened to the interview, I realized I was looking at the epitome of courage and survival. If Sutherland could survive those six years living in awful conditions, I knew I could survive the minor issues life threw my way.

Then, there was the couple who had spent most of their adult lives together, but homeless. By the time I met them, they had three kids and had just bought an old school bus in which they had crafted bunks, a makeshift kitchen, a table where their children did homework, and a bathroom that was far from fancy but worked. From them, I learned two things: how fortunate I am and the fact that you don’t need “stuff” to be happy.

One of my first big feature stories told through a series was about a young lady in college who had a very rare bone cancer called Ewings Sarcoma. Not only did readers connect with her spark for life, but they also showed incredible generosity and helped cover her massive uninsured medical expenses. Oddly enough, almost 17 years later, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with this very same cancer. I remember the day I connected these dots and dug through old newspaper clippings looking for what I had written. The young lady I wrote about lost her battle, but I have always felt that her fighting spirit helped my daughter win.

I also covered awful stories that haunt me yet today. They defined the worst element of society and took a huge toll on my emotions. But I always came away from these with an appreciation of family, growing up in a safe environment and every breath I am given.

As I sift through these memories, I think about that big old tree. What lesson did I get from writing that story? For me it was the fact that even when you feel like a fish out of water in a dried-up creek bed, you can find creative ways to grow and thrive and quietly become an important part of history.

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