Sunday in The Park
March 25, 2006
Dear Ms. Brunner,
In the spirit of camaraderie and full exposure, I have been in your position and I know how very small, people in small towns can behave. As the former editor of The Park Record newspaper and a columnist at that paper for 27 years this month, I have, more than once, found myself the bull’s eye of a public debate. The heated moments pass. The lessons do not.
First, let me applaud you, as editor of The Southern Utah News, for your hiring of a student to be a columnist for your paper. The ability to be exposed to critical thinkers in the teen years — and for those of us beyond those years to be exposed to teenagers — can be a magical exchange. We remember what it is to be fresh and honest and genuine. We try not to impart too much cynicism and tired world experience. It sounds like you have the mix just right, there at your small weekly paper.
I have been following the news of your town council with first, amused disdain and then, heavy-hearted sadness. The need to pass a "natural family resolution" is such a fear-based, immature, attention-seeking measure, I thought it would be laughed away by the individual citizens of Kanab. Why would a town, especially a Western town, have a need to resolve that their town is only open to people who are formed in some fairy tale/cartoon image? In the West, there has always been a spirit of tolerance and a respect for the individual. The lone cowboy was rarely seen with the resolution’s language of a "full quiver of children." Natural families, I think, are those who naturally choose to love and support one another. Some are bound by marriage, many more are not.
I followed too, with interest and sadness, the remarks by famed travel writer, Arthur Frommer, who encouraged travelers to avoid your town until such nonsense passes. I agree with his idea. However, having spent some amazing moments in that part of the state, I would hate for folks to miss out on your natural red rock beauty, your general friendliness as a people and, as I recall, a pretty mean rhubarb pie at a café whose name long escapes me.
Add to this mix, the debut on HBO of "Big Love," the series about polygamists in Utah. Well-written, well-acted and downright creepy in getting all the details right, it makes us all look pretty darn wacky as a state if that is your only exposure to Utah.
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Finally, along comes the story in The Salt Lake Tribune, written by Mark Havnes, who appears to have done his homework about your columnist, a high school student, Eagle Scout, member of the Mormon Church and pretty clearly, a critical thinker. In his column, "Cowboy Currents," your author, Matt Livingston, apparently penned a few pieces about the silly resolution, the flack from Frommer and basically called the mayor out on his beliefs. I think the quote was something like, he too, was a member of the LDS faith and he thought the whole spirit of Christian tolerance was missing. In a world where each day there is more killing of hundreds of men, women and children on a variety of continents, based on some form of religious intolerance, the kid got it right.
The mayor — what a B-grade movie character he would make — did not respond to the author, the high school student. Instead, he wrote letters to both the student’s bishop and his school superintendent, suggesting the young man had been influenced by his family and all of you at the paper in both in tone and content. He suggested "mid-course guidance" for the young man. And changing the name of his column, so as not to reflect the school’s mascot name of "Cowboys." The writers at HBO won’t have to dream up a character so comical, as this tiny town bully, ready made. What he teaches us, of course, are some pretty basic civics lessons, a reminder of the abuse of power and a full dose of what our young men and women are currently overseas dying for — freedoms we hold dear, like the First Amendment. Freedom of speech isn’t reserved for only those speeches we like, or agree with, or even see in print. But then you know all that. Which is why, against what I suspect are some rather nasty phones calls, looks in the market and canceled subscriptions, you chose to support your writer and encourage his healthy dissent.
Well, bravo! Too often daily acts of courage are overlooked, passed by, not exposed. You work at the same job with the long hours and try to keep enough white space open, so the birth announcements and the death announcements always have the respect, in print, they deserve. They are the stuff of small-town papers. So too, are the agendas for government meetings, the photo of the car accident, the list of the graduating seniors. Throw into that the real world stuff of environmental issues, tribal concerns and water rights and you get the grit of small-town Utah living, where the landscape is large and so are the issues you need to know something about.
Day in, day out, it can seem to be just a struggle about keeping advertisers happy — an oxymoronic possibility — and making deadlines. Sometimes there are stories you hope every reader absorbs and often there are stories you put in to fill the white space between ads. Readers often pass over the big issues. They take such time to research and equally as much time to understand and we’re all so busy. But if your photographer misses the opening football game, watch out!
I know it may seem from day to day, your job is rather routine and predictable in a small town. And I suspect there are more nights than not, you go home and think about what other careers you still have time left for. But know this — you are doing the stuff that matters. The everyday, shining light in dark corners. Giving a high school kid not only a chance to write a column but room for him to freely express himself. It can be a lonely job, so I write this, in simpatico, to say, You go girl! Keep up the critical thinking in the very towns that seem to need it the most. Keep up the support of the little guy, the underserved, being the voice for those who have no voice. I, for one, plan to visit your town, plan to visit in spite of your silly cartoon mayor, plan to visit to express, in person, my support of Arthur Frommer’s idea but not his actions. I will do this because you have single-handedly shown us all, Kanab really is still that beautiful place I remember. I plan to look you up. And something tells me, if anybody knows where to find that illusive rhubarb pie, it will be you.
My heroes have always been editors. I plan now to include cowboys on that list.
"Sunday in The Park"