Many people who lead exceptional lives never break an arm trying to pat themselves on their own back. They just do good things, usually for others and most of the time just because they know it’s the right thing to do. When these people pass away, the memories they leave are markers on the timeline that is our life, a place where meaningful moments and fond recollections pile up and keep us smiling, crying or maybe just thinking.
An old journalism book I hold onto touts a crusty editor’s adage, and I paraphrase, that “everyone has a story, but some are just better than others. Your job is to get good at making that distinction.” In the last couple of weeks two unassuming men who were giants in their respective communities passed away, and their stories have been told in numerous newspaper articles. Here are a couple of more thoughts to add to those well-deserved epitaphs.
I was out of the country when I heard that Keith Wyatt had passed away. Keith was a former teacher and principal in Haywood County. A teacher who worked for years with Keith is a close friend of mine, and she has always put him on a pedestal. She says he was a great principal and a leader who was able to make hard decisions with a twinkle in his eye and with humor.
I met Keith in the 1990s when, as editor of The Mountaineer, we were producing a series of stories on a school bond referendum in Haywood County. He was principal at the old Hazelwood Elementary School (now the Folkmoot Friendship Center), and school leaders thought he would be a great choice to demonstrate to the newspaper how badly the bond money was needed.
And he did. The school was literally falling down around the students and teachers. It was drafty, moldy, cold, paint was peeling, the power supply was inadequate, it was unsafe, and the rooms were too small. In short, it was a dump.
There was great irony, though, in the choice of Keith to demonstrate the need for the referendum. He certainly pointed out the problems, and there were plenty. But he also left me with the impression that he and his teachers would get their jobs done if you put them in a barn without electricity. I left impressed with his commitment to his teachers and his students.
I didn’t really get to know Wyatt, though, until a few years later when I was asked to join the Folkmoot USA Board of Directors. Keith was president of the board at that time, and at my very first meeting he made a point of coming up to me afterward and personally welcoming me to the board. During his presidency and afterwards we worked together a lot.
Years later, I sat in the same seat Keith had occupied as president of that board. And like so many others who have spoken up in the past few days, his quiet, steady influence in my early days with that organization had a lot to do with the years of dedication. He was an exemplary leader.
Sen. Bob Carpenter from Franklin recently passed away. I didn’t know Carpenter personally, but what I do fondly remember about him is a style of politicking that is fast fading but worth emulating.
Sen. Bob and I disagreed on many fundamental issues. Those disagreements, though, never got in the way of a very cordial and respectful relationship. When I was at The Mountaineer and later at The Smoky Mountain News, the eight-term senator would often just stop by the office when returning from Raleigh after a legislative week or when passing through.
Almost always those visits were unannounced and short. But they were very informative. Today lawmakers send out email blasts about what took place during the week in Congress or at the General Assembly. This was before email had become so ubiquitous, and in five or 10 minutes he would go over the week’s happenings.
Sometimes he wanted to tell me how he disagreed with something we had written in a news story or I had written in an editorial, but it was always done very politely and warmly. We could agree to disagree and be respectful of each other’s positions. With Sen. Bob’s passing, we lose another link to an era not so long ago when political differences didn’t turn people into enemies.