Becky Mabry was the best, and she worked hard to improve everyone around her. She'll be dearly missed around our newsroom.
I ask that you read this blog entry with this disclaimer in mind: I knew Becky Mabry at work, obviously, and this reflects those experiences. I feel selfish describing just my experiences with her, because she was so many things to so many people. I knew her first as a News-Gazette correspondent, then later as her employee and friend. Also, forgive me for the confusion of verb tenses. I'm still having trouble absorbing the fact that she's gone.
It seems surreal to be writing this, because, in my heart, Becky is still my boss, my conscientious editor.
When I heard the news about her death on Christmas Eve, I left the newsroom as the tears came. I could hear Becky's voice from the day I went to her, crying about my first angry phone call about an article.
"Get out of the building," she said. "Take a walk around the block. On your way back, go to the bathroom and clean yourself up. I won't let you sit at your desk and cry."
So last week, I walked out, had my moment, hit the restroom on the way back to the newsroom and went back to work. Or tried, at least. It's been difficult. From my desk, I can see hers. She left an afghan folded over her chair. I somehow still expect her to be sitting there, afghan wrapped around her shoulders.
I like to think I've developed a thicker skin in the past couple years. It's impossible, though, for me to think about Becky without crying. It's selfish, on my end, because I know she's no longer hurting. Becky's been fighting cancer for far longer than I've known her. Since I started at The News-Gazette two and a half years ago, she's been actively treating it for all but five months. She deserves a break.
In one of her e-mails explaining the cancer's recurrence, Becky told me (and many other people who care deeply about her) that she's always felt lucky for the time she's had. You could tell that about her, too. She had a certain, special joy of life. She relished it. She constantly talked lovingly about her husband, her sons, grandchildren, horses and all those other passions.
And Becky's a force. She could galvanize the company to participate in just about any contest, just by sending an e-mail describing how she was going to win. She usually did, too, although she swears she was robbed two years in a row at the newsroom's chili cookoff. Becky was always in it to win it - especially the fight against cancer.
I think that's why these last few days seem so unreal. She planned to beat her illness again, just as she has so many times. She peppered early CaringBridge journal updates with words like "excited," "eager," admonishments for readers to eat their vegetables and plenty of exclamation points. Only a few times did she describe how hard things were.
I met Becky as a sophomore in college. I interviewed her for that standard assignment from journalism professors - interview a professional reporter about a time he or she faced an ethical challenge. Becky told me about the delicate process of writing about the Amish, something she loved. I somehow finagled my way into covering a Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley school board meeting while I was home on Thanksgiving break. By the next summer, Becky allowed me to write bigger stories. Pretty soon, I found myself a regular corrie.
I always knew I wanted to work for The News-Gazette. Becky Mabry made it happen. I'll never fully understand her powers of persuasion, but I started my full-time job about 13 days after earning my bachelor's degree in May 2007. My hire happened as journalism jobs for people my age dried up.
Becky made my first six months at the paper challenging and satisfying. As a regional reporter, I'd been assigned to write about Naomi Arnette, a Sadorus mom who'd been missing all summer and whose body was later found in a shallow grave. I wrote about how no one knew what had happened to her. I'd led with an uninteresting quote.
"Don't put all that boring stuff at the top of the story," Becky told me. "What do I care about? I'm only going to read something I care about."
That was the first of many stories I rewrote for Becky. Every time, both I and the story were better for it.
She spent hours developing my writing and reporting skills, advising me on how to approach people for interviews, especially the tough ones. She told me I sometimes needed to be patient as a story unfolded and dispensed perhaps the best advice I've received. "People will like you if you like them first," she told me. It's true - look at how many people like and love Becky. All that affection was mutual.
And, as I've mentioned, she looked out for me when she knew acting like a sensitive 21-year-old would make me look unprepared and unprofessional. There was no crying in the newsroom when Becky was around.
Not only was Becky a challenging, gifted editor, she became my friend, too. She introduced me to Beachy's Bulk Foods in Arthur, the power of knowing how to cook a good meal and the secret that laughing about one's challenges makes them easier to tackle. She emphasized the importance of family, enthusiasm and fun. One afternoon, her Amish book's research had her frazzled and I had a break from the controversies in suburban towns I'd been covering all summer. We took off and explored the Arthur area for an afternoon. Sure, she still carried her recorder and notebook and had a few interviews, but we did some shopping and eating, too.
When I took my features reporter position this fall, I did so with the assumption that Becky would be my editor again, at last. I couldn't wait to work with her. She had such a knack for finding out what people cared about. These topics are usually the most fun, or most compelling, to report. I looked forward to bouncing ideas off her, putting her thoughts into action and having a ball while hunting down great stories.
Until about 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve, I never believed Becky wouldn't return to the newsroom. Honestly, I still don't.
This weekend, I was reading a blog entry Roger Ebert wrote , about why working as a reporter is "the best damn job in the whole wold," as he put it.
He wrote about his own newsroom mentor, Bob Zonka: "At his funeral, Jon Anderson, a former Daily News columnist, said: 'I know for a fact that half the people in this room think they were Zonka's best friend.'"
I'm just one of the many people who considers myself Becky's best friend. I'll miss her.