NIES — The pipes were calling


Somewhere beyond deadline, my mind drifts back to the teachers, mentors and friends who helped me figure out how to get to where I am.

The professor who said, “Make it beautiful if you can.”

The bureau chief who kept calling back, asking for another detail or two.

The priest historian who reminded me that there may be prominent islands in the lake, but “the islands are not the lake.”

The associate editor who said, “Go for it! Have some fun and make people mad.”

The ragtag publisher who pleaded with me to write about the fish if the roast beef was bad, the chicken if the fish was bad, the service if the chicken was bad, the ambiance if the service was bad.

The jaded copy editor who insisted that “we don’t write in a way that can be understood — we write in a way that cannot be misunderstood.”

Better teachers than those are hard to find. But of an even rarer vintage was the guy I worked next to at a daily paper in the late ’90s. To watch him was to learn.

Years on the job had helped him know and ingratiate himself to just about everyone, whether or not they agreed with what he was writing that day.

While I preferred reporting from lofty heights, detached and insulated from my subjects, he enjoyed building up relationships with his readers, his sources and his colleagues. 

I had discovered years previously that the sound of a good piece of music rendered on a symphonic organ could help me calm down and focus on my work. Besides, pipe organs are neat machines.

So, stuck in a winter rut, I asked the features editor to let me write a Sunday take-out on the pipe organs of Pettis County.

I already had the first few sentences written in my head. Something along the lines of “ethereal intonations resonating and cascading down from on high.”

I didn’t get very far before my friend heard about it and asked if he could do the story. He liked pipe organs, too, and he had some friends who could help him with it. I hated the idea, but I didn’t want to say no to him.

The story went to press a few days before Christmas. I picked up the Sunday paper and flipped to the features section, half-expecting to see something I could have done better.

Nope. My friend had nailed it.

“While her fingers expertly rippled across the double keyboard at Calvary Episcopal Church, Donna Rekittke’s eyes closed momentarily as if in prayer ... which, in a sense, she was.”

True to form, he hadn’t written about the pipe organs of Pettis County.

He had highlighted the people who built them, played them and were drawn by them into prayer.

Thank you, Ron Jennings, for yet another great lesson: People are interesting. Their sometimes surprising stories, told in the context of a trusting relationship, can yield essential insight into us, our communities and even our God.

Continue to rest in peace, old friend.

I hope I never forget.

Mr. Nies is editor of The Catholic Missourian.