I have been privileged in my life to see many exceptional people, and to have the honor of being either their father, employee, supervisor, friend, chaplain, child, lover, husband or, in this case, local newspaper editor.
During the early years of my tenure with The Courier, in Middletown, NJ, between 1998-2001, I was working many side-jobs in newspapers (aside from my full-time job) to stay afloat personally and I was working untold numbers of hours in the office and the field to try and right things.
The previous two editors before me were, to be kind, sloppy in preparation of the staff and out of touch with those readers who are supposed to be the newspaper’s base: homeowners in the Bayshore, Northern Monmouth County. It was from many bad habits, though, that newspaper readership fell to just a little more than 2,000 editions every week and the Sales Department figures were in the toilet.
One person could only have so much impact, but I was determined to try and do what I could do to make things better -- no matter how small an improvement it might be within the organization. At that point, I was a young editor and filled with all kinds of energy and enthusiasm. It was wonderful, actually. I wish I had appreciated it more at the time. Anyway, I forget what I was doing when I met Theresa Kegley for the first time. But, I recall I was tired, haggard, hungry and probably looked every inch of it.
I was alone in the newspaper office when she came through the door. She looked like any other attractive, early 30s, well-dressed, educated and professional young woman that was so common, as a species, to that small part of the world we were in. I was already bracing myself for her keeping me there an extra half-hour while she rambled on about her kid’s soccer team, or the Junior League’s ‘big cookout event’ or even an upcoming PTA fundraiser. I had no idea what was to come next, though.
I showed her to the publisher’s tiny office, which was only a scant larger than a cubicle, and asked her how I could help. She explained, very calmly: “Hi, please call me Teri. I live in Holmdel. I am a single mother of two baby sons and I have terminal cancer and have not been given a lot of time by my doctors. So, I want to spend whatever time I have left trying to find my babies good, new parents. Among other outlets, I would like to use your newspaper.”
There are things I am not prepared for at 6:30 pm after a long day, and that was right up there with the Top 10 of those things. But, this is not something to ever blow-off. This is one of those things one does and does not screw up or they explain themselves to their Maker at the Judgment.
I told Teri I would do everything I could to help and make whatever meager resources The Courier had available to her every and any time she wanted it. She was very pleased. We even managed a few jokes about how small the area was. Teri was so composed in giving me her first interview that night.
I forget what kind of cancer she had, but it was bad enough for her to be getting her affairs settled. The calm in this woman was remarkable, though. And, yet, I couldn’t believe Teri was ever sick, let alone possessing a cancer that would take her so soon.
The more I spoke to her, the more my heart went out to her and those boys. Teri struck me as brilliant, witty, beautiful, articulate, loving to her family and community, and as placid as I have ever saw anyone in that situation.
She smiled, “I just want to make sure my boys get a good home when I am gone, that’s all really.” Then came the crack in her armor. A lone tear traveled down her lovely cheek. She almost had me believe she was detached from the whole thing, and then it got her. I wanted to seem very professional so I told her to wait while I get a tissue for her. Actually, my eyes were filling up too. I needed the tissue more than she did. When I stepped out, I wiped my eyes and blew my nose in the bathroom and then went into the vacant ladies room and got her a box of tissues on the top of the toilet.
I returned and set the box between Teri and myself. I was starting to do a horrible job being professional, but only around the corners. I informed Teri I would do the stories myself. She thanked me, gave me her contact information and bade me good evening.
Teri and I ended up doing about four more stories about her search for new parents. I stopped anything and everything I was doing whenever she called or stopped by. I told the owner of the newspaper about her, Joe Azzolina, and he told me to do whatever she wants. I had no problems with that.
Teri and I had many exchanges, but one stands out in my mind. Being a journalist, I am sometimes too curious for my own good. I asked her, off the record of course, when the most difficult times about this hits her. It was an unexpected question, I think. She gulped a bit and said, “In the morning, before I get up; when I am laying there and it just washes over me. It’s sometimes too much. The only thing I can do is get going and get this done. When it comes to me, that can’t be a consideration until this search is finished.”
Over the next eight or nine months, Teri called me socially in-between articles. She gave me updates about how the search was going. I tried to sound encouraging every time. Sometimes, especially as the months wore on, she sounded unwell. Finally, I asked Teri to come in, if she could, one Friday around the end of that span for another story and she did. It turned out to be our last meeting together.
Teri was tired and haggard. Her hair had lost its luster, she had shrunken a great deal. Her face was sunken in and she was pale. The last time I had seen her, just about three months ago, she was her normal, beautiful self. Eventually, I guess, the bad stuff had to start happening. Poor dear.
Teri was frail and moved slowly.
By this time, the old publisher’s office was now mine and I was the publisher of the newspaper, and even authorized one of the newbees, a Haverford grad named Joanie Cantor (fake name, of course) to start putting together the basics for a website. Things for The Courier were starting to look a little exciting, actually. For me, this was as good a time as it got in my 11 years there. But, for Teri, it wasn’t a very good time at all.
She came in and sat down, ironically in that same chair she did so many months ago. This time, however, she was in pain and ached as she sat. Her face told it all. Teri offered me a weak smile and said there wasn’t going to be anymore articles. I had no idea why and asked her.
“It’s good news, really. Someone who actually reads your paper saw one of the lovely articles you wrote and they got in touch with a couple. I think it will work out this time,” she said. “I have been through all kinds of people looking to get the boys. I sifted through a lot of them, but I think this couple are the ones.”
There has been this compulsion in me since I was a child to ‘lighten the mood’ with humor -- even if it was inappropriate on occasion. Well, I tried it here. ‘That’s all well and good, Kegley, but what do you mean someone who ‘actually reads my paper’? This is the Daily f-ing Planet for this part of Jersey.’ She laughed a little, and I could tell it hurt. Then, Teri said goodbye and added we wouldn’t be seeing each other again. Teri thanked me and gave me a hug. I waited until she was gone before I lost it.
Time comes and it goes. I received a card in the mail from her thanking myself and the newspaper for everything we had done. I put it up on the wall, where it stayed for years. And, life kept going for the little newspaper and I.
I am ashamed to say that by 2008 I had forgotten about Teri. Well, there was a group of ladies in the back of the office, near our Production Department; I had no idea what they were doing there. Reporters were always working with community groups and I barely took notice. Usually I read about it later anyway, and there were a lot of things to get done all the time. I wasn’t keen on gratuitous visitors if there was a lot to do.
Then, this one soccer-momish looking woman breaks out from the ‘Mom Herd’ and walks over to my office/over-sized cubicle. She introduced herself and I again braced myself to hear about little Johnny or Janie and some grade-school fete. But, that wasn’t why she came to see me at all.
The woman introduced herself as Teri’s sister. She said Teri died some years ago, not long after she sent the card thanking the folks at the newspaper. Her sister said that, at her funeral, the articles in The Courier featuring her and her boys were there for mourners to read. I also learned some really important things from Teri’s sister that day.
The first thing I learned was that Teri’s boys were in a good home and they got to see Teri’s sister frequently. They knew who their mom was and about everything that happened to her, and what she did for them. They knew they were not abandoned and, in fact, their mother spent her last breath loving them. They kept her picture with them all the time. I said that was a blessing. Then, I learned that no other newspaper, not a weekly and not a daily, had chosen to do even one feature about Teri and her situation, and The Courier was the only one of the publications in the area that had done so. Finally, I learned that Teri was barely able to get out of bed that last day I saw her, but she wanted to say goodbye to me personally because she thought I had been a help to her.
I needed for Teri’s sister to leave, because I was going to cry. And, I got her out of my office just before the waterworks hit. I shut my door and had a good one. I then asked God to take care of her, though I think God hardly needed to be advised of this by me.
However, if I did nothing else in my entire career, or even in my whole life, I was so glad I had been of some use to Theresa Kegley. She was among the bravest people I ever met. There may be people as brave as her, but it is not possible for anyone to be more brave or true than her, in my opinion. I did her story right, and writing about her situation did what was should have happened. The newspaper executed what it was created to do and I hadn’t dropped this ball. This one thing has always served to remind me that everything in my work in print, all that I gained and lost and all the joy and sadness, I dealt with was worth it because the Lord’s work got done in this case, if never again, by our small town ‘rag.’
For a change, I did not make this a ‘learning point’ for my young reporters, whom I almost constantly tutored in reporting basics they should have learned in college but didn’t. But, Teri was far more than any ‘learning point.’ She is in my heart still. And, I couldn’t even get past writing her story again without getting hit with the waterworks.
It would have been so much easier if Teri hadn’t been so incredibly heroic and noble -- if she had written a few bad checks or cheated on her taxes or something.
But, she hadn’t.
Teri Kegley was just one of the most amazing people I ever met. If there is a heaven, she is there. And, maybe one day, she can put in a good word for me with the Big Guy, because my record down here wasn’t even in the same league as hers -- not even the same part of the town where her league was playing. In fact, my league was so far away from her league that there weren't maps at my league even telling people where her league was. It's always nice to finish stories with a smile, at least I think so.