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An empty desk
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An empty desk

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Bill Perkins

I had not been awake long Thursday morning when my cell phone pinged with a group text from our editor to all the newsroom staff telling us that one of our reporters died suddenly the previous evening. She was at home and phoned her husband, who was out of town, and told him she was in pain. She asked him to return to the house, and to stay on the phone with her until he got there. When she went silent, he phoned EMTs, who found her unresponsive. She was 45.

I was stunned by the message, and lay in the bed for a long time before I responded. I couldn’t formulate a thought. It was simply surreal.

I worked with Michele Forehand for almost 20 years, but I didn’t really get to know her until the last three or four years, when some changes in the newsroom meant her copy would flow to me for editing. “Flow” is an understatement; Michele’s prolific output was a deluge.

Although she wasn’t a product of a journalism program, she was among the most dogged and thorough reporters I have worked with. If you asked her something she didn’t know, she was dialing the phone before you finished your question. She knew who to call to get information, and her sources trusted her to report what they told her accurately. That comes from building professional relationships and maintaining them carefully. In the journalism world, that’s currency. In community journalism, it’s vital.

I arrived at the office that morning in a fog and immediately noted the absence of a sweet smell. She usually kept a subtle fragrance of some sort in the air because the ancient building always had an odd smell. She was usually the first one in, well into her day when I arrived. “Mornin’, mornin’,” she’d say, followed by a litany of stories that were waiting for me to read.

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But on that morning, there was no cheery greeting, no list of early accomplishments. On her desk was an array of papers and a coffee cup from Wednesday afternoon. It was as if she’d simply stepped away for a moment. Our editor, who’d gotten a call from her husband around midnight, said he had checked the parking lot for her car with the hope that he’d dreamed the jarring phone call.

One of the first orders of the day was putting together a story about her death. Editors would pass it around and add information to it. I took the first pass at it, writing the first sentence. Then I wrote the second: “She was 45.”

I could not proceed from there. Almost as shocking as the news of her death was the realization that I barely knew her although I worked closely with her five days a week. I knew she had a husband who thought he’d won the lottery when he married her, and a son she thought hung the moon. Beyond that, I knew nothing personal about her; the realization that I’d never know her any better came over me like a weighted blanket.

Here’s what I do know — she was the embodiment of community journalism. She cut her teeth working the smaller towns and communities around the Wiregrass, and she approached every task keenly aware that she was writing about people, and that behind every name in every story was a person who deserved to be treated with some measure of dignity even when embroiled in undignified circumstances.

There are many empty desks in our second-story newsroom, but hers is a yawning void. Her absence is palpable, and we’ll miss her up here. I'm sure our readers will, too.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of The Dothan Eagle. E-mail: bperkins@dothaneagle.com.

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