Tattered folders full of words to be treasured for a lifetime

The process of selecting which tangible paper record of memories and life to place in safe keeping cuts to the heart and soul.

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John Fountain with his grandfather, the Rev. George A. Hagler

Photo provided by John W. Fountain

Flipping through tattered folders filled with paper keepsakes I have stored throughout my journalism life, I find a treasure trove of handwritten and printed notes, memos, emails and assorted essays.

Handwritten on one folder in black ink many years ago is the title of a book I hoped to write someday: “Heart & Soul”

Inside another are photos autographed by Negro League players I met once while reporting: Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe, crossing home plate with GRAYS emblazoned across the chest of his pinstriped uniform. “Wild” Bill Wright...

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Among these treasures are also scribblings on notebook paper, titled, “Grandpa” and dated 2/14/07, from one of my grandfather’s Sunday sermons:

“Seek the Lord. As long as you’ve got a mind to please him, the Lord will work things out … Keep on asking him… His line is never busy.”

Three years since his death at 97, Grandpa’s words still resonate, guide, caution, remind me to endeavor to walk in purpose, to redeem the time.

“You lose your soul, you’ve lost everything,” read my notes from Grandpa’s sermon.

Words for life.

I flip the pages to other treasures: A letter to the British Consulate General, dated Sept. 22, 1992, from the Chicago Tribune’s managing editor. It states that I am a Tribune reporter on “leave of absence” to accompany my wife, a British Marshall Scholar, to England for a year.

There is a copy of my story, published Feb. 4, 1993, in the Weekly Journal in London, about the shooting of Benji Stanley, 14, slain in Moss Side, Manchester, and the “human tale of two cities” — Moss Side and Chicago.

There is a note from New York Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., dated May 2001: “You have become a seasoned New York Timesman in a hurry.

“In far less than a year here, your byline has become one that readers watch for, knowing it is a signal of beautiful writing and incisive coverage.”

There is the old contract to write the memoir of a civil rights icon. … Undated notes scribbled on coffee-stained Holiday Inn stationery of a speech given at a family reunion in tribute to the man who chose to be my dad:

“But the thing that touched me most about him as I reminisced this morning is this: I don’t ever remember him introducing me — and he did quite often — as his stepson. He always, and to this date, calls me his son.”

The collection of papers and notes speaks to me, plays like flashbacks in my mind.

They remind me — in this world of data oversaturation, a time when the days of our lives are stored on hard drives and in online clouds — that the process of selecting which tangible paper record of memories and life to place in safe keeping cuts to the heart and soul.

These folders are my diaries. They contain my journalism memoirs. Pieces of my heart and soul.

They remind me, in the voice of a man many years younger, of why I write, of who I am and what I believe. Of how far I’ve come and how I got here.

Not lost is a note handwritten 33 years ago in green permanent marker on 4-by-6 paper to a young grad student by Professor Bob Reid at the University of Illinois at Champaign:

“You have a great future ahead of you. Make the most of it and remember your ideals when there are temptations or pressures to do otherwise.”

Words from the only mentor I ever had in journalism, they proved sufficient for a career. And they are among the memories stored in these paper files that I will treasure for a lifetime.


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