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Gaul: There is a time for every purpose
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Gaul: There is a time for every purpose

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It never would have occurred to me when I walked into the Quad-City Times office at 124 E. 2nd St. in the fall of 1977 that 43 years down the road I’d be sitting at a computer writing a goodbye column to readers of a newspaper that became my life.

But here I am.

It was oldest sister, Ruth, who got me started in this business. As a junior and then senior in high school I was increasingly dogged by the question of what I was going to BE. High school was ending, and I had to figure out what I could do to earn my keep. What was I going to BE? What was I going to DO?

I’d always been good in English and writing, so I thought maybe I could teach one of those subjects. But what about writing by itself? Are there jobs in writing? Ruth suggested that people write for newspapers; maybe I could get a job there.

So, I taught myself to type with a “learn to” book and a manual typewriter left behind by older siblings and, in the fall of 1972, enrolled at Iowa State University majoring in journalism and English.

It was a given that to be a journalist you had to do more than class work. You had to get experience reporting and writing stories and building a “clip file.” The last quarter of my freshman year I took a deep breath and walked through the doors of the Iowa State Daily office to say that I wanted to be part of the college newspaper staff. I was so nervous and intimidated by the upperclassmen that, with my first assignments, I took my legal pad out into the hallway and sat on the steps, writing my story in longhand.

I will never forget my first published story, covering a meeting. The day it published, I woke up in my dorm room with the same feeling I had as a child on Christmas morning, that great feeling of anticipation, of being able to run down the steps and see presents! Only this time, there would be a story WITH MY NAME ON IT in the newspapers stacked by the hall entrance. 

The people at the Daily became my friends, and newspaper journalism rose to the fore as teaching fell away.

Newspaper reporting is a privilege and a responsibility. At its core, it is reporting about life. About what happens. It is a responsibility because we must get it right.

I have had the privilege of reporting on many things. I rode down the Mississippi River on a towboat for a week. I made my way around Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Reagan.

I talked to people from Vietnam, the Congo, Myamar and other places who, through often harrowing circumstances, found their way to the Quad-Cities as refugees. I always wondered if I would have survived had I been in their shoes.

I will be forever grateful for the day in the early 1990s when a man named Andy Anderson came to the Times wanting to talk to a reporter. He said the 50th anniversary of D-Day – the greatest amphibious invasion of all time – was coming up in 1994, and we might want to do something. When that time came, he would be willing to talk because he had been there.

That was the beginning of dozens of interviews and stories about World War II that stand front and center of my 43 years.  Time after time, I had the honor of sitting across from a person who had seen – with their own eyes – the history that we only read about. I could reach across a table and touch the hand of a person who had jumped from an airplane in the early hours of June 6, 1944, into France, or hit the deck of a ship as Japanese Zeros flew so close he could see the pilot’s face. I was lucky to be working at a time when the bulk of the World War II generation was still living, their memories still sharp.

I interviewed Esther Katz, one of the Quad-Cities’ three Esthers, Jewish women who had survived the concentration camps. I’ll never forget her husband chastising her for letting me in their front door so easily, without identification. You never know, he said.

In more recent times, other stories stand out. Researching the Dakota prison camp that existed at Camp McClellan (where McClellan Heights is now) during the Civil War.

The “rise and fall of Valley Bank,” the story of a Q-C bank that was closed by the FDIC as financially insolvent after years of explosive growth.

The memory of walking along the railroad tracks near Davenport’s Wapello Avenue in the dark, my boots going scrunch, scrunch, scrunch over the rocks as a biologist and I listened for frog chirps in Nahant Marsh.

There was the thrill of holding in my hands a letter written by jazz great Bix Beiderbecke in New York City less than a year before he died, explaining to his parents in Davenport how sick he had been.

News in the past two years has poured forth with blazing speed, beginning with the 2019 Mississippi River flood and the HESCO barrier that breached just a few blocks from the Times’ office.  I need not detail 2020 – the caucuses, COVID-19, protests for racial justice, the derecho.

And, every Sunday in this Home & Garden section for 25 years, softer news of people’s homes and gardens, hobbies and lives. Again, a great privilege. One’s home is sacred, and I am honored by the trust afforded me by people willing to let me walk in and take notes. If my math is right, I’ve written about 1,300 of these kinds of stories.

And in these columns I have shared happenings in my family, both the one I was born into on the farm on which my dad raised me, and the one my husband and I made ourselves here in the Quad-Cities. My meeting Dave, marrying and having and raising our children, Kelly and Matt, all played out against a backdrop of working at the Times.

I have often told people that working at a newspaper is like going to a museum every day. Every day, there are  – placed right before you –  interesting things, people, places, events, topics just waiting to be asked about and written up.

Of course, not everyone wants to talk to a reporter. Sometimes the "interesting thing" is, literally, a crime.

Reporting/writing is work, and no matter how good the story was that you wrote for today's paper, the question is, "what are you going to do for me tomorrow?"

Many times I identified with Sisyphus, the figure in Greek mythology who pushed a boulder up a mountain every day, only to see it roll down again. 

Within the last month, I had occasion to walk to the back of our building, to the press room. It’s called that because that’s where the press sits, the huge, four-story machine that prints our newspaper. When the press is running, the noise is so loud that, even shouting, you can’t hear the person next to you, and you can’t stay without ear protection.

When it’s not running, the room is as quiet as a cathedral. The smell of ink hangs in the air. And, to me, the press seems to breathe, to pulsate, as though just waiting to leap forth with the next day’s news. I am proud to be part of a long line of people who reported and wrote news so that our communities could know what's going on, learn things, exchange ideas.

Stepping away from this is hard. This newspaper has been my life. To you, the readers of this Sunday column, I will miss you. I’ll also miss the excitement of having a front page story (that has never gone away) and the museum doors that open with a press pass.

But my sisters, including Ruth who was my counsel all those many years ago, advise that there’s a time to leave, and I am taking them at their word.

So the question comes around again: What am I going to BE? What am I going to DO?

I don’t know yet, but I’m on my way.

P.S. Those of you who call or email me with news releases, story ideas or questions – you can still do that through Feb. 26, which will be my last day.

After that, please contact lboardman@qctimes.com or newsroom@qctimes.com.

If you want to talk to me specifically, email to almajgaul@gmail.com. And I may be writing some stories down the line as a freelancer.

Shalom.

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