When someone asks how a mistake got into the newspaper, I usually offer one explanation: “A human being was sitting in front of a keyboard.”
(It is, after all, the cause of almost every mistake I’ve seen in a newspaper, going back to my first byline in 1976.)
The thing that makes our mistakes special is this: Every one is on public display for others to notice. And when it’s a real dandy (like Thursday’s photo of “rice fields” on our front page), we hear about it for days to come.
Thus, I do my best to be understanding and forgiving when the mistakes of others are brought to my attention. Lord knows I’ve made enough myself through the years and, when I hear about a mistake made by somebody else, I usually end up learning something in the process.
In that spirit, I’m asking everyone to join me in my attempt to start a new movement today.
I’m calling it the “Let’s Praise Our Friends and Coworkers As If They’re Dead, but Do It While They’re Still Alive” program.
Because, believe it or not, this just happened in our town, right over at Chico State. A former professor had one of those “Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated” episodes, all because the school’s media relations department sent out a really nice story looking back on her life — despite the fact she is still alive.
I’m not going to mention the person’s name. From all accounts, she was understandably horrified by what happened, and “further publicity” is the last thing she wants right now.
Goes like this: Someone told the university that a former Chico State professor had died. Unfortunately, the person who reported this news had the professor’s name mixed up with another former professor who is still very much alive. So the wrong name was given to the university, and a living, breathing person’s “obituary” was sent out to every staff member on campus.
After reading it, I was struck by two things: The incredibly poignant comments friends and former coworkers had to say about this person, and, on a somewhat bizarre note, the fact they all felt so close to her, yet somehow didn’t know that she wasn’t actually dead.
For our purposes today, let’s stick with the praise, which came from the kind of heart-felt emotions that could only be spoken for someone who has lived a very special, powerful and influential life:
“She fed me. She encouraged me. She looked out for me because she took seriously her obligation to ensure the success of an individual she had played a role in bringing to the university,”
“She was small in stature but big in personality, and nowhere did she shine brighter than in the classroom. … She touched the lives of so many.”
“To me and so many others in the department, she was such a great scholar, a loyal colleague, and a caring friend.”
“She never sat back and let the world shape her life. She lived fully and used all the strings in her mighty bow.”
I mean, that’s powerful stuff. And I guarantee you at least one of those four people said something along the lines of “If only I had said these things about her while she were still alive.”
Well, that’s the beauty of this: Whether they meant to or not, those people DID say these things while she was still alive and, thanks to the obituary being sent around prematurely, she actually got to read every praise-filled paragraph.
That got me thinking.
How many times have we known someone who died, and our first reaction was “I just wish I could see them one more time so I could have told them this.”
So I’m wondering — why not? Why do people have to be dead before we muster up the courage to say the nicest possible things we can think about them?
Thus, I think we need a “Let’s Praise Our Friends and Coworkers As If They’re Dead, but Do It While They’re Still Alive” movement. It can be an annual day, it can be on the person’s birthday or, in this case, I guess it can even be on the day we thought they’d died but later found out they really didn’t.
How about it? I like the idea. And maybe it’s best if it doesn’t become a formal declaration or government-fueled holiday; Lord knows they’re screwed up enough things as it is.
So reach out to somebody you like, love or even merely respect today. Tell them “I just read this story in the paper about somebody who was reported to have died, only she wasn’t really dead, and the end result was she got to read a lot of really nice things people said about her because they thought she was actually dead. So I’m reaching out to tell you what I’d say if I found out you were dead, and it goes like this.”
Imagine the shock. Imagine the joy. You can call them, you can pay them a visit or you can even send them an email.
Plenty of things have been screwed up by human beings sitting in front of keyboards. I know; I’ve done more than my share.
How remarkable to think that no matter how many mistakes we’ve made, the opportunity to reach out and make somebody’s day is literally still right here at our fingertips.
Mike Wolcott is editor of the Enterprise-Record, and you have until Monday to email him with your submission for our “What I (still) love about Chico” feature. We’ll run the best of the entries next Sunday, Nov. 7, and our favorite will get a $200 gift certificate from a local restaurant of their choice.