THE NEWSPAPER columnist is, perhaps, a dying figure in our society. As television newscasts, the Internet, and talk-radio enjoy this era of dominance, as daily newspaper circulation continues to decline, the chances of another Jimmy Breslin exerting strong influence on a big city is fading. In the past year, iconic columnists such as Mike Royko, Herb Caen, and Murray Kempton have died. They will not be replaced.
I realize that I will never attain the status of my own columnist heroes, whom I read as a boy 30 years ago. But I also understand that I have an important opportunity to explain the inexplicable to my readers, even if they are different in outlook and background than me. Once they grew to know me and understand our differences, they began to watch my evolution from Penn man to Yankee Cowboy to fledgling Texan. All the jokes aside, I now understand that an outsider can bring a new perspective to a settled place filled with old-timers who sometimes need to be reminded of their own positives and negatives by someone with fresh eyes.
I've joined local historical associations, performed charity work, donated my time to area schools to help youngsters gain appreciation for reading and writing. I've fought dishonest politicians, honored local landmarks knocked down by developers, and tried to remind Texans that what they have is worth saving.
The many hours I spent in my old American Civilization classes at Penn, making mistakes -- or "learning errors," as I prefer to call them -- at the DP, and practicing my craft at The Philadelphia Inquirer as a young reporter have paid off. You can go west, find a new life, and build a better one.
A few months ago, Karen and I gave birth to a son. We named him Austin because he's something that his daddy can never be -- a native Texan.
Yet all is not perfection. Psycho Dog still doesn't trust me. The summers are a little too hot, even by the humid standards of Philadelphia. And I still can't buy a pound of fresh Nova lox. But my victories come in small ways, usually in brief conversations with people I don't know who stop me at the supermarket. (My daydream come true!) These readers tell me that they didn't much care for me when I arrived. Some say they began reading my column, grew disgusted, and quit on me. But they confide that they eventually came back. These Texans gave this darn Yankee one more chance.
Maybe J.R. Lieber, the Yankee Cowboy, made them laugh. Maybe the story of Psycho Dog touched their heart. Possibly the birth of baby Austin won them over. For whatever reasons, I've found a new home -- and happiness that I've never known before.
I have one wish, though. I'd like to find whoever sent me that "Hang in there" card and take them to a thank-you lunch.
The menu would be chicken-fried steak. With a bagel and lox on the side.
Dave Lieber, C'79, a metro columnist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was a student columnist for The Pennsylvania Gazette and The Daily Pennsylvanian. Two years ago, he was named top columnist in a contest sponsored by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.