Three years ago Thursday marked the beginning of what was to be the hardest two weeks of my career as a journalist to date.
I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was lying in bed after having slept in on Sunday, watching the rain gently fall from the dreary gray sky out my window when the phone rang. It was my boss. In the six years I worked with Andy, he had never called me on the weekend. Right away I knew something was wrong — something big.
The voice on the other end of the line told me that Marine Lance Cpl. Zach Smith had been killed in Afghanistan.
My heart sank.
I sat there in stunned silence. My boss did the same.
We both knew Zach and his family. Nearly everyone in the community of roughly 8,000 knew them.
We agreed to meet in the office later in the day to start writing a series of stories remembering the 19-year-old Marine.
Over the next few hours, I remembered all the times I was on assignment at Hornell High School and ran into Zach. He would strike a pose and freeze in place and wait for me to take his picture. I would, and he would go along his way. There was no way around it, the kid was a ham. I remembered how happy he looked standing just outside the fence of the football field he played his heart on months before, dressed in a bright blue cap and gown, waiting for Pomp and Circumstance to begin before his graduation. I remembered the pride in his eyes the next time I saw him, standing on the sidelines of that same football field, this time dressed in his Marine uniform, cheering on his former teammates, no doubt reminiscing about his time on the gridiron. I remembered running his engagement announcement in the newspaper, thinking what a perfect couple he and Anne were.
My thoughts went to his family, his father was my favorite New York state trooper — one of the nicest men you'll ever meet. His mother, who used to proudly watch all his football games from the stands; his older brother, who was an excellent role model for Zach; and his little sister, who clearly adored him. I found myself thinking most of all about his wife, who was made a widow before her wedding announcement was printed.
How can life be so unfair to such wonderful people?
My boss and I, along with another reporter, compiled as many memories as we could from friends, family, and community members for the next day's newspaper. The news spread like wildfire through the sleepy community.
Page 2 of 3 - Memories and photos of the Hornell graduate were pouring in faster than we knew what to do with.
We to discuss how to handle this tragedy. None of us had been through this before, the last casualty of war from the area was from Vietnam. We had been lucky.
Journalists are generally portrayed as soulless creatures willing to do whatever necessary to get the story and to get it first. On a national level, I can see how that would be true to some extent. When you work for a community newspaper like I did in New York, and do now in Rolla, it is a different story. Yes, we are reporting the news, but the fact that the people we are reporting about are our friends, families, and fellow community members never leaves the back of our minds.
When a major news story happens, the TV news crews come in, do the reporting and leave — without having a second thought about the consequences of their actions. We don't have — nor do we want that luxury at community newspapers.
The newsroom agreed we would ask Zach's family how they wanted his funeral covered and follow their requests to the letter. The last thing we wanted to do was add any more grief to a family who was suffering so much.
Members of the newsroom walked an emotional tightrope in the coming days. Never had the line between being a journalist, a member of the community, and a friend been so blurred.
We stood outside in single-degree temperatures with hundreds of community members as his the hearse with Zach's flag-draped coffin returned home, snaking through the town, passing by his childhood home one last time before making its way to the funeral home.
With tears flowing down our cheeks, we took pictures as his fellow Marines carried his casket up the stairs and into the funeral home. The silence was deafening. You could hear a pin drop, except for the occasional sob from the crowd.
The next day we interviewed the Patriot Guard Riders as they lined the sidewalk — each proudly holding an America flag as they greeted hundreds — if not thousands — of mourners as they came to pay their last respects. While we were outside, we were reporters. Once inside, we were friends.
We emotionally took photos of his funeral, of his family saying their final goodbyes, of dozens of state troopers standing guard outside the church, of mourners lining the route from the church to the cemetery.
It was one of the most emotional days of my life, a day I learned a lot from, and an experience I will take with me the rest of my life.
Page 3 of 3 - In those two weeks I truly learned what it meant to work at a community newspaper.
I have covered funerals for three other people who lost their lives too young while serving their country since Zach died. I've shed tears while covering the funerals of Army Sgt. Devin Snyder of Cohocton, N.Y.; Army Staff Sgt. Tyler Smith of Licking; and for Army Pfc. Richard L. McNulty III, of Rolla.
Every time I thought it would get easier. It never does.
We don't write these stories to sell papers, to get website hits, or to be the first to break the news.
We do it to tell the story, to honor the fallen and thank their families for their sacrifice — not only because it is our job, but because it is the right thing to do.
We crammed a lot of memories into those two weeks worth of newspapers. Memories of Zach's life, his death, and the the appreciation showed by the community. Memories his family has told me they will cherish forever.
Lynn Brennan is the Editor of the Rolla Daily News.
She can be reached at LynnBrennan@therolladailynews.com