In the spring of 1989, I came to Charlotte to interview for a job at the Observer. I spent a day talking to a bunch of editors. They asked me to come back for more interviews the next morning. So I looked through the paper to find something to do in town. It turned out a singer I liked I think it was Buckwheat Zydeco was playing at a place called the Double Door Inn.
At some point during the show, I wandered back to find the mens room. As I passed the foosball table, I recognized a face Bill OConnor, one of the editors Id met that day. Bill looked up, raised his beer bottle and yelled TOMMEEEEEEEE!!!
Id come to the right place.
A few days later, another editor named Jim Walser called to offer me a job. He didnt get the sentence all the way out before I said yes.
Im 48 now. I started with the Observer 23 years ago. Ive spent nearly half my life working for this newspaper. It feels strange to say goodbye.
If you havent heard, Ive taken a job writing for a sports website being created out of a partnership between USA Today Sports Media Group and MLB Advanced Media. Its so new it doesnt have a name yet. Itll launch sometime this summer.
So this is my last column for the Observer. Its going to be a little longer than normal. I hope you dont mind. There are so many memories.
• • •
When I started at the Observer, Ballantyne didnt exist. Bank of America was North Carolina National Bank. The Charlotte Hornets not the Bobcats, the Hornets had just finished their first NBA season. Independence Boulevard took a hard turn as you headed out of uptown, right in front of a lingerie store called the Bootery & Bloomery.
The Observer stationed me in a one-reporter office in Lancaster a satellite office to our bureau in Rock Hill. In my first two weeks I wrote about a new vice president at Winthrop College, a fatal wreck involving a tanker truck, a couple celebrating 50 years of marriage, and a Christian entertainer who talked like Alvin from the Chipmunks. On weekends, Id drive the 40 miles to Charlotte to buy CDs at Repo Records or out-of-town papers at Newsstand International.
Growing up on the coast of Georgia, I never saw a hurricane; three months after I got here, Hugo came right up Interstate77 and tore through the Charlotte area in the middle of the night. There was a pecan tree right outside the bedroom window of my little duplex, and all night long the wind bent that tree over the top of the house. Later on, Id cover hurricanes for the paper. None ever scared me as much as Hugo did.
After three years in the bureaus, I wanted a promotion to the Charlotte office back then we called it the Big House, or the Mothership. I thought I was being overlooked, so in the summer of 92, I quit and went to freelance in Atlanta. I spent six mostly aimless months there and called the Observer hoping to come back. They hired me as the pop music writer.
A month or two after I got back, in early 1993, I got what I thought was laryngitis all of a sudden I could barely talk. It lingered, and I went to see an ear, nose and throat doctor. He found a growth in my voice box, took it out, and discovered it was cancer. You know how, when they talk about how people get a disease, they always say its something like 52 percent for this reason, and 46 percent for that reason, and 2 percent is Other? I was Other. The doctor would have to take out about a third of my voice box to get all the cancer. He wasnt sure Id still be able to talk. Its hard to be a reporter when you cant talk.
I was 29 and thought my career the only one Id ever wanted might be over.
I mention all this for one reason. The Observer newsroom including a bunch of people I didnt know, or had just met lifted me up. They took up a collection to buy me a Game Boy that helped pass the time in some dark hours. They came to the hospital and entertained my mom. And when I got back to work, with a worse version of the raspy voice I still have today, they installed a special phone so people could hear me better.
They became, in almost every way I can describe, part of my family.
• • •
And so did readers.
Its human nature that we remember criticism more than praise especially when the barb is nice and sharp. When I was music writer, I covered a concert by Courtney Loves band Hole. I wasnt exactly swept away by the show, or by the crowd. A couple of days later I got a letter. Dear Tommy Tomlinson, it began, you suck. And it proceeded to list 10 reasons why.
But for every one of those, there were a dozen that cheered me on or made me think or just started a conversation. The thing writers fear most isnt somebody hating their work; what we fear is that nobodys listening. Ive got boxes of letters and thousands upon thousands of emails that made me feel better just to know somebody took the time to write. If you sent it, Ive probably kept it.
The conversations multiplied when I became a local columnist in 1997. In a lot of ways, being a columnist is easier than being a regular reporter. I dont have to keep my opinion out of a story I get paid to put it in. I can write about personal things. And theres something about having your picture run with your column. People put a face to the words. Maybe, after a while, they start to hear the writers voice in their heads.
Today, anytime I drive around town, places remind me of stories. Theres the cemetery where I saw hundreds of police officers lay one of their own to rest. Theres the sidewalk where the woman did her part to save the world by picking up litter. Theres the coffee shop where I spent a month of Mondays getting a math professor to help me understand the problem hed worked on for four years.
I spent a summer doing columns from every ZIP code in Mecklenburg County 29, if I remember right and I still remember the guy who turned his backyard deck into a geometry lesson, and the farmer working his land as condos closed in on all sides, and the man who planted a garden outside his bedroom window so his bedridden wife could look at something beautiful.
People love the paper, or they hate it but cant live without it, or they leave but keep coming back, or they think the world of it but want to fix one or two or 10 or 12 things. Ive seen people yell at the paper I mean, yell at the actual copy in their hands or throw it across the room, or hug it like a baby. Most companies long for their products to create the emotional response that readers have with the newspaper every day. Some days, when I wade into the online comments on a story, I feel like I need a machete and a Hazmat suit. But yall care. Yall care a lot.
In 1998, about a year after I started the column, I married Alix Felsing, who came to the paper not long after I did. (Alix is now a team leader in our publication center, which handles copy editing and design for the papers in Charlotte, Raleigh and Rock Hill and their community papers.) I wrote a column that ran the day of our wedding about how long I had been single and lonely, and how lucky I felt to finally find the right person. We went off on our honeymoon, and when we got back, readers had sent hundreds of letters and emails. So many people called they had to expand my voicemail capacity twice. To this day, nearly 14 years later, people will come up and mention that column. Sometimes a woman will pull it out of her purse and show it to me.
It reminded me once again of the power of words, and the goodwill of readers, and that deep connection we can make together.
• • •
One of the many great editors here, Gary Schwab, likes to say that a big part of journalism is getting into interesting places. This job has put me in so many interesting places. In the stands as the Panthers played the Super Bowl. In the courtroom as former Panther receiver Rae Carruth was convicted of conspiring to kill his pregnant girlfriend. Next to the stage as Billy Graham dedicated his library with three U.S. presidents by his side. Walking with Dorothy Counts-Scoggins as she re-enacted the day she integrated Harding High in 1957.
There have been dark places, too. In the span of a year and a half I went to New Orleans twice after Katrina; raced to Blacksburg, Va., to cover the shootings at Virginia Tech; stood in a tiny room at Central Prison, witnessing the execution of a Charlotte man who had murdered his wife; and wrote about a Charlotte bank vice president who killed his 5-year-old twin girls. When his wife wanted to tell her story to the public, she called me.
These were all important stories stories a good columnist should cover. But they took a toll. Alix said later that when I came back from Katrina, I didnt talk for three days.
I struggled some after that, trying to find ways to tell the truth and write important stories without digging quite so deep into tragedy. Good news is harder to write because we tend to learn more lessons from pain than joy. Again, human nature.
But we hunger for good news thats memorable. One of my all-time favorite columns couldnt have been a simpler story. A woman named Cassie Phillippi was driving through the parking lot at Eastland Mall when her car died at a stop sign. A cold rain was falling, and the cars behind her started honking. Cassie was miserable. Then people started getting out and checking to see if she was OK. A man pulled up behind her and turned his blinkers on so she wouldnt get hit. He went and got her lunch. Two hours later, when the wrecker came, she realized how great a day it had been.
The human spirit is so beautiful, its unreal, she told me later.
• • •
In my first column 14 years ago I said that if I had a theme, it would be that despite all the things that divide us, at our core were more alike than different. I believe that even more now. Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, black and white, rich and poor those differences matter. But we have so much in common. We need love, and to be loved. We need to grieve and cope with loss. We try to make our lives meaningful. And we long to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
When I decided to leave the Observer, I had two main reasons: Id never been part of something that was starting from the ground up, and I didnt want to be an old man sitting on my porch wondering, What if I had tried that?
But I leave knowing that the Observer made me part of something bigger than myself. It helped make my life meaningful. It helped me cope with loss. And its a place I will love as long as I breathe.
I love Charlotte, too. Alix and I are staying here. Some of those things from the old days are gone Repo Records and Newsstand International and, sadly, the Bootery & Bloomery. But uptown is full of life now, and theres something cool happening every single day, and if I need a shot of the blues, the Double Door is still around.
Charlotte has grown so fast since I got here, and most of us were dumb enough to think wed keep growing forever. The economic crash of the last few years exposed a lot of our flaws. We rely too much on our big banks. We value flash over history. We continue to complain that the rest of the world doesnt pay enough attention to us, even as the NFL and the NBA and the freaking Democratic National Convention come to town.
But those are good problems to have. Theyre the problems of a city thats still on the rise. Charlotte has always been defined by change thats why we dont have many old buildings and I cant wait to see what changes come next.
• • •
These past two weeks, yall have sent me many wonderful notes. One of the things a lot of you said is that the Observer wont be the same without me. I guess thats true in a literal sense, and I appreciate the kind words.
But it made me think about when I first got here. Back then Charlie Shepard was our hotshot investigative reporter; he led the team that won us a Pulitzer for our stories on the PTL scandal. I think I met him once. About a year after I arrived, he left. It made me wonder if I had showed up to the party just as everybody else was going home.
Well, all these years later the Observer still does those big expensive projects, still covers the news no one else does, still tells the stories of our community, and still gives young journalists like I was, 23 years ago a chance to shine.
Its no secret that the last few years have hit us hard. Some folks have given up on us, or cant look at the paper without remembering better days. I understand that. But understand this: This place is still a powerhouse. Its been around 125 years, and itll be here long after were dead. Bet the other way and youll go home broke.
I know that because I know the people who put together this paper every day from the journalists to the ad salespeople to the folks who run the presses to the carriers who drop the newspaper in your driveway while you sleep. And I know it because I know how many of you still care about the news. To me, were all family a huge, diverse, squabbling family, but family just the same.
Years ago, I wrote about a wealthy businessman who paid the Russians something like $20 million to go up in one of their spaceships. I said that one day I hoped to be rich and stupid like that guy. The next day, a reader wrote back with a great line: Congratulations, youre halfway there.
The joke, of course, is that I was already stupid. But the guy had it backward. The truth is, I was already rich.
From the moment I started working for the Charlotte Observer, Ive been rich in friends, rich in experiences, rich in connections, rich in love.
Its been a wonderful life. And Im George Bailey at the end of the movie. The richest man in town.