As I write this column, it is my last for Freedom Communications.
I’d envisioned leaving the company either by retiring or to go work at another job with higher pay. But the decision to eliminate my position means that I must move on.
I’ve had tremendous opportunities to help tell people’s stories over the past 33 ½ years. And those opportunities continued when I moved to Raleigh more than a decade ago to write about state government and politics.
I’ve gotten to cover presidents and presidential candidates. I’ve had the opportunity to sit in the Governor’s Mansion and talk to governors, and interview leaders of all types.
But the most memorable stories I’ve covered – indeed the interviews that have made a more lasting impression – are those of what some would call ordinary people put in extraordinary situations.
These extraordinary people I’m speaking of are parents of children who’d died, and who turned the tragedy of their children’s premature death into a mission to spur changes in state law in the hopes that other parents would not have to suffer the grief they’d felt.
I remember meeting Richard and Barbara Shevlin of Graham. Their daughter Kaitlyn died after being given an antihistamine at a home daycare so that she would be groggy and the daycare operator wouldn’t be disturbed. Now, we have Kaitlyn’s Law, which makes it illegal for a childcare worker to give medicine to a child without the parent’s permission.
I met Mark Lunsford, whose young daughter Jessica was raped and murdered by a sexual predator in Florida in 2005. Jessica was born in Gaston County and moved to Florida to live with her father. After her death, Lunsford came to North Carolina to crusade for Jessica’s Law, which makes the raping of a child younger than 13 a crime punishable by a minimum of 25 years. Offenders would then be required to submit to lifetime GPS monitoring.
Earlier this year, I met Michelle Armstrong, the mother of 17-year-old Laura Fortenberry, who was killed during the summer of 2010 when the car she was riding in was hit by a car driven by a repeat DWI offender. Armstrong didn’t seem to be bothered by the tedious work by a legislative committee. Sure it was a bit nitpicky, she told me. But the committee members were all focused on making what eventually became Laura’s Law a better bill. Laura’s Law increases penalties for repeat DWI offenders.
Back in 2005 I sat in a state representative’s office and talked with Pat Gates. She got teary-eyed, understandably so, when she told me about her son, Stephen Gates, who’d been killed in a hit-and-run auto crash at the Interstate 85 and 40 interchange in October 2003. Gates, who was a broadcaster for the Tar Heel Sports Network and Burlington Indians, had been changing a flat tire on his car when he was hit.
A loophole in the state’s hit-and-run law became evident when, after the car that hit Gates pulled over, the driver switched places with a passenger, and the driver who pulled away was not at the wheel when Gates was hit.
Pat Gates and her husband George made countless trips from their Greensboro home to Raleigh to support Stephen’s Law, which closed that loophole.
As I move on, I thank these grieving parents for the opportunity to help share their story. I also thank all those who called to give me story tips, constructively critiqued or otherwise helped me as I tried to make sense of public policy.
While my next career move is uncertain (I’m seriously looking at freelancing in the near future), I’m sure an opportunity will open up. Maybe our paths will cross again.
(You can follow Barry Smith on Twitter at @Barry_Smith.)