Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for June 2013

How a Guy Named Curt Turned My Life Around

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It has taken a week for me to be composed enough to write this.

The unexpected death of a friend is difficult.  When that friend was also a former co-worker, professional colleague, and mentor, the loss feels even greater.

I probably would not be the reporter, column writer, and incoming college graduate student that I am today if not for my extreme good fortune in knowing a man named Curtis P. Middleton.

The time from 2005 through 2007 was not a good chapter in my personal or professional life.  My mother (and, in truth, best friend) had suddenly died in her sleep from a blood clot.  My career as a newspaper sports editor/reporter/copy editor was spiraling earthward, it seemed.  I felt like I was just going through the motions in just about every aspect of life.  In November 2006, I was stuck in North Mississippi, unemployed for the first time in 14 years, and I didn’t know where I was going to go for another job.

That is when I met Curt, one of two people during that time period who changed my life for the better.  A few months earlier, he had taken the reins as editor of the DeSoto Times, a three-per-week newspaper in Hernando, Miss., just a short drive south of Memphis.  He needed a news reporter to round out the staff at that time, and I felt I had enough prior news writing experience to fit the bill.

Curt was a big man with a voice that demanded your attention, and he did not sugar-coat his thoughts and feelings about much.  Curt was not impressed with my previously published articles I had submitted with my resume.  Fortunately, he was impressed with me, and felt I had enough writing talent and potential to be offered the position.

In the weeks that followed, I got more constructive criticism and editorial guidance for news reporting and writing than I had received in the previous 16 years combined.  Curt Middleton the editor expected, and if you couldn’t deliver the first time, he would waste little time in showing you what he needed to see on the second attempt.

But he also possessed a great personality and friendly demeanor that made the work seem not so difficult most days.  Like me, he had traveled around quite a bit in his newspaper career, and it wasn’t long before we were sharing stories of towns, publications, stories we wrote, people we interviewed, and former colleagues.

Of that time we worked together at the Times, I can tell you two things Curt thought I did remarkably well.  One was column writing.  As one of three news reporters on the staff, we were each given the assignment of writing a weekly column to go on the editorial page.  It could be about anything; it just had to be well-written and engaging.  Curt loved my columns, or as he put it to one of the other reporters one day, “Terry’s columns just have a certain style and a voice that draw you in.”

The other thing Curt thought I was a master at doing is making coffee.  I didn’t think it was anything special, personally speaking, until one morning in the newsroom when I just had to have some java to get going on deadline.

I didn’t realize Curt had helped himself to a mugful of it a short time later.  A few minutes passed and the next thing I know, Curt walks out of his office and demands, “Who made this coffee?”  I turned and answered.

He walked over, stood near my desk, and stated emphatically to a full newsroom, “I have an announcement to make.  Do you see this man sitting right here?” he said, pointing at me. “This is the only person in this newsroom allowed to make coffee if I am drinking any of it.  It’s perfect.”

Although I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect as a news writer, I think he and I both saw how much better I had become in just a few months from the beginning.  That was good for Curt, as I kept in mind one of the first things he told me and the rest of the staff a few days after I had joined the staff:  “I don’t want you to give me your best.  I do want you to give me your better.  If you hand in your best, I’ve got nothing to look forward to as far as seeing improvement each time.”

He also taught me the value of brevity in news writing.  We each had to come up with five news articles for each edition — a load to be sure, and one I didn’t always meet — but as Curt reminded us, “I’m not looking for a novella with each one. Ten to twelve column inches works fine for me.”  One of his newsroom proverbs is what I now refer to as the “drawn breath test.”  “If I can’t read your story lead aloud without having to draw another breath,” he said, “it’s too long.  Rewrite it.”

Unfortunately, the time I got under Curt’s watchful eye was cut short.  I was laid off just six months into the job when things didn’t go as well as expected in advertising revenue.  The ownership demanded that an editorial position be sacrificed, and I fell to the “last one in, first one out” methodology.  However, Curt stayed in touch with me, and Facebook kept us connected as friends after I returned to Texas late in 2007.

Facebook being what it is, you can generally determine who is reading your posts and offering a little token of encouragement or good cheer.  When it came to just about anything I achieved or accomplished during the past five years, I could just about count on one of the people clicking the “like” button to be Curt.  At times, he would leave a comment as well.

For as much as I owed him in the short time we worked together, it was nothing compared to the impact he made with a comment on my longest post — an essay, actually — in late December 2010, from a hotel room in Memphis after I had just spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day stranded hundreds of miles from home with a disabled car.

Distraught about the situation and admitting openly that my newspaper career felt like a complete disaster, Curt encouraged me to branch out as he had done as a freelance writer.  One way to do that, he noted, would be to get on with a local school district as a substitute teacher and write while in class.

The next month, I became a substitute teacher for two local school districts while holding my job at Van Zandt Newspapers.  It didn’t lead to a lot of freelance writing, but it did lead to something bigger:  Returning to college to finally finish a bachelor’s degree.

Had Curt never suggested becoming a substitute teacher, I probably would not have realized how much I missed the academic environment and the joy of sharing knowledge with others.  Two years and a lot of toil and expense later, I have not only have a Bachelor of Arts in English, but am heading into one of the nation’s premier journalism graduate schools at the University of Texas at Austin.

And that’s why it hurt so damn much when I checked Facebook on June 22 to find that Curt had suffered a heart attack earlier in the week and died in a hospital a short time earlier that morning.

Less than a month after his comment that would change my life for the better, Curt lost his son, U.S. Marines Sgt. Jason Amores, who was killed in action in Afghanistan.

Curt Middleton’s final “like” on one of my Facebook posts was of a photograph of me and my only son, Ryan Britt, together on Father’s Day.