Well, dear readers, this, as Jim Morrison once said, is the end.
This is the last of the roughly 5,000 columns I have written or co-written for The Salt Lake Tribune during the past 26½ years. To say I will miss it is a massive understatement.
I hadn’t planned to retire quite yet, even after turning 70 in March. But with last week’s announcement that the newspaper continues to bleed financially and a number of layoffs are needed to keep it in business, I decided it would be selfish of me to stay on and take the job of another newsroom staffer whose career is still ahead of him or her.
The Tribune has been my life, my identity and my emotional outlet since I joined the newspaper in 1974. My career includes nearly two decades of beat reporting, mostly on politics, government and business, before then-Editor Jay Shelledy coaxed me into becoming a columnist in December 1991.
It was to be an items column in the vein of legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, a master of blending gossip and news, except, in my case, I was to have a partner.
We were going to be edgy, Shelledy said, sometimes offensive to some, so he wanted it to be balanced between two writers who had differing views and would have to compromise on the tone of each column.
I was a liberal. I had grown up as a Democrat, although I have remained firmly unaffiliated — as I believe a journalist ought to be — so my partner had to be a conservative.
He wanted a woman to balance my male-oriented biases.
What narrowed the potential field considerably is that he insisted it be someone who liked me and could get along with me.
One person who fit those criteria was JoAnn Jacobsen-Wells. At the time, she was on staff at the Deseret News, but we had worked together for many years at The Tribune, both starting our careers there in the early 1970s.
The Rolly & Wells column lasted for 14 years, mostly a mixture of entertaining tidbits of daily life we or our readers noticed around the state and more substantive political or policy lapses by elected officials or bureaucrats that frequently found their way to our attention.
Sometimes I was surprised by the pieces that would arouse the passions of our readers.
We once wrote about government properties being overwatered midday during a drought. The next thing we knew, we were flooded by tips of overwatering in public spaces.
The ironies we found could be especially humorous.
We wrote about then-Gov. Mike Leavitt filming a public service announcement encouraging Utahns to conserve water. In the background were sprinklers watering a park. To emphasize the point, the sprinklers were abruptly shut off at the end of his speech.
The crew had to shoot so many takes for the ad that, by the end, they had swamped the park.
When we mentioned a police car running a stoplight with impunity, we suddenly gained hundreds of spies looking for cops and other government officials breaking traffic laws and eagerly telling us about them.
JoAnn retired at the end of 2004, and the column became a solo act, evolving into longer stories, often becoming one-issue diatribes steered toward politics.
The one constant throughout my career as a reporter, editor and columnist has been my firm belief in the importance of what journalists do — informing the public; providing one more check on the genius of the three-branch, check-and-balance system of government created by the Founding Fathers.
I have embraced the role of The Tribune as an independent voice in a two-newspaper city that so desperately needed those alternative voices because of the unique cultural and religious makeup of the community. Because of that, I believed the voice of the institution I was so indelibly a part of was indispensable.
I’ve often been asked if I have a favorite column or story that stands above all the rest in my career.
I do. But it is a column I never wrote.
I had written about a lawsuit a Salt Lake City woman had won against the state over the death of her husband. His car had lost traction on an icy Interstate 80 and skidded onto a concrete median, where it slammed into a bridge abutment and killed him.
The woman’s attorney proved the state officials had known of the dangers of that median because of a faulty design, and the jury awarded her several hundred thousand dollars. But the state won on appeal because of a technicality in governmental immunity laws.
That was the story, and it was over — until her lawyer called me and said the Utah Attorney General’s Office was going after attorney fees against the woman (about $40,000) because the state had prevailed, albeit on a technicality.
I called the Attorney General’s Office for an explanation about its decision to push for those fees and was told it would get back to me.
Instead, I received a call from the woman’s lawyer. The Attorney General’s Office decided the $40,000 wasn’t worth the negative publicity it would receive in my column, so it backed off.
There was nothing, therefore, for me to write. But it was one of the most satisfying moments of my career.
I’ve loved my life at The Tribune and wouldn’t trade it for anything. So what do I do now? I’m not sure.
When I was in college, I read “Travels With Charley” by my favorite American novelist, John Steinbeck. It was a nonfiction book about his journeys across the land with his dog to discover, in his words, the real America.
I’ve had that fantasy ever since. But, in a way, I’m smarter than Steinbeck. He did it with a dog. If I do it, it will be with a beautiful woman — my wife, Dawn.