By LESLEY TOTH
As unbelievable as it still seems, last week marked my one-year anniversary at the Mille Lacs County Times.
It seems to me that it wasn’t that long ago that I began working for my hometown newspaper. My first day on the job that January day I was greeted with 20-below temperatures, and smiles that quickly warmed my heart. One year later, the weather is unseasonably warmer, but those greetings haven’t lost a single degree of sincerity.
Coming back to Milaca was like running into an old boyfriend whose heart you’d broken years ago. The initial contact involves an unsteady handshake that moves awkwardly into a hug, followed by nervous laughter and, “So, how have you been?” Right on cue, the ex explains how fantastic things have been in the years without you, how in-shape he is, how he landed that great job, how he met his perfect wife and had their 2.2 kids. But somehow all this is told in a way that spares your ego, compliments your choice of sensible sweat pants and leaves you smiling in his wake.
Like many youth afflicted with small-place-aversion-syndrome, or SPAS (pronounced “spaz”), as a youngster I couldn’t wait to move away, see the world and never look back. Just like the heart-breaker, the naïvety of youth rarely recognizes a good thing. Now that I have visited nearly every state in the union, I can laugh at those youthful proclamations of “nothing ever happens here!” (If that were the case, I would have a heck of a lot more free time these days.)
Seeing Milaca through older, wiser eyes has given me a new perspective.
I have had the pleasure to meet some simply amazing students and staff at area schools, who give me an unending supply of story ideas. The accomplishments they make every day with limited resources never cease to impress.
I have been given the opportunity to meet business owners and managers who are a constant reminder that success doesn’t have to be a penthouse suite in a 20-story building.
And I have interviewed local leaders who embody the concept of public service and make their St. Paul and Washington counterparts look like a bunch of toddlers arguing over their toys.
I have returned to my tiny town to a rejuvenated music and arts scene, a revitalized parks system and a promise that Milaca will remain an great place to raise a family.
But none of that would have been possible without the outpouring of encouragement and well-wishes, news tips and story ideas, compliments and critiques I have received during the past 12 months from you, our readers.
Sharing your stories this past year has reminded me why I went into journalism, the inspiration of which I had nearly forgotten in my two and a half year hiatus from the profession. Sure, I’ve fantasized about covering the news from Baghdad, Washington, D.C. or Paris. But reporting the untold successes of small-town America, the every-day-heroes and the heartbreak of my neighbors has been more rewarding than all the political scandal or global trends could offer.
In sharing your stories, we’ve laughed, cried, cursed and scoffed together. Milaca has welcomed me back despite my spurning of her affections all those years ago. Thank you for all the support I have received from the ECM staff and community members, from public officials and business leaders, from teachers and youngsters. I can’t wait to hear your next story.